Conrad’s take on the colonial sugar rush

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Reading Joseph Conrad’s novel Lord Jim, published in 1900, I was taken by a passage which unexpectedly discussed the potential of the Australian sugarcane industry. It involves an ambitious maritime adventurer called Chester (“He had been a pearler, wrecker, trader, whaler, too…anything and everything a man may be at sea, but a pirate) and his aging business partner Captain Robinson (“The man who smuggled more opium and bagged more seals in his time than any loose Johnny now alive”). The two plan to borrow a steam ship and sail to a guano island discovered by Chester: “As good as a gold mine – better!” he declares to the book’s narrator, Marlow. The problem is that they can’t find any financial backers. The frustration in Chester boils over as he retells of his encounter with one reluctant ship-owner:

Rocks, currents, no anchorage, sheer cliff to lay to, no insurance company would take the risk, didn’t see how he could get loaded under three years. Ass! I nearly went on my knees to him. ‘But look at the thing as it is’ says I. ‘Damn rocks and hurricanes. Look at it as it is. There’s guano there, Queensland sugar-planters would fight for – fight on the quay, I tell you’.

Turned down by one party after another, Chester begins to lament not just his personal loss, but the chance to transform an entire economy.

It was awful to think of all that lovely stuff lying waste under the sun – stuff that would send the sugar-cane shooting sky-high. The making of Queensland! The making of Queensland!

Reading this made me think of work by my colleague at the University of Warwick, Mike Niblett. He has studied the way that sugarcane is registered in literary texts, specifically those from the Caribbean. Those set during the colonial period feature a parabolic rhythm between work and rest, echoing the seasonal dynamics of the sugar mill and the boom and busts of the mono-crop economy. In some poetry, labour even becomes entwined with sugar such that the two cannot be distinguished – fingers cut by machetes in field accidents resemble chopped cane. For those set in the period after the relative decline of the Caribbean plantation, sugar is given a gothic treatment, with the industry treated as living dead. ‘Saccharine irrealism’ is how Niblett describes the aesthetic representation of this all-consuming global commodity: evading direct description, yet unmistakably there.

What Conrad gives us is a glimpse not into the world-view of those labouring under, and living with, ‘King Sugar’, but of the prospectors that helped drive the cane frontier forward, injecting a sense of subjectivity into the dynamics of capitalist accumulation. During his seafaring days as captain of the Otago, Conrad had himself shipped a cargo of sugar to Melbourne, so was likely to have been familiar with the riches that the sugar trade could bring. Indeed, sugar would feature in his other works too, including A Smile of Fortune and Outpost of Progress

The mention of guano, meanwhile, also reminded me of a lecture by the environmental historian Jason Moore, who made the case that the westward movement of the cane frontier across the Atlantic was in part driven by the exhaustion of cheap energy. This included falling soil fertility and deforestation (as wood was harvested to power the boilers in the sugar mills). The advantage of buying in guano is that its nitrate offsets depletion of the ‘free gifts of nature’, at least for a time, allowing sugar planters to remain fixed in space and avoid having to constantly relocate.

We do not find out in the book if Chester ever manages to mine the copious amounts of bird shit he has discovered. As far as I have been able to establish, in reality guano was primarily used in the Peruvian sugarcane industry in the mid-19th century, though also exported to North America and Europe, where it is likely to have been used in the sugar-beet industry, then emerging as an important temperate cash crop. For the part of the Queensland sugar industry, the major milling company – the Colonial Sugar Refining Company, founded in 1855 and now owned by Indonesian conglomerate Wilmar International – claims to have conducted the first trials in sugarcane fertilizers in the 1880s, reapplying ash and molasses from the factory back on the field and monitoring the effects of inorganic fertilizers upon the crop.

Conrad offers us one final insight into the making of the modern sugar world; the extension of the indentured labour system beyond the plantations themselves. Chester’s relationship to the book’s central character is one of potential employer: Chester wants to hire Jim to oversee the excavation of guano from the island:  

I’m going to dump forty coolies there – if I’ve got to steal ‘em. Somebody must work the stuff… Let him take charge. Make him supreme boss over the coolies…Simply nothing to do; two six-shooters in his belt. Surely he wouldn’t be afraid of anything forty coolies could do – with two six-shooters and he the only armed man, too!

The photo below, taken of the guano deposits of the Abrolhos Islands off the West Coast of Australia, gives an indication of what might have awaited these unnamed men (“forty coolies”). Digging under intense heat for next to no money with their lungs infected by clouds of guano dust. A shitty existence indeed.

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