- Haunting and the Other Story in Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo: Global Capital and Indigenous Labor
Near the end of Nostromo, the privileged passenger is bombarded with “a sudden surfeit of sights, sounds, names, facts” by the self-aggrandizing Captain Joseph Mitchell, whom Conrad ironically describes as taking a pride on “his profound knowledge” of Sulaco (486, 11). Although Conrad scholars usually take Mitchell’s pompous rhetoric with a grain of salt, if not outright dismissal, as they should because of their appreciation of how Conradian irony operates through the English captain’s narrative, I suggest in this essay that we take seriously one piece of “complicated information,” which the captive audience “imperfectly apprehended” (Nostromo 486–87).1 This particular information in question is, as Mitchell puts it, “how there was ‘in this very harbour’ [Sulaco] an international naval demonstration, which put an end to the Costaguana-Sulaco War. How the United States cruiser, Powhattan, was the first to salute the Occidental flag” (Nostromo 487, italics original). As one of the novel’s multiple narrators, Mitchell here points to the new power structure—U.S. finance capital and U.S. military might—that stands behind the newly independent Sulaco, thus bringing the colonization of Sulaco to a new stage, one in which finance capital, represented by Holroyd of San Francisco, takes a more dominant role. Buried in Mitchell’s narrative also is another historical fact indicated by the name of the U.S. battleship, Powhattan, that ironically calls attention to the early North American colonial history and the dispossession of the Native Americans three centuries ago.
The naming of the U.S. battleship as Powhattan in Nostromo is politically significant because invoking the name of the conquered North American tribe suggests a repeated dispossession of the indigenous peoples in Costaguana, Conrad’s imaginary country in South America. It also delivers the irony of the conquering Euro-American re-appropriating the name of a conquered Indian [End Page 1] tribe, pointing to the history of conquest and colonization. Powhattan with its suggestions of colonial conquest and dispossession of the Native Americans thus becomes my starting point in a new reading of Nostromo that foregrounds the figure of the Indian Other, particularly the invocation and foreclosure of the native miners of the Sulaco silver mine, in Conrad’s Eurocentric narrative. The simultaneous invocation and foreclosure of the Indian miners is the political unconscious of the text that seeks to articulate the coming of a new era in Sulaco brought about by the forces of capitalist globalization bent on pursuing “material interests” (Nostromo 84). Meanwhile I also bring together the discourse of globalization, post-colonial studies and Marxist critique of the primitive accumulation of capital through the exploitation of the indigenous natural resources and indigenous labor. Various forms of haunting in Nostromo—the haunting of the silver and the San Tomé mine, of Mrs. Gould’s watercolor sketch, of the foreclosed miners, and of global capital seeking to create its own image in Sulaco both before and after its independence—enable me to pursue the investigation of the foreclosure of the Indian voices and perspectives on the one hand and that of the encroachment of the finance capital in Sulaco on the other.
Globalization, as we have learned in recent years from scholars studying its origins and evolution, is a long historical process primarily driven by the needs of capital to accumulate wealth for private appropriation, often at a high human cost. Colonization and export of capital are among global capital’s modus operandi to expand its economic and geo-political reach in its long history. British historian Eric Hobsbawm characterized the late nineteenth and early twentieth century as “the Age of Empire” (Age 56); writing during this historical period, Joseph Conrad was deeply troubled by the practices of capitalist imperialism.2 Conrad indicted its inhumanity in his novella, Heart of Darkness (1899), which, despite excess use of blackness to describe the suffering Africans, tersely sums up the atrocities of Belgian colonialism with those memorable words “The horror! The horror!” (149). He followed it later with Nostromo (1904), a political novel that dramatizes the consequences of pursuing “material interests” by...