Does this characterisation degrade them?
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Part I describes Marlow's first encounters with and observations of the natives of the African Congo. The darkness of their skin is always mentioned. At first glance, Marlow describes them as "mostly black and naked, moving about like ants." While in the shade, "dark things" seem to stir feebly. There is absolutely no differentiation between dark animals and dark people. Even the rags worn by the native people are described as tails. "Black shapes" crouch on the ground, and "creatures" walk on all fours to get a drink from the river. They are called shadows: reflections of humans, not substantial enough to be real. Marlow observes the piece of white string on a young man, and he is taken aback by how much the whiteness stands out against the darkness, thinking about the string's probable European origin. He cannot seem to conceive of mixing black and white. Conrad portrays Marlow’s experience of otherness to such an extreme, and with such literary care, that it is hard to see Conrad simply expressing his own experience through Marlow, although Conrad likely was well aware of his own and others’ impressions of such places and did have a choice in how to present them. Writing through Marlow’s experience is a choice that leads us to look through Marlow’s eyes at the darkness he sees.
The inferiority of the natives is a constant theme. About the fireman on his ship, Marlow remarks "he was there below me ... to look at him was as edifying as seeing a dog in a parody of breeches." The lower physical position of the body corresponds to a mental and social state. The narrator participates in believing what he describes is the inherent inferiority of the blacks. In all possible aspects they appear subservient to the white men, and even seeing them wear pants amounts to no more than a warped joke. The one time that a native actually speaks is when the ship approaches the brush, right before the attack, and all he has to say is that any prisoners should be given to the crew as a meal. The narrator cannot understand why the white men were not eaten. He cannot credit the blacks with intelligence beyond instinct. During the battle, one native is shot, with Marlow and the Manager watching: "I declare it looked as though he would presently put to us some question in an understandable language, but he died without uttering a sound." For him there is no comprehension of the blacks he encounters. They are always evaluated and silenced, it seems, before they can speak. Nevertheless, Marlow does feel a real kinship to his "savage" crew, which places him above other whites in the narrative. Even here, though, he has shortcomings—his appreciation of the helmsman after he has died, for instance, seems more machine-like than humane.