Recovering the Ethics of Economic Botany in Conrad's Asian Fiction

Article excerpt

THIS ESSAY INVESTIGATES botanical gardens, economic botany (the uses of plants by people), and colonial botany as they appear in two works of Conrad's Asian fiction, Almayer's Folly (1895) and Lord Jim (1900). By considering these subjects from a "literary-commercial" point of view, it will be argued that we can recover some of the historically specific context of Conrad's fictions and, in addition, observe Conrad writing through commerce to convey part of his portrayal of the moral and social situations of his characters and, through them, of capitalism, colonialism, and globalization.1

A telling representation of the process of the appropriation of space through economic botany can be seen in the change from the lithograph of the "View of a Coal-seam on the Island of Labuan" (Fig. 1) to the commercial discourse on activity evident in the extract from the company prospectus in The Times (Fig. 2). Both sites are in the Malay Archipelago, Labuan being the island colony ceded to Britain in 1846 off the north-west coast of Borneo, and the plantation company's estate being in the Dutch East Indies, near the seat of government in Buitenzorg (present-day Bogor), fifty miles south of Batavia (present-day Jakarta), the Dutch East Indies' capital.

In the "View of a Coal-seam on the Island of Labuan," the landscape seems to overwhelm the newly arrived Europeans as the reader is invited to witness possibly one of the first footprint of the colonizer somewhere in what, for the Europeans, is a new territory. The image is of two British men admiring a coal seam in the jungle; the figure towards the bottom right-hand corner wears the uniform of a Royal Navy officer, representing the power by which colonial intrusion was underwritten. The other figure, in white, perhaps a civilian, is someone whose commercial imagination may, in his enthusiastic gesture, see the opportunity for gain in this remote spot, like the remote island coal-mine in Victory.2 However, it is also an image in which place, at the particular point in time in which the men look, oestheticîzes entirely the commercial object, the coal-seam a setting for a cascading waterfall. The viewer's attention is drawn, in fact, not to the coal-seam, which, without the lithograph's tide, would be unidentifiable as such, nor to the figures, but to the play of light in which patches of light, together with the huge palm on the left, assert the primacy, not of utility, but of view. Sight is almost an intrusion in this as yet unworked place.

The extract from the company prospectus declares a newly incorporated venture, "The Northern Tjiliwoeng Plantations, Limited," which is to purchase 5,200 acres from another plantation company, 14 miles from Buitenzorg. The view of the lithograph of undisturbed jungle becomes here fragmented into components of company promotion and the commercial assessment of risk. What in the lithograph is view, is in the prospectus possession and measurement - "tenure" and "acreage"; land has become a function of "situation," "altitude," "contour," "soil," and "rainfall." In the section tided "Acreage" it is announced that 320 acres have so far been planted with tea, and in the following section, tided "Timber," that 75% of the total acreage is "old virgin forest," comparable therefore with what is represented in the lithograph but now viewed as "valuable timber."

The globalized nature of exploitation is evident from the fact that the shares are being offered in this venture in the Dutch East Indies not on the Amsterdam exchange, but in London. The commodities of tea and cinchona (the bark of which was used to make quinine), mentioned in the section "General Conclusions," are to be cultivated by people who, in the same way as the "virgin forest" has become the commodity timber, have become the commodity "labour." The report containing this information and forming part of the prospectus has been written, we are told, by "a planter of experience and high repute. …