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  • "Here comes the Nazarene":Conrad's Treatment of the Serani and the Racial Politics of Empire
  • Agnes Yeow (bio)

One morning in Patusan, Tamb' Itam, Lord Jim's "faithful and grim retainer," pointed at Cornelius and said: "Here comes the Nazarene." Marlow, who was there, remarked: "I don't think he was addressing me, though I stood at his side; his object seemed rather to awaken the indignant attention of the universe" (Lord 284–85). Inchi 'Nelyus as he is called by the Malays "with a grimace that meant many things" is an unappealing character invariably repulsive to all who come in contact with him, both white and brown (Lord 289). He is someone who might more appropriately fit Tom Lingard's condemnation of Peter Willems in An Outcast of the Islands: "You are neither white nor brown" (276). Cornelius is a half-caste, a mestizo; by colonial classification, he is also a native Christian, and thus, a Nazarene (or more appropriately, a follower of Jesus Christ, the Nazarene). The Malay term Serani (rendered "Sirani" by Conrad), which denotes a person of mixed European and Asian descent, is the colloquial form of "Nasrani" which is in turn an approximation of "Nazarene" (Wilkinson 800).

This essay explores Joseph Conrad's portrayal of the Serani or Eurasian in the context of colonialism and unveils a complex picture which is typically ambivalent and uncertain of itself. Even as Conrad's representation of the half-caste (i.e., half-savage) also offers an ironic critique on "civilized Europeans" and their hollow presumptions of moral integrity and racial prestige, the text insists on reaffirming the division between "one of us" and "one of them" (Lord 361). To his Aunt Poradowska, Conrad describes his fictional world as "chaos" (CL 1: 151). It is in giving shape to an otherwise nebulous Malay world (and [End Page 273] the multitudes therein) that he actively challenges and engages with the racial politics of Empire.

There are a few Seranis in Conrad's Eastern tales whose odious and obsequious behavior makes their claims of Europeanness insupportable; there are also those who are the outcome of abandonment and concubinage and who thus pose a moral challenge and threat to the Empire as a whole. At least one Serani scorns the European-native binarism and ironically privileges a colored identity over a nominally white one (which I will discuss later). Conrad's use of the term Sirani itself is curiously selective. In the fiction, Sirani assumes a pejorative aspect and is generally reserved for members of the Eurasian community who are physically unattractive, boorish, and loathsome to both prejudiced Malays and whites. Otherwise, the generic term Conrad uses liberally is "half-caste" (Almayer's 30). Be that as it may, the stories of the Sirani or half-caste are inevitably those of liminal identities and fissured selves stigmatized by their halfness or mixed extraction and its resultant connotations of racial and cultural contamination.

In the binary discourse of wholeness ("I am white! All white!" howls the far-from-exemplary white man, Willems) and halfness, purity, and pollution, the mixed-blood occupies an interstitial position, a no-man's-land of dubious identity (Outcast 271). In relation to the colonial state, theirs was not mere mimicry of European cultural identity; many could lay claim to it as a birthright. Nevertheless, just as "can anything good come from Nazareth?" was said of the Nazarene Jew, so too "can anything good come from the Nazarenes of the colonies?" Thus was the prevailing prejudice of the time. "The Eurasians were to become the truly dispossessed people of colonialism, an invisible group that was relegated to the periphery of society" (Beekman 39). The Indo blood that mingled with the white was deemed corrupting. Ann L. Stoler writes that metissage or interracial union was "[c]onceived as a dangerous source of subversion, it was seen as a threat to white prestige, an embodiment of European degeneration and moral decay" (325). She notes that "metissage emerges as a powerful trope for internal contamination and challenge conceived morally, politically, and sexually [ . . . ] metissage might be read as a metonym for the biopolitics of the empire at large" (Stoler 325).

The threat...


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pp. 273-290
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