The story is about a Company set up in a European nation (read Belgium) which has a vested interest in Africa, in particular the trade in ivory, one in which they would like to lay their hands upon more and more ivory as also the best ivory available. It is this "taint of imbecile rapacity" (166) that blows through the novel like "a whiff from some corpse"(166). Even at the very beginning Marlow makes his distaste for colonialism known when he says, "The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much"(140).
From here it is a natural progression to the comparison he makes between the pompousness and the laziness of the colonists and the exploitation and hard labour inflicted upon the native people. His scathing sarcasm begins with the idleness of the passengers on board the French steamer and goes on to those at the Company Station who have their sights set on getting appointed "to a trading-post where ivory was to be had, so that they could earn percentages" (168). Having reached the Company Station, Marlow discovered that the steamer which he was to command was damaged and in need of repairs. The others who were to accompany him into the dense unexplored parts of the continent in search of Kurtz had nothing better to do and the intervening time was spent by these same persons in "back-biting and intriguing against each other in a foolish kind of way. There was an air of plotting about that Station, but nothing came of it, of course. It was as unreal as everything else.. as their talk, as their government, as their show of work"(168).
Meanwhile the malnourished and underpaid natives were literally yoked together and these chain gangs were forced at gun point to undertake different types of hard manual work in the blazing sun. In one particular instance an enormous hole had been dug up on the hill side with no earthly purpose other than "the philanthropic desire of giving the criminals something to do"(155). On the one hand he narrates images of weary, dying natives who have become living phantoms, and decries the insidious ways of the Company as a flabby, pretending, weak-eyed devil of a rapacious and pitiless folly.
A bunch of European adventures calling themselves the Eldorado Expedition turn up at the Company Station. They are described as men "without hardihood, greedy without audacity, and cruel without courage" (177). The purpose of their expedition is to "tear treasure out of the bowels of the land" and we are told that they had "no more moral purpose at the back of it than there is in burglars breaking into a safe" (177).
It is not just that Marlow has no patience with those who shirk their job, but he gets rubbed up the wrong way when he has to put up with people who work only under supervision. The helmsman on whom he would have to rely heavily as they sailed through the river full of snags turned out to be "the most unstable kind of fool" who "steered with no end of a swagger" when Marlow was around. But the minute his back was turned the helmsman "became instantly the prey of an abject funk, and would let that cripple of a steamboat get the upper hand of him in a minute" (199).
Being a straightforward person himself, Marlow's temperament cannot stand a lie. He is the first to declare that he "can't bear a lie, not because I am straighter than the rest of us, but simply because it appals me. There is a taint of death, a flavour of mortality in lies.It makes me miserable and sick, like biting