6. and the Mechanics of History

The process of history becomes Nostromo’s dominant theme through Conrad’s narrative strategies concerning time, place, and characters. Despite its title the focus of Nostromo is not on a particular figure but on a whole country, the fictional South American state Costaguana. Although the central action of the – the events leading up to the foundation of the Occidental Republic – spans just a few days in 1890 (cf. Watts, Nostromo 61-66), there are countless references to the past as far back as the Spanish Conquest in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and to about ten years to the future of the of Sulaco from Costaguana. Conrad’s use of such a large time-scale enables him to give the reader multiple perspectives of the main events. He can zoom in on the characters involved in the War of Separation but he can show at the same time that this upheaval is just one of many similar ones that have occurred in the past and will occur again in the future. Not only the treatment of time and place thus draws attention to the process of history but also the social panorama that is presented. In the course of the narrative we come across representatives of numerous classes and ethnic groups that constitute the society of the country. This enormous canvas facilitates the identification of the characters with a certain social class and/or ethnic group and allows for the action of the novel to be analysed in abstract political and historical terms. Nostromo’s concern with the historical process inevitably raises questions related to the freedom-of-the-will-problem. Which forces ‘produce’ history? Is history progressive or is its movement cyclical or even circular? What is the relationship between the individual and history? Do human beings have any possibility of influencing the historical process or are they completely determined by it? Are human beings in a position to uncover ‘the truth’ about history or are all our attempts to do so coloured by ideological preferences that are again the result of subjective motives? In the following questions such as these will be examined by looking at the main events of the novel from the perspective of three concepts of history: the Whig or bourgeois/capitalist view, the Marxist view, and a Darwinian view based on T.H. Huxley’s theory of evolution. By analysing which of the three perspectives corresponds best to the representation of history in Nostromo conclusions can be drawn regarding the implicit attitude towards the freedom-of-the-will-problem. 156 Free Will and Determinism in ’s Major

6.1 The Whig or bourgeois/capitalist perspective

The history of Costaguana is one of constant political turmoil: since the War of Independence to throw off Spanish colonial rule, periods of civil war have alternated with ruthless dictatorships, revolutions, and constantly changing governments. The politicians appear to be exclusively motivated by greed, rapacity, and the lust for power. The institutions of the state are devoid of meaning and simply serve as instruments for money-grabbing and the arbitrary wielding of authority. Because of the endemic political instability and its geographical position the Sulaco Province, which provides the main setting of the novel, has remained relatively untouched by industrialisation. Trading by sea is made difficult by the absence of wind from the Golfo Placido, trading by land by the enormous mountain range, the Cordillera, which cuts off the province from the rest of Costaguana. The “solemn hush of the deep Golfo Placido” (N 3) is first broken by the arrival of steamships and the setting up of the Oceanic Steam Navigation Company (O.S.N.). The economy, however, remains based on plantations and cattle breeding, together with the export of indigo, indiarubber, cotton, and ox-hides. Sulaco’s biggest asset is the San Tomé silver mine, which has, however, not been exploited successfully for decades due to the ubiquitous political chaos and corruption. The concession of the mine has been thrust upon the wealthy merchant Gould, who has no knowledge of mining but is forced to pay royalties on the estimated output and fines for negligence. When Gould dies, his son Charles, who is in Europe for his education, decides to come to Sulaco with his wife Emilia, intending to make the mine a success. Charles is convinced that the introduction of material interests to the Occidental Province and the ensuing industrialisation will exert a stabilizing influence on the whole country, bringing not just material progress. Gould’s credo echoes the theories of eighteenth and nineteenth century economists and utilitarians:

What is wanted here is law, good faith, order, security. Any one can declaim about these things, but I pin my faith to material interests. 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. (N 84)

Gould’s determination to make the working of the mine not just a financial but also a moral success is reinforced when he travels the province with his wife to look for labourers and is confronted everywhere with a feeling of resignation and hopelessness, the result of decades of political chaos. Costaguana appears to the Goulds as “a great land of plain and mountain and