Joseph Conrad's "Tale of the Seaboard"

2nd Mid-Paper * Canon Readings 2 * FFLCH/USP



         The action of "Nostromo" takes place in the imaginary republic of Costaguana, where Contad sets a story rich of adventures but poor of historical coherence, telling us about the separatist counter-revolution movement, carried out by the Conservative Party of Sulaco, the country's richest province, as a reaction against a military 'coup' in the capital. So, we are not exactly talking about a story directly influenced by (and faithful to) History, in opposition to what is said by some literary analysis, which professedly affim that the novel refers to the "uneasiness" of Latin America's early political history, in a dangerous oversimplification.  


          Worse yet, these criticisms say, very frequently, that “Nostromo” is about the effective English presence in South America, ignoring the fact that the real boundaries of the Empire in our sub-continent were limited to the former British Guyana. And concerning lord George Canning’s mediations for the elevation of La Banda Oriental del Uruguay to the category of a country, it revealed to be, indeed, more much advantageous for the Brazilian monarchy than, properly, for the English interests in the area, since it ensured the status of Brazil as the only regional power in South America, burying, forever, the terms of the San Ildefonso Treaty signed in 1777, which recognized Uruguay as a Spanish territory to be joined to the former Virreinato del Río de la Plata.



         This alleged historicity is even advocated by Conrad, according to his words in the preface to “Henry James”, where he states that “Fiction is history, human history, or it is nothing (...). A Historian may be an artist too and a novelist a historian, the preserver, the keeper, the expounder of human experience”.


However, the novel succeeds when it makes a reference to the continent’s economic relations with an emerging power, the United States of America, which would become a real world leader much later, after the end of the “Pax Britannica” and the consecration of the “Pax Americana”, as a result of the World War II. Goulds’ meeting with his north-American investor, Mr.Holroyd, who manifested his interests (“of course, some day we shall step in. We are bound to. But there’s no hurry”) in the whole continent and all over the world (“we shall be giving the word for everything: industry, trade, law, journalism, art, politics, and religion, from Cape Horn clear over to Smith’s Sound, and beyond, too, if anything worth taking hold of turns up at the North Pole”) is, thus, an astonishing example of future prediction.


If we look back to the nineteenth century, we will realize two major common processes, which were decisive for what Brazil and South America came to be in the twentieth century. The first is the fact that Latin America has preserved its political independence, not returning to the colonial condition. It seems a platitude, but it is not, because this was not the rule. The second process, in opposition, is related to Africa, the Middle East and Asia – the three other macro-peripheries – which suffered very violent colonization practices, decisively defining what these societies and countries would become later.


         African most recent conflicts, for example, stem directly from its colonial past, which generated “artificial” countries, where peoples, nations and states do not coincided. The Middle East still remains under military occupation, and Asia has not yet surpassed its past, as China and Korea have not completed their national reunification until now. And Vietnam, in its turn, has just done it very recently, after decades of violent struggles. Finally, India and Pakistan are still in dispute, with an effective risk of using nuclear weapons in their content. This is, in synthesis, the worst aspect of the legacy left by the English colonialism in these areas.



         But the fact is that Conrad seemed to be more interested in writing an adventure set in exotic and distant locations, preferably unknown by the ordinary British public. And since novels plotted in the universe of local rural communities – like Jane Austen’s ones – were no longer reflecting the actual reader’s world – and the borders of the Empire were already in global scale –, it was necessary to write new stories located in new settings, what was already being done not only by Conrad but, also, by other English writers much before him, like Defoe or Swift, although in distinct ways.


         Obviously, historical fidelity is not a primary condition for a good story, being Doctorow’s “Ragtime” a more recent example of it, a fiction about the lives of three American families of different origins, blended with various real historical figures, permitting a new approach of the own History. But, definitely, this is not the case of “Nostromo”. Conrad’s concern was more focused on the trial of idealized values related to things, persons, and events, by establishing a comparison between what was public and private. And the main evidence of this concern is, precisely, the conflict created between the local public consensus about Nostromo’s honesty and heroism, in contrast with his personal failure to maintain an incorruptible ethos, making our hero to become a kind of anti-hero, even capable of betraying the confidence of a father and the love of the promised woman. It is no coincidence that his “real” name, Giovanni Battista Fidanza, recalled the word “fidanza”, meaning ‘trust’, in archaic Italian.



      It is also known that the inspiration for the characters came from a group of mental patients which Conrad met prior to writing the book. And that the nature of his inspiration has undergone a subtle change later, because of his collection of stories entitled “Typhoon”. Moreover, during a short stay in the West Indies in about 1876, more specifically in the Gulf of Mexico, the young Joseph Conrad heard about the story of a man who had robbed a barge loaded with silver, somewhere during a revolution.


         Twenty-seven years later, the author was faced with the same narrative, in an old book that he found in a store. It seemed that, in fact, the smart man took the whole silver, since his boss unconditionally trusted him. The story was narrated by a sailor and described the figure of an intrepid individual, characterized as “a greedy mobster, a poacher stupidly aggressive, stingy and nasty”, not minimally being “worthy of the good luck that favored him”, as he used to openly vaunt himself about his feats. But he had great charisma and prestige in the village where the theft occurred, and if he was denounced by any outsider, nobody would give him credit.


          Although it was the thief’s complex personality, full of contradictions, what intrigued the author – making him to consider that things were not probably as linear as they seemed to be –, Conrad considered that the opportunistic man could even be a good man, agent and victim of the tumults typical of a revolution. Then, starting from these preliminary considerations, all that Conrad had to do was to build up a landscape for his imaginary Sulaco, “a place isolated by the Sierra and the sea mist”.


         We could even go through a long discussion about many details involving the creative process of the large number of characters in the book, always giving extensive explanations and references, which would certainly take much of our time. But some characters really deserve special attention: it is the case of Costaguana’s political leaders, portrayed as “vultures” awaiting to “snap” San Tomé, which belonged to Señor Gould, a “capable”, idealistic native Costaguanan of English backgrounds, who had all the rights – even moral, because of his father’s death – on the silver-mining concession.


And the main example of an corrupted, bad-intentioned local authority is the figure of Pedro Montero, whose “loutish” way of being could never win the British phlegmatic “coolness” of Charles Gould – and, in extend, of his allies –, since Montero was always making use of blackmail, extortion and torture, what justified Gould’s positioning in favor of an independent Sulaco, reflecting the common rhetoric of the Empire for an opportunistic Democracy.


Conrad even justifies Charles Gould’s creeds, as in the passage when this character explains his idealisms to his wife (“what is wanted here is law, good faith, order, security. Anyone can declaim about these things, but I pin my faith to material interest. Only let the material interests once get a firm footing, and they are bound to impose the conditions on which alone they can continue to exist. That’s how your money-making is justified here in the face of lawlessness and disorder. It is justified because the security which it demands must be shared with an oppressed people. A better justice will come afterwards. That’s your ray of hope”).


And, in spite of the term “imperialist exploitation” is not used in the novel, Conrad also puts, in Dr. Monygbam’s mouth, a speech not simply moralizing, but something rich of terms that could perfectly reflect his (Conrad’s?) perceptions about the malignant force of the capital, by emphasizing the necessity of linking “moral idealism” and “material interests” (“there is no peace and no rest in the development of material interests. They have their law, and their justice. But it is founded on expediency, and is inhuman; it is without rectitude, without the continuity and the force that can be found only in a moral principle Mrs. Gould, the time approaches when all that the Gould Concession stands for shall weigh as heavy upon the people as the barbarism, cruelty and misrule of a few years back”).


         Specifically concerning the creation of the character Nostromo, it was said that the author decided to grant Italian ancestors to him, since Latin America had become one of the favorite destinations for the impressive flow of immigrants coming from that country. Conrad wanted, too, that his main character represented a “man belonging to his people” (or “nostro uomo”, ‘our man’ in Italian). So, these two features together (‘nationality’ and ‘representativity’) would allow Nostromo to be much closer to Giorgio Viola (and his family), a convinced Garibaldino who, like Charles Gould, was also completely idealistic, but about old humanitarian revolutions, instead of the vain richness that silver could bring.


         Even though the author makes a clear distinction between the fictional figure of Nostromo and the real figure of Garibaldi, the beliefs of a man who does not wish to ascend to aristocracy, but to become a leading representative of the masses, seems to personify, somehow, the Italian revolutionary himself, through the ethos of the virtuous “magnificent capataz”, the “man of the people”, who was “freed at last from the toils of love and wealth”. Finally, if it is not acceptable that Giovanni Battista could be, by any means, associated to the figure of the own Giuseppe Garibaldi (mainly due to the lack of explicit evidences in the text), it is precisely the “fidanza” that he carries in his name what will link the fictional “our man” to the real “two worlds hero”, provided that this connection is made through Viola’s “trustable” convictions on Garibaldi’s ideals.


         Despite all idealisms, “silver fever” was an epidemic rapidly spreading all over Sulaco, arising greed among different political factions. And a bad fate affected mainly the women, who were vegetating in a life without love, something very similar to what happened during the Farroupilha Revolution (1836), as later portrayed in “A Casa das Sete Mulheres”, a novel by the “Gaucha” writer Leticia Wierzchowski. It was right in this revolution (also known as “Farrapos”, a war directly influenced by the Uruguayan process of independence), that the Italian guerrillero Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807-1882) first met his beloved Anita (1891-1849). And, in 1841, when the military situation of the self-proclaimed Rio-Grandense Republic became untenable, Garibaldi asked for – and obtained from General Bento Gonçalves – a permission to leave the Republican Revolutionary Army. Then, Anita and Giuseppe moved to Montevideo, remaining there for seven years.


We are, thus, talking about another South American revolutionary context, but now within the real political complexity of the Platine Wars, which, among many other consequences, resulted in the creation of the Oriental Republic of Uruguay, a name very similar to Conrad’s Occidental Republic of Sulaco. Also again, as already mentioned in the beginning of this text, the main reason that made the province’s Conservative Party to join Costaguana’s separatist counter-revolutionaries, was exactly a military coup in the country’s capital, something that also recalls a real event, the Proclamation of the Republic in 1889, which occurred in Rio de Janeiro, then the capital of Brazil, five years before the first publication of “Nostromo” (1904).


         However, we are in the creative field of mere speculations and coincidences and, moved by the already mentioned lack of historicity (and geographical references too), I must confess that, personally, the very first thing that came to mind after reading this book, was exactly the well-known samba written by Sergio Porto (see attachment), data venia. But there is no doubt that “Nostromo” has to be understood in a wider sense, as a representative of “any country or continent in the world that has already undergone religious, cultural or political colonization or exploitation” (classroom note), being Costaguana an imaginary, generic South American country and, thus, not properly a specific, existing State.



Nevertheless, a great number of foreign critics and essays seem not to be totally aware about such purposeful historic generalizations and non-factuality, until our present days. So, it is up to us to criticize and to reevaluate such new (?) points of view from the “center”, which somehow still reflect a certain paternalistic feeling of “irrelevance” (usually forgiven for being considered as an excusable “ignorance”) to what our societies are now, since they continue to accept as true a simple, fictional mosaic based on a long, real and complex historical path, full of discords and injustices, but that actually tells us what we are today.


And, precisely because of it, our local History deserves to be understood in a different perspective, instead of still recurring to mere generalizations. Hence, our passive position, not simply affirming a (merited) canonic respect to “Nostromo” but, mainly, repeating the discourse of an Eurocentric criticism on Joseph Conrad’s books, runs into the risk of being confused with an (lack of) attitude, typical of those colonized without a past, something much in vogue in our (post-) modern times of globalization.


Finally, Conrad’s themes treated in “Nostromo” could perfectly be complemented by Machado de Assis’ texts, especially the five books known as the “Pentateuch” or the “Maturity Works”, more precisely “Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas”, which discussed the nineteenth century in Brazil, criticizing a country that adhered to new and modern ideas coming from Europe, despite the fact that many of them revealed to be conservative and dangerously regressive, whenever applied to the crudeness of our local reality, provoking exactly the contrary that was expected, as the power of the dominant classes increased, while enslavement was still a rule being ignored.


Conrad wrote about a distant periphery from a central perspective of the world, but Machado described the ills of that periphery in assimilating a new order (in contrast to an old, reactionary and already established one), allowing Austrian-Brazilian literary critic Roberto Schwartz to develop the concepts of the “conservative modernization”, which certainly explains much about both Brazil’s and South America’s past and present.





A t t a c h m e n t :




Composição de Sérgio Porto (“Stanislaw Ponte-Preta”)





( A gravação original do samba está disponível no sítio acima mencionado )




Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski


B i b l i o g r a p h y





  • CONRAD, Joseph. “Nostromo: A Tale of the Seaboard”. London, UK & New York, NY: Harper & Brothers, 1904.



  • BLOOM, Harold (org.). “Joseph Conrad's Nostromo”. New York, NY & New Haven, PA: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987


  • MEYERS, Jeffrey. “Joseph Conrad: a Biography”. New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1991.


  • BENJAMIN, César. “A Opção Brasileira”. Rio de Janeiro, RJ: Contraponto Editora, 1998.


  • PESAVENTO, Sandra Jatahy. “A Revolução Farroupilha”. In: “Coleção Tudo É História”. São Paulo, SP: Editora Brasiliense, 1990.


  • WIERZCHOWSKI, Leticia. “A Casa das Sete Mulheres”. São Paulo, SP: Editora Record, 2000.


  • SCHWARTZ, Roberto. “Um Mestre na Periferia do Capitalismo”. In: “Ao Vencedor, as Batatas”. São Paulo, SP: Duas Cidades, 1990.


  • ALBIN, Ricardo Cravo. “Dicionário Houaiss Ilustrado da Música Popular Brasileira”. Rio de Janeiro, RJ: Instituto Antônio Houaiss, Instituto Cultural Cravo Albin e Editora Paracatu, 2006.