I have in recent years been reading the work of Joseph Conrad. I spent many years believing the best writers in English were George Orwell, Evelyn Waugh, with Leo Tolstoy in translation as a titan and peer. Then all of a sudden, in the last five or years I discovered that Ernest Hemingway is a near peer, and that V.S. Naipaul is every bit the equal of these great ones. And through Naipaul, I met Conrad, who also merits admission to this august company.
Naipaul and Conrad both have as a main theme the encounter, the clash, between European civilization and the peoples and ways of Asia and Africa. Conrad depicts the European imperial and commercial expansion near its peak, and while it is still confident and expanding. Naipaul depicts the world after the European domination has receded, like an outgoing tsunami, which has left a transformed landscape behind.
Conrad is such a good writer that even the works that are not his best still have much good in them. An example is An Outcast of the Islands, an early novel, which is not a great success overall. Despite some weaknesses in the novel, there are some brilliant passages and sharp insights.
One of the things which the European powers accomplished in the 19th Century was the suppression of piracy along most of the worlds important routes of sea trade. This process occurred in countless forgotten fights too small to fairly be called battles, but which were nonetheless lethal to the participants. A low-intensity conflict, to use modern parlance, is quite intense enough if you are one of the people maimed or killed in it.
Conrad gives us a vivid glimpse of what it was like to be on the receiving end of this vigorous imposition of law and order. One of the characters in the book is Babalatchi, who had in earlier days been a “a vagabond of the seas … living by rapine and plunder of coasts and ships.” He managed to survive the destruction of his band of pirates and their war-canoes by an unidentified European naval bombardment by ship-board artillery, followed by a landing party to mop up.
He was brave and bloodthirsty without any affection, and he hated the white men who interfered with the manly pursuits of throat-cutting, kidnapping, slave-dealing, and fire-raising, that were the only possible occupation for a true man of the sea. He found favour in the eyes of his chief, the fearless Omar el Badavi, the leader of Brunei rovers, whom he followed with unquestioning loyalty through the long years of successful depredation. And when that long career of murder, robbery and violence received its first serious check at the hands of white men, he stood faithfully by his chief, looked steadily at the bursting shells, was undismayed by the flames of the burning stronghold, by the death of his companions, by the shrieks of their women, the wailing of their children; by the sudden ruin and destruction of all that he deemed indispensable to a happy and glorious existence. The beaten ground between the houses was slippery with blood, and the dark mangroves of the muddy creeks were full of sighs of the dying men who were stricken down before they could see their enemy. They died helplessly, for into the tangled forest there was no escape, and their swift praus, in which they had so often scoured the coast and the seas, now wedged together in the narrow creek, were burning fiercely. Babalatchi, with the clear perception of the coming end, devoted all his energies to saving if it was but only one of them. He succeeded in time. When the end came in the explosion of the stored powder-barrels, he was ready to look for his chief. He found him half dead and totally blinded, with nobody near him but his daughter Aissa:—the sons had fallen earlier in the day, as became men of their courage. Helped by the girl with the steadfast heart, Babalatchi carried Omar on board the light prau and succeeded in escaping, but with very few companions only. As they hauled their craft into the network of dark and silent creeks, they could hear the cheering of the crews of the man-of-war’s boats dashing to the attack of the rover’s village. Aissa, sitting on the high after-deck, her father’s blackened and bleeding head in her lap, looked up with fearless eyes at Babalatchi. “They shall find only smoke, blood and dead men, and women mad with fear there, but nothing else living,” she said, mournfully. Babalatchi, pressing with his right hand the deep gash on his shoulder, answered sadly: “They are very strong. When we fight with them we can only die. Yet,” he added, menacingly—”some of us still live! Some of us still live!”
The European naval artillery is far beyond anything that the native sea rovers can hope to match. The survivors are forced to give up piracy and find other ways to make a living.
Note Conrad’s unsentimental depiction of the native pirates’ “throat-cutting, kidnapping, slave-dealing, and fire-raising.” Even to the bleak and sometimes cynical Conrad, the destruction of such savages is assumed to be a progressive event, a small, incremental advance of civilization, law, order and peace.
Here is Babalatchi’s reminiscence of the days when he and Omar, his chief, roved and stole and slew:
I knew him well when he had slaves, and many wives, and much merchandise, and trading praus, and praus for fighting. Hai—ya! He was a great fighter in the days before the breath of the Merciful put out the light in his eyes. He was a pilgrim, and had many virtues: he was brave, his hand was open, and he was a great robber. For many years he led the men that drank blood on the sea: first in prayer and first in fight! Have I not stood behind him when his face was turned to the West? Have I not watched by his side ships with high masts burning in a straight flame on the calm water? Have I not followed him on dark nights amongst sleeping men that woke up only to die? His sword was swifter than the fire from Heaven, and struck before it flashed. Hai! Tuan! Those were the days and that was a leader, and I myself was younger; and in those days there were not so many fireships with guns that deal fiery death from afar. Over the hill and over the forest—O! Tuan Lakamba! they dropped whistling fireballs into the creek where our praus took refuge, and where they dared not follow men who had arms in their hands.”
Note that Omar and Babalatchi’s pirates engaged in both trade and piracy. Generally, piracy is reserved for those who can be overcome by force, or guile, or both. Trade was had with those who were too strong and alert to overcome, and whose goods could not be stolen.
Note also that the sea rovers attacked “ships with high masts” — European merchant sailing ships. No doubt preying on ships protected by European flags is what drew the attention of warships with “guns that deal fiery death from afar” with “whistling fireballs”. The Europeans “dared not follow” the pirates into their jungle lairs, until their warships arrived. Once they did, they would annihilate the pirate base altogether by pummeling it with ship-borne artillery. Then they would go ashore in the ship’s boats to finish off anything that was still moving.
There are in this world vicious savages who enjoy slaughtering and enslaving people, and who believe it is manly sport to do so. In this year of grace 2015 there is, regrettably, an ongoing revival of such conduct. The answer to such behavior is not to ponder what culturally insensitive act or utterance by the Europeans might have upset these poor suffering people so severely, and driven them to such heinous acts in response. No one would have thought so while Victoria was on the throne, and no one should think like that now.
The answer is to blow them to bloody shreds with artillery.
The British and the Dutch in the 19th Century had cultural confidence. They imposed order without asking permission. What they created in the Eastern seas was far from perfect. But it was order of a sort, peace of a sort, and it permitted the benefits of trade to accrue to many people of those islands and coasts.
Conrad depicts one of the leading traders of the region, in this marvelous word-portrait:
For upwards of forty years Abdulla had walked in the way of his Lord. Son of the rich Syed Selim bin Sali, the great Mohammedan trader of the Straits, he went forth at the age of seventeen on his first commercial expedition, as his father’s representative on board a pilgrim ship chartered by the wealthy Arab to convey a crowd of pious Malays to the Holy Shrine. That was in the days when steam was not in those seas—or, at least, not so much as now. The voyage was long, and the young man’s eyes were opened to the wonders of many lands. Allah had made it his fate to become a pilgrim very early in life. This was a great favour of Heaven, and it could not have been bestowed upon a man who prized it more, or who made himself more worthy of it by the unswerving piety of his heart and by the religious solemnity of his demeanour. Later on it became clear that the book of his destiny contained the programme of a wandering life. He visited Bombay and Calcutta, looked in at the Persian Gulf, beheld in due course the high and barren coasts of the Gulf of Suez, and this was the limit of his wanderings westward. He was then twenty-seven, and the writing on his forehead decreed that the time had come for him to return to the Straits and take from his dying father’s hands the many threads of a business that was spread over all the Archipelago: from Sumatra to New Guinea, from Batavia to Palawan.
Very soon his ability, his will—strong to obstinacy—his wisdom beyond his years, caused him to be recognized as the head of a family whose members and connections were found in every part of those seas. An uncle here—a brother there; a father-in-law in Batavia, another in Palembang; husbands of numerous sisters; cousins innumerable scattered north, south, east, and west—in every place where there was trade: the great family lay like a network over the islands. They lent money to princes, influenced the council-rooms, faced—if need be—with peaceful intrepidity the white rulers who held the land and the sea under the edge of sharp swords; and they all paid great deference to Abdulla, listened to his advice, entered into his plans—because he was wise, pious, and fortunate.
Notice that Abdulla’s far-flung mercantile empire is based entirely on family ties. “An uncle here—a brother there; a father-in-law … husbands of numerous sisters; cousins innumerable.” This is the oldest form of business organization, and it still predominates in most of the world. In the hands of a strong man like Abdulla, such an organization can be effective, and profitable, and defend itself against the many threats which beset it on all sides. In a world without formal law and the power to enforce it, such family networks are the only source of security and the only means to carry on large scale enterprises.
The English-speaking people are much more individualistic than most other peoples. We do not have true extended families the way that many other communities do. We form nuclear families and our ties to other family members is, on a world scale, extraordinarily weak. As a result, we have specialized in forming large organizations based on voluntary association. For example the business corporations which characterize modern economic life are impersonal and non-familial. They do not rely on family ties. In fact, it is considered corrupt if family considerations intrude on personnel decisions, which should ideally be driven by what is best for the business as a whole. Nepotism is wrongful, or at least unfair, and is resented by others who expect to be judged and rewarded based on objective criteria. The word nepotism comes from the Italian word for nephew. This shows that this sort of behavior is more common, or less frowned upon, in Southern Europe, rather than among the English, from whom we inherited much of our culture and our standards, or at least our ideals, of proper conduct.
One of the under-appreciated advantages of having nuclear families rather than extended families, is that with the smaller families it is possible for the successful ones to accumulate capital. This in turn permits investment, and creates incentives to constantly improve methods, to innovate, to increase efficiency and generally to become more productive. This creates a virtuous cycle in which greater productivity increases wealth overall, and disseminates that wealth throughout society, permitting yet further improvements.
In a society in which equality is mandated, and where family networks have the first claim on any assets, this process of capital accumulation can never happen. Any gain by any person is treated as a temporary windfall and divided among all relatives who can make a claim on it. No one has any incentive to try to improve things, gain wealth, or get ahead. In the absence of a strong leader and steward like Abdulla, and a family ethic oriented to enterprise and trade, this model leads to perpetual poverty and the inability to get much beyond bare subsistence.
Conrad depicts this process. The main character’s abandoned wife is forced to sell their house, which was valuable, and should have left her with a substantial sum of money. She is a half-caste, apparently part Portuguese, and Christian. Another character demands that she pay him money he is owed, from the proceeds of the sale of the house:
“It was sold for money, I suppose,” he said with studied and incisive calmness. “Have you got it? Who has got it?”
She looked up at him, raising her swollen eyelids with a great effort, in a sorrowful expression of her drooping mouth, of her whole besmudged and tear-stained face. She whispered resignedly—
“Leonard had some. He wanted to get married. And uncle Antonio; he sat at the door and would not go away. And Aghostina—she is so poor . . . and so many, many children—little children. And Luiz the engineer. He never said a word against my husband. Also our cousin Maria. She came and shouted, and my head was so bad, and my heart was worse. Then cousin Salvator and old Daniel da Souza, who . . .”
Her relatives, with their many needs, descended upon her at the word that she had come into some money. They, and her society generally, expected her to give it away. She was left with virtually nothing. This story has been replayed countless times, and it is like a cement slab on top of any hope of a community breaking out of poverty. The claimed needs of relatives, which are limitless, and purported fairness, and an aversion to the accumulation of capital, and a sense of entitlement, all of these doom entire societies to perpetual poverty.
A similar process occurs in these cultures when a person obtains a post of government authority. The entire extended family makes demands on that person to use his position to extract money from non-kin, and he is expected to do so. We call this corruption. But in other cultures it would be shameful and stupid not to use any power you may have to help your family at the expense of others who mean nothing to you.
Abstract notions of professional probity, or fairness and honesty in government, are a rarity in the world. Even in the places that profess to believe in them, and which have laws on the books to enforce them, they are hard to maintain. Chicago is an international disgrace in this regard, for example.
Some of the themes which we discuss in America 3.0 appear in Conrad’s work. Cultural continuity, the divergence between English norms and the traditional norms of other societies, the Anglo-American type of family, and the effect of Anglo-American culture on politics and economics, and its impact on the larger world.
I am currently re-reading Alan Macfarlane’s brilliant book The Culture of Capitalism. This book is a sequel of sorts to his most famous book, The Origins of English Individualism. Both are classics and I give them the highest possible recommendation.
Macfarlane talks about many of the topics I refer to above, in a scholarly way. Conrad is a story-teller, not a scholar. But he was a sharp observer and he was honest about what he saw. We can get an accurate glimpse of the world of his day, and of some timeless things about our own world today, through his writing.
I cannot recommend that you read An Outcast of the Islands, unless you have read all of the rest of Conrad already. I have read and enjoyed Lord Jim, Victory, Nostromo, which is brilliant, The Secret Agent, The Shadow Line, Typhoon, The Secret Sharer, Youth, Heart of Darkness, The End of the Tether, also brilliant, The Mirror of the Sea and The Point of Honor.
Also, Amazon has the Delphi Complete Works of Joseph Conrad US for Kindle, for $2.99. They can all be had for free, but it is nice to have them all together, and decently formatted.
As an addendum, I see that Outcast of the Islands was made into a movie in 1951, with a terrific cast: Robert Morley, Trevor Howard (pictured below) and Ralph Richardson. I will look for an opportunity to see it.