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Global Modernism at Sea: Maritime Labor and Surface Reading in Richard Hughes’s In Hazard

Merchant ship, circa 1930.

In postcolonial studies, genre studies, and ecocriticism, the last decade has witnessed a turn to waterways as an organizing analytic, but concentration on aqueous ecologies and geopolitics has been less common in modernist studies. Such a concentration can enable us to see how modernism handles intersections among planetary environmental and global economic forces at the particular era of maritime modernity during which it emerges. Approaching modernism from the waters entails situating it against a scale whose limits extend beyond those of a region, nation, or continent and whose sociopolitical logics and material nature are distinct from those structuring territorialities. Most of the earth’s waters are international and extra-national entities whose inherent fluidity and currents made them resistant to territorial delimitations while alternately challenging and impelling human mastery. Waters’ natural conduct incited contestation over state jurisdictions, international law, and commercial interests since at least the sixteenth century when, in Carl Schmitt’s words, “England alone took the step from a medieval feudal and terrestrial existence to a purely maritime existence . . . and determined the nomos of the earth from the sea.”[1] The seas’ elemental behavior also spurred attempts to contain it through techno-scientific developments that measured and mapped the surface of the waters, contributing to the creation of a world picture of the earth as “globe”—a seemingly smooth, coordinated, interconnected totality. Those who labored and died on waters as slaves and servants of the empire that mapped and measured them, however, were acutely aware of this globe’s unevenness and limits of human mastery over aqueous nature. Viewing modernism in relation to spatial and temporal scales of the earth’s largest commons therefore demands on the one hand that we question anthropocentric understandings of global modernity which overlook aqueous ecologies’ resistance to human control, and on the other that we historicize the material conditions, political ramifications, and techniques of interpretation that accompanied human inscriptions upon the waters which undergirded global modernity.

Obeying this double imperative and turning to the interwar era specifically also permits us to expand and reconsider what “global modernism” looks like because it can guide our attention toward forgotten writings whose treatments of the seas depart from those of well-known works. I contend that is because they centralize the aqueous world—making the seas their diegetic space and time, using formal vernaculars that draw heavily upon the idioms of nautical fiction of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and encoding an expansive circuitry of maritime labor—that these interwar narratives have been overlooked in modernist studies. For canonical interwar modernism typically invokes the waters marginally, mainly as trope. In Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927) and The Waves (1931), for example, they operate as a figurative resource through which the mental theaters of characters in the metropole are articulated. In Jean Rhys’s Voyage in the Dark (1934) and Mulk Raj Anand’s Across the Black Waters (1939), they are a metonym for the gulf separating colonial and European cultural formations both texts dramatize on land. By contrast, neglected novels penned by more obscure writers once heralded by other modernists take literal waters as their settings and meditate on the material conditions of their management. Revisiting these texts through the ethos of a more loosely defined field of modernist studies whose components Aarthe Vadde outlines, and which include “speculative and provisional uses of the term” modernism and concentration on works’ “relationships with modernity” rather than adherence to “strict formal markers,” discloses that these narratives register an epochal shift that occurs in the first decades of the twentieth century: the loss of Britain’s maritime global dominance and rise of other maritime hegemonies.

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, writers including Malcolm Lowry, James Hanley, and Richard Hughes portray crews whose members hail from far-flung places across the world and navigate ships across it. Rather than cross-cultural encounters that lead to cosmopolitan worldviews, respect for, or tolerance of others, though, their novels relate tensions and conflicts among transnational laboring classes which we can link to shifting maritime laws in Britain during imperial contraction. Because this literature elaborates effects of global capitalism on working classes, including it in our studies of modernism might, as Bashir Abu-Manneh hopes, “[safeguard] modernism’s potential critical edge.” But it might also challenge the realism/modernism divide Abu-Manneh discusses, as well as pressure realism’s claim to render reality accurately, without the opacity and “distortions” Georg Lukács imputed to modernism.[2] Finally, and most pertinent to my task here, rediscovering works that articulate efforts to manage aqueous ecologies under imperial capitalism can allow us to assess other critical forms that have emerged in response to the global scaling of literary studies. In what follows, I use one interwar maritime fiction, Richard Hughes’s In Hazard (1938), to analyze the goals and capabilities of one such form, namely, surface reading, a critical practice which arose in tandem with the turn to the seas in genre studies.

Written across the 1930s and published in 1938, In Hazard is a fictional depiction of British Holt Line cargo steamer Phemius’s capture, for six days, within the spiraling motion of the deadly 1932 Cuba Hurricane, the strongest hurricane at the time ever recorded in the Atlantic to occur in November. (It would have been classified as a Category 5 according to the current Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale). While the novel states that the hurricane is what threatens the ship’s progress to China, formal disruptions indicate that other causes outside the temporal frame of the voyage and the spatial limits of the ship caught in the Atlantic also play a part. These causes are maritime labor politics in Britain, China, and Hong Kong across the twentieth century. To see how the novel operates within these broader spatial and temporal scales of the seas, I consider how it engages principles of surface reading. Surface readings concentrate on what is “observable” and “literal,” rather than hidden or symptomatic, and address the littoral. As Margaret Cohen argues, nautical techniques, ocean sciences, and their methods of problem-solving shape the narrative form of so many eighteenth and nineteenth century novels, but our tendency to read symptomatically has made us overlook what “in plain sight” on these texts’ surfaces.[3] In Hazard rehearses principles that guide surface reading, but at key points questions their epistemological purchase. In so doing, it disrupts its own systems of representation and narration while opening out onto histories it does not “literally” stage, but symptomatically inscribes. Thus, the book marks the limits of surface reading as critical method for accessing how problems created by transnational labor politics help determine its formal logic.

The novel invites surface reading and extols values associated with surface reading— truth, neutrality, and objectivity—thematically and formally. Obsessed with problem-solving, the text has the crew employ methods culled from nautical sciences and meteorology to try to save the uninsured ship and master the motion of the hurricane, the event centering the plot. Moreover, the novel uses these methods to tell the story. The deployment of narrative techniques that portray the storm’s and ship’s path formally orchestrates a debate between two discourses on the laws of motion and two methods of interpretation. The novel sets Archimedean principles drawn from On Floating Bodies and On Spirals against Cartesian laws of motion articulated in The World. This debate privileges physics, calculation, and action based on observation over both Cartesian physics and metaphysics, which the novel criticizes as a solipsistic retreat from action and the objective world into subjective thought. Proving Cohen’s and other surface-readers’ point that we tend to overlook how ocean sciences and nautical discourses organize literary form, critics have not noticed the novel’s formal elaboration of this debate, despite the fact that Hughes renames the Phemius the Archimedes and introduces another fictional ship, the Descartes, whose captain displays inertia and stands “as if in meditation” while chaos reigns onboard.[4] Yet, while techniques of observation and calculation associated with surface reading effectively manage the hurricane, they founder when confronted with what disruptive passages intimate is a greater threat to the ship: the Chinese crew. It is at such moments that the text punctures the surface-reader’s dream that one can “describe” without interpreting, without transforming the text, problematically imagined as ontologically stable, a static object.[5] In Hazard’s elaboration of impasses produced by maritime labor demonstrates, as Neferti Tadiar puts it in her own analysis in this cluster of the dynamics of motion and stasis in modern art, that “[d]escription is the performance of one’s interpretation,” and that works of art “are never objects in themselves” but acts that “implement” and “institute” as well as “corrupt [and] corrode” forms of life.

Surface reading reaches its limit within the novel, and as a method for reading the novel, when it attempts to master histories which, unlike the hurricane, the work does not openly address or present in literal terms. A scene of failed surface reading condenses and displaces a series of arguments about Chinese maritime labor in Britain and Hong Kong. This scene, structured by dramatic irony, details the Scottish and English crew’s techniques of observation and problem-solving as they attempt to detect whether the Chinese workers are planning to mutiny. Hughes translates the Chinese crew’s conversation for readers, showing that it has nothing to do with mutiny, while presenting the English deckhand and Scottish chief engineer’s running commentary as they misread the Chinese seamen’s gestures, tones, cadences, and facial expressions. They misread by applying measurements and calculations based on empirical evidence and principles of proportion and balance—the methods that enable the detection of the storm’s path and the ship’s survival, and which the novel has performatively endorsed through its own narrative conduct. Because the text insists throughout that failures to measure and calculate correctly are the real threat to its survival, this scene relocates the threat from the hurricane to Chinese labor. By figuring the Chinese crew as a puzzle that jeopardizes the ship and cargo, thus British commercial interests, the scene invokes a history of labor laws and strikes whose effects produce an impasse in the novel. This history induces In Hazard to break from the narrative modes of representation it practices and methods of interpretation it champions.

The phrase “Chinese puzzle” was used in British imperial discourses to refer to the problem of understanding Chinese people, society, and culture; during the first decades of the twentieth century, it described Chinese seamen who evaded British maritime laws.[6] As Chinese maritime labor grew exponentially in the British shipping industry, the National Sailor and Fireman’s Unit’s president excoriated the British government’s labor policies, situating his call for increased regulations within the growing rivalries between British and Chinese power. He threatened a labor strike of 200,000 British seamen unless the language test of the Merchant Shipping Act of 1906 was enforced. The test, which demanded basic English competency, would effectively exclude Chinese immigrants from the British shipping industry while preserving British legal principles. Soon after its implementation in 1908, however, Chinese workers exploited a loophole. Because “British” sailors were exempted, Chinese sailors would declare British crown colonies such as Hong Kong their home to avoid having to take the test. Known as the “the Hong Kong dodge,” this widespread form of passing inspired stereotyping of the Chinese as cunning, masquerading figures who outsmart British law and put British seamen out of work (Auerbach, Race, Law, 41).

The novel formally condenses this history with another instance of Chinese maritime labor’s challenge to British power in which the agents of resistance were indecipherable, which occurred seven years before In Hazard is set. During the seaman’s strike of 1922, over a hundred thousand workers left Hong Kong, following the Seaman’s Union after Hong Kong shipping owners refused its demands for a pay raise. This strike had both internal and international ramifications. Britain could not identify who was behind the strike: one or another leader in the Chinese nationalist party, the strikers themselves, or labor activists. Historians have shown that Sun Yat-Sen’s Nationalist Party facilitated the strike, which strengthened the party’s power in China and abroad. Specifically, the strike made Britain dependent on the party, which would help prevent attacks on British interests in Hong Kong as labor unrest continued. The strike set a pattern by which Britain would need to rely upon the party it refused to recognize officially in order to safeguard its interests in Hong Kong.[7]

The text symptomatically inscribes the Chinese subversion of the Merchant Shipping Law by figuring the Chinese crew as enigmas, refusing to disclose to other characters or to readers whether they are British sailors or “Hong Kong Dodgers,” Chinese nationals. The novel symptomatically inscribes the Seaman’s Strike of 1922 through the portrayal of one member of the crew whom the Welsh captain and European crew believe is riling the others to mutiny. This character boards the ship in disguise, entering not in Britain but Hong Kong, and with forged papers. The novel discloses that he is not from Hong Kong, but a Chinese member of the Communist Party, which has provided the forged papers to facilitate his passage. By making the only confirmed Chinese national a character who surreptitiously enters Hong Kong and is thought to foment labor agitation that will threaten British commercial interests in Asia, the novel references layers of indecipherability that structured the events in 1922 and its aftereffects on British-Chinese relations in the region.

The novel’s endeavor to manage the threats posed to Britain’s maritime empire by forces that extend beyond the hurricane of 1932 comes at the costs of the work’s formal continuity, creating a narrative contradiction. At once avowing and disavowing the precarious state of British power on the seas during the interwar era through the texting of indecipherability of the forces that underwrite British shipping’s commercial success—Chinese labor—the novel assures us they pose no threat to the Archimedes. The novel relates to readers, through dramatic irony, again, that the captain misreads the intentions of the so-called ringleader. The inability of captain and crew to read correctly the Chinese crew is thus immaterial, since no mutiny is in the offing. The application of methods which control the ship during the hurricane will safeguard its passage out of the storm, which makes it through, albeit “tip-tilted” (Hughes, In Hazard, 228). Yet in staging the Chinese crew as a puzzle whose intentions cannot be deciphered by the European crew’s methods of observation, measurements, and calculations of visible surfaces—indeed by ironizing their efforts—the novel undercuts its own narrative methods of story-telling and undermines the Europeans’ narrative authority. Through narrative contradiction, the novel thus marks the limits of surface reading within itself, while allowing us to glimpse histories that lie beyond the geographical and temporal borders of the singular historical event it plots.


[1] Carl Schmitt, The Nomos of the Earth in the International Law of Jus Publicum Europaeum, trans. G. L. Ulmen (Candor, NY: Telos Press, 2006), 173.

[2] Georg Lukács, “The Ideology of Modernism,” in The Meaning of Contemporary Realism, trans. John Mander and Necke Mander (London: Merlin, 1972), 17–46.

[3] For a summary of principles animating different models of surface reading, see Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus, “Surface Reading: An Introduction,” in Representations 108, no. 1 (2009): 1–21. For Margaret Cohen’s examination of how nautical techniques and ocean sciences shape the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novel, see The Novel and the Sea (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010). For Cohen’s explanation of how her examination of the seas in literature intersects with methods of surface reading, see “Narratology in the Archive of Literature,” in Representations 108, no.1 (2009): 51–75. For a more recent reading of technical language of the seas in literature and the politics of surface reading, see Cannon Schmitt, “Technical Maturity in Robert Louis Stevenson,” in Representations 125, no. 1 (2014): 54–79.

[4] Richard Hughes, In Hazard (New York: New York Review of Books, 2008), 72.

[5]Attention to surface as a practice of critical description. This focus assumes that texts can reveal their own truths because texts mediate themselves; what we think theory brings to texts (form, structure, meaning) is already present in them” (Best and Marcus, “Surface Reading,” 11. Emphasis in original).

[6] This paragraph summarizes the arguments of Sascha Auerbach’s study Race, Law, and “The Chinese Puzzle” in Imperial Britain (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 37–50.

[7] See Michael G. Murdock, Disarming the Allies of Imperialism: The State, Agitation, and Manipulation during China’s Nationalist Revolution, 1922–1929 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell East Asia Program, 2006), 60–69.