Cruel Seas

by indonotes

In the past weeks the news has been full of migration ‘crises at sea’ – whether in the Mediterranean or the Rohingya in Southeast Asia. In attempting to grapple with the terrible human toll of these events, politicians and journalists have been reaching for historical precedents. The Italian Prime Minister has come under fire for calling people smugglers ‘the slave traders of the 21st century’, and the FT has argued that ‘Rohingya boat people are becoming the Jews of Asia’. Radio 4 reflected on the ambivalence of that migrant nation Australia about those seeking refuge.

By coincidence I happen to have been reading Joseph Conrad’s Typhoon, in which a storm strikes a ship under the Siamese flag, staffed by British sailors, and transporting Chinese coolie labourers returning to their homeland after ‘years of work in various tropical colonies.’ Reading the story set me thinking about the ties of power, money, hope and suffering that have stretched across the seas of Asia and Europe in this century and before, as well as the stereotyped ways in which these have been presented in the mass media. There is a sophisticated reading of the story by Douglas Kerr of the University of Hong Kong available online, drawing out various contexts and meanings to the story. However the raw text, from which I have pulled and rejigged a few quotations below, speaks powerfully for itself:

The Nan-Shan was on her way from the southward to the treaty port of Fu-chau, with some cargo in her lower holds, and two hundred Chinese coolies returning to their village homes in the province of Fo-kien, after a few years of work in various tropical colonies… every single Celestial of them was carrying with him all he had in the world—a wooden chest with a ringing lock and brass on the corners, containing the savings of his labours: some clothes of ceremony, sticks of incense, a little opium maybe, bits of nameless rubbish of conventional value, and a small hoard of silver dollars, toiled for in coal lighters, won in gambling-houses or in petty trading, grubbed out of earth, sweated out in mines, on railway lines, in deadly jungle, under heavy burdens—amassed patiently, guarded with care, cherished fiercely…


He could perfectly imagine the coolies battened down in the reeking ‘tween-deck, lying sick and scared between the rows of chests. Then one of these chests—or perhaps several at once—breaking loose in a roll, knocking out others, sides splitting, lids flying open, and all these clumsy Chinamen rising up in a body to save their property. Afterwards every fling of the ship would hurl that tramping, yelling mob here and there, from side to side, in a whirl of smashed wood, torn clothing, rolling dollars. A struggle once started, they would be unable to stop themselves. Nothing could stop them now except main force. It was a disaster. He had seen it, and that was all he could say. Some of them must be dead, he believed. The rest would go on fighting. . . .


Rancorous, guttural cries burst out loudly on their ears, and a strange panting sound, the working of all these straining breasts. A hard blow hit the side of the ship: water fell above with a stunning shock, and in the forefront of the gloom, where the air was reddish and thick, Jukes saw a head bang the deck violently, two thick calves waving on high, muscular arms twined round a naked body, a yellow-face, open-mouthed and with a set wild stare, look up and slide away. An empty chest clattered turning over; a man fell head first with a jump, as if lifted by a kick; and farther off, indistinct, others streamed like a mass of rolling stones down a bank, thumping the deck with their feet and flourishing their arms wildly. The hatchway ladder was loaded with coolies swarming on it like bees on a branch. They hung on the steps in a crawling, stirring cluster, beating madly with their fists the underside of the battened hatch, and the headlong rush of the water above was heard in the intervals of their yelling. The ship heeled over more, and they began to drop off: first one, then two, then all the rest went away together, falling straight off with a great cry…

Whilst the crew do make efforts to save them from the worst of the harm, at the same time there is a strong sense that the Chinese are viewed as somewhere between human and animals/cargo. From the reference to a Brit’s ‘racial superiority’ to the explanation that ‘Had to do what’s fair, for all—they are only Chinamen. Give them the same chance with ourselves—hang it all.’

As some of the sailors complain at one point.

What the devil did the coolies matter to anybody?

Sobering indeed.