Five men--Marlow, the Director of Companies, the Lawyer, and the Accountant, and the narrator--are at rest in the midst of sailing down the Thames River on the Nellie, their small boat. The men are waiting for the turn of tide that will take them downriver. They sit idly and consider playing dominoes but never get started, as the sun sets.
The narrator thinks about the long history of British exploration and conquest with fondness as he looks over the river:
"The old river in its broad reach rested unruffled at the decline of day, after ages of good service done to the race that peopled its banks, spread out in the tranquil dignity of a waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth...Hunters for gold or pursuers of fame, they all had gone out on that stream, bearing the sword, and often the torch, messengers of the might within the land, bearers of a spark from the sacred fire. What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river into the mystery of an unknown earth!...The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealth, the germs of empires." Part 1, pg. 2
After a long silence lit only by the nearby lighthouses, Marlow speaks:
"’And this also,’ said Marlow suddenly, ’has been one of the dark places of the earth.’" Part 1, pg. 3
The others on the boat listen, because Marlow is about to tell a story. Marlow is a little different from other seamen in his tendency to tell stories not with simple meanings but rather with wise, universal meanings. Marlow explains that he is thinking of the Roman times, when the "civilized world" was discovering the mysterious and unsettled British Isles, similar to how the British are now discovering and settling the unexplored areas of the world. Thinking from the point of view of a Roman commander, Marlow explains the feelings of trying to conquer a foreign wilderness:
"...In some inland post feel the savagery, the utter savagery, had closed round him--all that mysterious life of the wilderness that stirs in the forest, in the jungles, in the hearts of wild men. There’s no initiation either into such mysteries. He has to live in the midst of the incomprehensible, which is detestable. And it has a fascination, too, which goes to work upon him. The fascination of the abomination--you know. Imagine the growing regrets, the longing to escape, the powerless disgust, the surrender, the hate." Part 1, pg. 4
Marlow contrasts the brute force used by the Romans with the efficiency of the British colonizers, but seems to say they are not that different:
"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." Part 1, pg. 4
After a pause, Marlow goes on to tell his shipmates about his experience as a freshwater sailor. He admits that his story is unclear, but says that what actually happened is less important than the effect it had upon him. He starts by saying that during a period of idleness, he began looking for a ship to crew. None were forthcoming, so he decided to offer himself to the Company, a continental trading concern, as a riverboat captain in the still largely mysterious continent of Africa, since, as a child, he was fascinated with the unexplored spots on maps. He contacted his aunt, who offered her assistance in getting him a spot on a riverboat. He got such a spot quickly, because his predecessor Fresleven had been killed by natives after he unexpectedly attacked a village chief. Marlow traveled to the Company’s offices on the continent, in an unspecified white city which is most likely Brussels, Belgium. The Secretary of the Company had Marlow sign papers agreeing never to reveal trade secrets.
Marlow sat in the waiting room of the Company, looking at the maps there. Outside of the office where his interview was to occur sat two knitting women, who made Marlow distinctly uneasy as they sat trance-like and without any apparent purpose or reason for being there:
"Often far away there I thought of these two, guarding the door of Darkness, knitting black wool as for a warm pall, one introducing, introducing continuously to the unknown, the other scrutinizing the cheery and foolish faces with unconcerned old eyes. Ave! Old knitter of black wool. Morituri te salutant. Not many of those she looked at ever saw her again--not half, by a long way." Part 1, pg. 8
Marlow went on to visit the Company’s doctor, who gave him a cursory examination before going on to measure his cranium. The doctor admitted that the skull-measurement was of no use whatsoever, because he never saw the explorers upon their return from voyages, and because, cryptically, the "changes" that would occur to an explorer would be strictly internal, not external. The doctor inquired about past madness in Marlow’s family, and Marlow, taking offense, asked whether the question was in the interests of science. The doctor responded that the ideal thing would be to study the subjects in the field, to observe if mental changes occurred. He lets Marlow go with only a warning to keep calm.
Marlow bid farewell to his aunt over a cup of tea. She expressed her hope that her gifted nephew would be an emissary of civilization to the wild colonies:
"She talked about ’weaning those ignorant millions from their horrid ways,’ till, upon my word, she made me quite uncomfortable. I ventured to hint that the Company was run for profit." Part 1, pg. 9
Marlow comments that women are essentially naïve, a fact frustrating to men. He continues his story, telling of how he traveled to Africa along its coast, stopping occasionally along the way and seeing pieces of the continent as he sailed. He felt very alone, and nothing seemed quite human, although everything happened with its own logic.
From the ship, Marlow occasionally saw lively, wild natives, or evidence of their existence. At one point he saw a French ship repeatedly shelling a spot of forested coast for no apparent reason--not even a dwelling of the natives was in sight.
"...Nothing happened. Nothing could happen. There was a touch of insanity in the proceeding, a sense of lugubrious drollery in the sight; and it was not dissipated by somebody on board assuring me earnestly there was a camp of native--he called them enemies!--hidden out of sight somewhere." Part 1, pg. 11
The sailors in the French ship were dying at the rate of three a day.
Marlow sailed further and was overwhelmed by the horror he saw all around him. The whole atmosphere was one of decay, an atmosphere that seemed almost intent on repulsing the invaders:
"In and out of rivers, streams of death in life, whose banks were rotting into mud, whose waters, thickened with slime, invaded the contorted mangroves, that seemed to writhe at us in the extremity of an impotent despair. Nowhere did we stop long enough to get a particularlised impression, but the general sense of vague and oppressive wonder grew upon me. It was like a weary pilgrimage amongst hints for nightmares." Part 1, pg. 11
A Swede who was sharing the ship with Marlow commented to him on the foolishness of going in-country. When Marlow told him he was going in-country, the Swede responded with a story of how another Swede hung himself for no apparent reason after going there. The Swede bid farewell to Marlow as they reached shore; he saw there dozens of native laborersworking on the Company’s station. He walked aimlessly, hoping to figure out where to go. Around him, the Company laborers were dynamiting a rock face in an attempt to build a rail line, and others sat under the shade of trees, overwhelmed by the heat. Still other natives, in a chain gang, carried debris from the explosion in baskets. Marlow compares the explosions of the dynamite and the confused captive workers to the bombardment by the French gunship of its invisible "enemies"--the enslavement of natives to foreign law is, to him, just as senseless as the attacking of natives by foreign guns. He saw the laborers crouching in the shade of trees; these were not active workers but merely those who, overwhelmed by the work, had crawled off to rest or perhaps die.
Marlow fed one laborer a biscuit, which the slave accepts without any emotion. The natives had been reduced to animals by their civilizers. Marlow met the chief accountant of the Company outside of the main building, a man surprisingly well dressed in the middle of foreign wilderness. He’d achieved this, he said, by teaching a native woman (with some difficulty) to do his laundering. Marlow was amazed at the great disorder of the station, which sent trade goods into the jungle and got in return a small amount of ivory.
Marlow waited for ten days at the station, during which time the accountant told him of Kurtz, the unusual man in charge of the Interior Station, who shipped back more ivory than all the other agents put together. Marlow inquired after the mysterious Kurtz, but received little information, except that he was a remarkable man, expected to go far in the Company. A sick man groaned in the office, and other outside noises distracted the accountant. Marlow comments:
"’When one has got to make correct entries, one comes to hate those savages--hate them to the death.’" Part 1, pg. 15
Marlow left with a sixty-man caravan to make the two hundred mile trip to the interior. He comments to his boatmates that most of the natives were gone from the route. It is no surprise, Marlow notes; if the Africans had invaded England and killed or enslaved people on the route from the coast to the interior, the English villages would be depopulated in the same way. Nearly the only sign of life Marlow saw along the way was the body of an African man shot in the head. One of his traveling companions, a fat white man, was constantly complaining:
"I couldn’t help asking him once what he meant by coming here at all. ’To make money, of course. What do you think?’ he said scornfully." Part 1, pg. 16
This man came down with fever and had to be carried, which infuriated the natives who were assigned to the job.
The man ended up dumped by the carriers, who fled. After this, the feverish man wanted Marlow to take revenge, but there was no one to take revenge on. This memory makes Marlow think back to the old doctor’s idea of watching the mental changes of people in the wilderness.
Marlow and his traveling companions eventually arrived at Central Station, where Marlow was to get his ship and his orders. His ship was sunk in the river. He found that it would take a matter of months to repair it. He met with the General Manager of the Central Station, an odd and half-stern, half-smiling man who put Marlow ill at ease. The Manager had his position in spite of his lack of intelligence and training; Marlow suspects it was merely because he lasted that he was promoted to his level. This Manager told Kurtz that the situation in the interior was becoming difficult; Kurtz had reportedly fallen ill, causing worry for the Company, who knew little of his condition--communication with the interior being the difficult thing it was.
Marlow, struck by the senselessness of the station in the middle of the jungle and of the drive for ivory that put the station there, spent three months restoring his boat.
At one point during these three months, a fire occurred for which a native worker was blamed and beaten brutally. In the commotion of the fire, Marlow overheard the Manager and another man discussing Kurtz, but could make little sense of the conversation. The other man was a brickmaker, accused by Marlow’s presumptive shipmates of being a spy for the Company--he had access to favors unavailable to most agents and workers. No bricks were ever made. Marlow refers to the sixteen to twenty men who traveled with him on his ship as the pilgrims. The whole atmosphere at Central Station is one of plotting, ambition and paranoia. The brickmaker was very sociable with Marlow in an attempt to get information about the activities and plans of the Company. Marlow asked him about Kurtz; the brickmaker told him that Kurtz was sent especially as an emissary of civilization, not merely an agent, and his mission was not just commercial but noble--the Company hoped he would be a force for bringing progress into the interior. The brickmaker implied that Marlow was there for the same purpose--to bring civilization into the wilderness. Thinking of his aunt’s last words to him, Marlow laughed at the idea.
All this time, Marlow was becoming fascinated with the idea of Kurtz--having no idea what to expect, he still felt a certain loyalty to the man. Despite his distaste with dishonesty, he let the ambitious brickmaker believe he was connected with Kurtz and had powerful friends in the Company back in Europe. He stops the story here to wonder aloud if his listeners aboard the Nellie can understand what Kurtz meant to him, but doubts it.
"Do you see him? Do you see the story? Do you see anything? It seems I am trying to tell you a dream--making a vain attempt, because no relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation, that commingling of absurdity, surprise, and bewilderment in a tremor of struggling revolt, that notion of being captured by the incredible which is the very essence of dreams...no, it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one’s existence--that which makes its truth, its meaning--its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream--alone..." Part 1, pg. 23
The narrator notes that dark has fallen around the Nellie, and he is unsure whether anyone else is listening to Marlow’s story. Marlow continues anyway. He says that he had been sleeping aboard the in-progress wreck, and the brickmaker still kept after him. He had no rivets to fix the ship, and the pilgrims were spending most nights trying to kill a wayward hippopotamus that wandered the Station. The brickmaker ordered rivets, to the delight of Marlow and the mechanics, but instead of rivets arriving, all that came were sections of a caravan of treasure hunters stopping over. These treasure hunters were coarse and greedy types whose only intention was plunder. Marlow was forced to wait to leave, and during that time thought occasionally of Kurtz, the great agent and moral leader.