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5 Global Reads to Awaken Your Inner Conrad

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Globalism is dying? Perhaps we should avoid trafficking in that notion. Tariffs, bluster and theatrics aside, the planetary drama of capital, trade and communication has staying power – and is scarcely the product of our hyperconnected era alone.  

Joseph Conrad spied this truth rising from sea foam while skippering upon the oceans, inspiring his novels of global capitalism racing amok in the tropics. “We shall run the world’s business whether the world likes it or not,” the American tycoon Holroyd declares in Nostromo as he prepares to invest in a fateful silver mine burrowed darkly into the imagined South American banana republic of Costaguana.

Harvard historian Maya Jasanoff relates the fascinating backstory in The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World, following the Polish sailor Konrad Korzeniowski on voyages from Singapore to the rivers of Congo as he “stowed away landscapes, characters, and plots that Joseph Conrad unpacked for decades to come.”

“Conrad captured something about the way power operated across continents and races,” Jasanoff observes. His pen “was like a magic wand, conjuring the spirits of the future. How did he do it? How had Conrad, as the Caribbean writer V. S. Naipaul once observed, somehow ‘been everywhere before me?’”   

Indian Navy and Ocean

If Robert Kaplan is right, the 21st century will play out around the ocean that the 20th century mostly ignored. From the East African coast to Oman, across to Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and down into Indonesia, the Indian Ocean, in Kaplan’s telling, is the arena of every hope and danger. While almost a decade old, Kaplan’s Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power, still feels fresh, reminding us that deep history – and consequential futures – animate these waves.

“In this rimland of Eurasia – the maritime oikoumene of the medieval Muslim world that was never far from China’s gaze – we can locate the tense dialogue between Western and Islamic civilizations, the ganglia of global energy routes, and the quiet, seemingly inexorable rise of India and China over land and sea,” Kaplan writes.

One of the century’s most startling events to date was the tsunami of December 2004, which radiated destruction from Indonesia to Sri Lanka and all the way to East Africa, taking the lives of a quarter-million people. That wake-up call from tectonic forces in a sense thrust the Indian Ocean back on our mental map. Kaplan guides us around the social and political hotspots, with chapters noting that “Oman is Everywhere,” Bangladesh is “The Existential Challenge,” and Burma is where “India and China Collide.” And Kaplan sends us vivid postcards:

“Muscat, Oman’s capital, is a series of whispering, fairy-tale bays. Jetties elbow their way out into the water that turns a hypnotic silver-blue at dusk. The white harborscapes composed of Mughal and Persian architecture, with green and gold domes, huddle against steep, jagged mountains the introspective color of gray.”

The Caribbean’s cricket-loving, Rihanna-spawning Barbados reminds me of Africa’s Mauritius, a prosperous land of French-speaking ethnic Indians afloat in the Indian Ocean. Colonial sagas shaped both of these islands half a world apart. You can drive the whole of each island in an afternoon, taking in a gently rugged terrain swooping down onto golf courses, fields of sugarcane, and azure (Mauritius) and emerald (Barbados) ocean panoramas. 

Newspaper hawkers in colonial Barbados (British National Archives)

George Lamming’s novel In the Castle of My Skin, set amid riots in 1930s Barbados, tells the story through a child’s eyes of Little England awakening to its destiny, and eventual independence. Yet the tale is a global one, conveying an essential theme of our times: the rise of marginal peoples into the central narrative of the world’s transformation.

“The village was a marvel of small, heaped houses raised jauntily on groundsels of limestone, and arranged in rows on either side of the multiplying marl roads,” Lamming writes. … “There were days when the village was quiet: the shoemaker plied lazily at his trade and the washerwomen bent over the tubs droned away their complacency. At other times there were scenes of terror, and once there was a scene of murder.”

Receding like a fever dream, the 1960s are bathed in romantic light, an era of idealistic passions and swirling, youth-infused struggles for justice. The “global Sixties” is a hot topic these days at universities, dissected in courses and symposiums.  In the past few years those groovy, liberating times have spawned gatherings from Abu Dhabi to Rome to North Carolina, where one session’s title intrigued me: “The future of the Sixties.”

There’s even a pricey Routledge guide to this burgeoning field with chapters on rebellious urban youth fashion in Mali, the Congolese revolution as a “second Vietnam” and the counterculture’s arrival in chilly Moscow. And that brings us to a worthy read on how the era came to be: Odd Arne Westad’s engrossing The Global Cold War.

Drilling down into memoirs and declassified docs from both sides of the struggle, Westad takes us from Cuba to Congo, Vietnam to Ethiopia, in an authoritative yet fast-flowing style. We glimpse Che and Fidel, Mao and JFK. “The modern Third World was created in the shadow of American predominance,” Westad points out, and development or “becoming more like America” shaped the script.  Until, that is, the kids demanded a different America.

Though only a thousand miles due east of where I’m writing this, Madagascar seems like another world altogether. You can’t fly to the island nation easily. Only scraps of news make it to shore. You won’t find many Madagascans wandering around mainland Africa.

Madagascar animated (Photo by Pixabay on

Renowned for lemurs and baobabs, Madagascar inspired a dazzling, and quite animated, Disney franchise. Google for images of young Madagascar folks and you’ll discover a mesmerizing atlas of faces: European, Chinese, Indian and Polynesian among them. So the first English translation of a novel from this country marks a milestone, like a lost tale of globalism.

Beyond the Rice Fields focuses on the changing fortunes of Fara and her father’s slave Tsito as British Christian missionaries and French industrialists pounce on the intoxicating island. “Love and innocence fall away, and Tsito and Fara’s world becomes enveloped by tyranny, superstition and fear,” one reviewer writes. I haven’t read this novel, yet I will soon, while casting my gaze toward the rising sun.


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