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Coolie Cargoes: Emigrant Ships and the Burden of Representation in Joseph Conrad's Typhoon and James Dalziel's "Dead Reckoning" Ross G Forman School of Oriental and African Studies University of London NEAR THE OPENING of the short story "Dead Reckoning" (1907), based on author James Dalziel's experiences as a first engineer in South China in the 1890s, the narrator notes: That seven white men, be they ever so warlike and so well armed, could by force uphold discipline among six hundred coolies chosen for their muscular fitness is not to be thought of. But the coolies know that it rests with the white men to bring them to their destination__The coolie ship, in truth, makes her passage by favour of her passengers; and the owners know it, the authorities know it, and the men who man her know it; yet every week a ship leaves some Chinese port for South Africa, or South America, or Hawaii; and the insurance companies risk their money, the authorities some small shred of reputation , and the men of the merchant service their lives. Which, of course, is but an equable division of the sacrifice we all must make to that great fetich [sic]—Britain's Trade Supremacy.1 This article considers the implications of this statement through the examination of two short works of fiction from the turn of the century that take the transportation of Chinese coolies to or from overseas workplaces as their subject—Dalziel's "Dead Reckoning" (1907; but probably composed earlier) and Joseph Conrad's Typhoon (1902)—both written by men who worked and traveled on ships in the China Seas.2 The article contextualizes Dalziel and Conrad in terms of popular literature 's fascination with the overwhelming Chinese masses, its relative disinterest in the coolie trade, and its insertion into wider debates about Britain's "free trade imperialism" in China. Both texts describe disasters at sea and take their literal titles either from the event itself (the typhoon ) or from the navigational procedure used to survive it (dead 398 FORMAN : CONRAD & DALZIEL reckoning).3 However, in both cases, the actual narrative focus is the way in which the experience of a real or metaphorical "circular storm" forces their British characters to reevaluate the ships' coolie "cargo" and to present them in ways that differ markedly from those of many narratives of the period, which dismiss the coolies with pity or deny them any agency. In examining the tensions emerging between stereotypes and reformulated identities, between the generic concerns of fiction and travel writing, and between social debates about the Chinese emigration "problem" "at home" and the reality on the ground, the article charts the way in which labor movements "out of China" were part and parcel of the British imaginary's conception of being "out in China." These labor movements—involving the flux of workers from colony to colony or from a sphere of trade influence to a Latin American republic—identify the breadth of Britain's extracolonial engagement with the non-European world. The tales thus pinpoint a moment, just after the Boxer Rebellion (which saw an international brigade invade Peking and force the Empress Dowager to flee the capital), in which Britain's long-standing commitment to "open up" what was seen as potentially the world's largest market seemed poised to make great gains. This moment was also one in which the "teeming masses" of China's poor—ravaged by famine and political upheaval—were seen to provide a ready labor supply to supplant that tapped earlier in Africa (during the slave trade) and to supplement that coming from India. Both "Dead Reckoning," which appeared in the collection In the First Watch and Other Engine-Room Stories, and Typhoon are narratives that work through many of Britain's anxieties and aspirations surrounding Chinese workers at this unstable moment in China's history. Standard interpretations of Conrad's novella often focus on the crew's battle with the storm—letting the work's published title and the desire to canonize Conrad as an author of maritime fiction steer them away from the Chinamen in the 'tween deck. The emphasis among critics on the issue of...


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pp. 398-428
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Will Be Archived 2021
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