A Line in the Sea

by Suvendrini Perera

© all rights reserved

It was almost spring in Sydney the day the M.V. Tampa sailed into our national consciousness. At first it seemed like another of those stories we are now accustomed to hearing: people packed on a ramshackle boat, headed for some ocean outpost or other – Ashmore Reef, Cocos Islands, Christmas Island – it didn’t much matter which. But for these voyagers a different (and as I write still unknown) landing awaited. Perhaps more than any event of subsequent weeks, the conflagrations in the United States that almost, but never quite, eclipsed it, the day the Tampa set sail towards us is a day that will change the meaning of Australia.

There are multiple frames through which, depending on who we are, we view the passage of the Tampa. This is a country full of boat stories. Some are commemorated in museums. Some live on in jubilee voyages and lovingly crafted replicas. Others are unspeakable passages to be relived only in dreams. They are transmitted through the generations in whispers and silence. The image of a flaming boat sears many Australian memories. The Tampa brings some of us face to face with past terrors. We weep for the ravages and triumphs that wash us to unknown shores.

But this near-spring morning the frame conveniently to hand for many is the colonial naval adventure, a tale of national honour and mortal odds, of sovereignty won or lost on the high seas. There is a distinctly nineteenth-century feel to things as day after day the image of the motionless Tampa etches itself against the Australian skyline. In an age of DVDs and satellites, boats again take centre stage. The country slows to the pace of the ocean while we wait for news to flow in with the tide. As politicians scurry to appear on TV screens and journalists scramble to Christmas Island, sailors, those heroes of a bygone era, offer instruction on the chivalry of the seas. The SAS does a creditable imitation of a Victorian gunboat expedition. Shades of Margaret Thatcher’s Falklands are unmistakable as Prime Minister Howard draws a line in the sea. The media spectacle of the Tampa reenacts the colonial adventure classic as an occasion for ultimate national self-affirmation. We are in Joseph Conrad territory.

Lord Jim, A Tale, Conrad’s 1900 fable of empire, is an illuminating starting point (but only that) from which to read the story of the Tampa one hundred and one years later. It is, in Conrad’s words, a tale of ‘the acute consciousness of lost honour’.1 Its defining event is a fatal decision by a young English officer, Jim, to jump from his damaged ship, the Patna, abandoning on board almost a thousand passengers, pilgrims on their way to Mecca. The Patna, miraculously, does not sink; its passengers and faithful Malay helmsmen are rescued by a French frigate, whose officer displays all the naval virtues lacking in Jim. And here for the narrator, Marlow, is the irresolvable puzzle of the tale: that the handsome, blue-eyed Jim, indubitably ‘one of us’ by birth and bearing, fails so monstrously to recognise what is right. In stark moral contrast is the heroism of ordinary sailors who simply stick to their posts and act by the rules.

It is difficult not to read in the incorruptible bearing of the Tampa‘s Norwegian captain, Arne Rinnan, a latter-day incarnation of Conrad’s steadfast sailors in A Shadow Line or The Secret Sharer, men who embody in their actions the weight of larger moral forces. For Australians the Tampa, whose name uncannily echoes that of Conrad’s fictional Patna, also represents a moment of moral decision: a moment at which, like Marlow, we ask: Who are ‘we’? Who is ‘one of us’? What codes must ‘we’ live by? Who are ‘we’ part of? Whose humanity do we recognise as akin to ours? And a further, terrible, question: What do ‘we’ owe to those whose humanity ‘we’ fail to recognise?

In the final week of parliament in late September 2001 the ‘Border Protection Bill’, one of seven new pieces of migration legislation, was driven through parliament in two late- night sittings that bypassed customary processes. Among other things, the Bill excises the Cocos Islands, Ashmore Reef and Cartier and Christmas Island from Australian territory as far as people claiming refuge are concerned.2 According to the journalist Paul Kelly, this legislative package is designed to ‘weaken judicial review, remove the key asylum-seeker landing areas from Australia’s migration zone and from our international refugee responsibilities, channel most asylum-seekers into a new visa and refugee determination regime, and deny permanent settlement even to people in this system proven to be refugees’.3 The legislation changes the definition of ‘persecution’, and imposes mandatory sentences on the crews of boats carrying asylum seekers. It allows for the use of ‘necessary and reasonable force’ to ‘push off’ asylum seekers’ boats from Australian waters, a practice, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees that ‘we are not aware of any nation currently engaged in’.4
The passing of this legislation brings us to a new moral threshold. Today Australia has arrogated to itself, with minimal public debate, a singular privilege: to forcibly push away unarmed people seeking refuge in our waters. What constellation of forces enabled the passage of this ‘Border Protection’ legislation? What public representations and images facilitate our imagination of another, circumscribed, Australia? What histories sustain our new, defensive geography? What moral and cultural maps chart the territory this side of the line we have drawn in the water?

More than any novelist of the British empire, more than Rudyard Kipling, more than E.M. Forster, Conrad retains a currency in the contemporary West’s cultural frames of reference. His Heart of Darkness, after all, is the literary text most taught to undergraduates in the U.S.A. Francis Ford Coppola’s remaking of Heart of Darkness as Apocalypse Now, the transposition of nineteenth-century Belgian imperialism in the Congo to twentieth-century U.S. imperialism in Vietnam, bears out Conrad’s ongoing currency as we seek to make sense of empire’s continuities. Paradoxically, this currency is possible precisely because Heart of Darkness is so thoroughly a tale of its times; its contemporaneity only explicable by the imperial frameworks that still shape our understanding of the world, strenuously as we may disown them. Both Apocalypse Now and Heart of Darkness participate in and reproduce the seductions and corruptions of empire, even as they make them visible.
Like Heart of Darkness, like Apocalypse Now, Lord Jim is a thoroughly racialised fable. In all three stories, the natives of empire, African, Middle-Eastern or Asian, remain a largely undifferentiated, unknowable, inanimate mass, against whose slightly repulsive victimage the drama of the West’s internal moral conflict is acted out. A turn to Conrad to cast some light on a distinctly twenty-first century political question is in this context anything but a precious or whimsical exercise. The wider questions surrounding the Tampa may belong to the twenty-first century: the tensions between globalising and nationalist forces; the Australian government’s attempts to draw a line in the sea against the incursions of international law; its desire somehow to take control of a world where the borderless flows of information, goods, and finance also inevitably involve the movement of people. But these contemporary concerns clearly are also being played out in a recognisably colonial, highly racialised, register. The phobias and hatreds that have emerged in Australian public life in the spring of 2001 open the door to a much older storehouse of images, narratives and representations.

Images of a mass of bodies crammed on a boat going nowhere.
The word ‘mass’ is a clue. ‘Crammed’ is another.
What do you see?
These are not neutral, unmarked bodies.
Think: ‘cargo’. Think: ‘traffic’

The mass movement of peoples is both a precondition and a product of the business of empire. Slave ships make the triangular Middle Passage between Europe, Africa and the Americas; ships packed with indentured labour and industrial poor traverse the Atlantic and Pacific oceans; and, yes, convict ships dock in antipodean waters. The traffic of empire is also people traffic. The business of empire is the control of mobility, enabling the free movement of some and the forced movement of others.
In Lord Jim British shipping lines carry pilgrims to Mecca from the Indian subcontinent and the Malaysian archipelago. These are paying passengers, the customers of empire’s multinationals; yet, as the course of the story makes clear, they remain mere ‘natives’, characterised solely by the force of racial otherness:

They streamed aboard over three gangways, they streamed in urged by faith and the hope of paradise, they streamed in with a continuous tramp and shuffle of bare feet, without a word, a murmur, or a look back; and when clear of confining rails spread on all sides over the deck, flowed forward and aft, overflowed down the yawning hatchways, filled the inner crevices of the ship – like water filling a cistern, like water flowing into crevices and crannies – like water rising silently even with the rim (9-10).

Conrad’s Muslims are a relentless, rising, swell of bodies, undistinguished by any trait of humanity, personhood, individuality. The passage draws on multiple images of engulfment, swamping and a relentless tide of otherness, images that carried easily into the imagination of Fortress Australia. A hundred-and-one years later these resurface in the allusions to a flood of refugees, an overflowing wave of otherness that threatens to engulf all before it and in contemporary fears of ‘our way of life’ being swamped by the appearance of a few hundred Muslim asylum seekers on the horizon.
In Lord Jim Islam is invoked only through a repeated phrase, ‘the unconscious pilgrims of an exacting faith’. In this description the pilgrims’ religion somehow qualifies their claims to full humanity. Passages from Conrad’s historical sources resonate even more ominously with current representations of Muslim asylum seekers. The source materials in the Norton edition of Lord Jim include documents about a historical incident in which a damaged pilgrim ship, The Jeddah, was abandoned by its officers en route to Mecca. In their defence the crew painted the pilgrims they had left to drown as violent, deranged– and potential rapists of the Captain’s wife. In 1870 a Captain Henry Carter writes to the London Times in an another attempt to justify the desertion of the Jeddah:

No one who has not witnessed the pilgrims… can form the slightest conception of the unromantic and unpicturesque appearance of those wretched fanatics. It is a pity that some philanthropist will not take the trouble to make the tour and go on board with one of the pilgrim vessels about to start on a voyage for Jeddah. There are horrors on board such a ship which no Christian has ever dreamt of … wickedness worse, by far, than was ever found on board a slaver. Only fancy 1,000 or 1,200 fanatics cooped on the deck of a small vessel for 18 to 20 days with no room to move and little or no fresh air… Of course if these wretched beings die en route to Mecca, their eternal happiness is assured… You must understand that my ‘batch’ consisted of Turcomans, Arabo-Persians, and Bedouins. They all came on board armed to the teeth, but of course I had all the weapons taken charge of by my officers… I mean all the weapons that we saw. (312)

Here, by a strategic displacement of violence, the abandoned become the aggressors. The pilgrims, survivors of a voyage on which they are first shamefully exploited by the shipping line and then left to their deaths by the crew, are somehow transmogrified into threatening and violent fanatics, more evil even than slave traders.

Historical documents like this illuminate, if they cannot explain, the contradictory representations of the Tampa refugees over a hundred years later. By extraordinary processes of signification the asylum seekers become, in certain popular understandings, simultaneously the objects and the agents of criminality: criminal and passive, inanimate and violent, wretched and millionaires, cargo and pirates, contraband and hijackers, traffickers and traffic, victims of ‘people smugglers’ and invaders of Australian sovereignty.

Representations such as these, that manage to position the suffering and banished as simultaneously aggressors and invaders, suggest a continuing, deeply grounded and only partly understood, moral ambivalence and cultural hostility. This ambivalence resonates even through apparently sympathetic accounts such as a recent headline, ‘When the poor cry freedom and sell their souls to people smugglers’.5 An extraordinary series of oppositions is packed in: between ‘poor’ and ‘sell’, between ‘crying for freedom’ and ‘selling one’s soul’. Revealingly, the act of paying for a chance of freedom is metaphorised into ‘selling one’s soul’: in the imagery of the Faustian pact invoked here, people who sell their souls put themselves beyond the pale. Their penalty is to forfeit any claims to humanity, or to being ‘saved’.

An ensemble of images and associations, then, feeds into everyday Australian representations of asylum seekers like those on the Tampa. Imperial images of the abject bodies of ‘trafficked’ natives and a long history of Western representations of Muslims as violent and fanatical mesh with specifically Anglo-Australian phobias of incursion by sea, and of swamping by ‘waves’ of other foreign invaders.6 This complex combination provides fertile ground for anxieties actively cultivated by the government’s use of terms like ‘people trafficking’, ‘queue jumpers’, ‘disease carriers’ and ‘illegal immigrants’ to describe refugees and asylum seekers. These terms at once dehumanise and criminalise, placing human lives in the same category as contraband drugs and other forms of deadly, forbidden cargo.
The ‘Border Protection’ legislation, introduced a few days after the Tampa‘s arrival on our horizon, was initially rejected by the Australian parliament. The entire issue was reignited less than a week later by Defence Minister Reith’s attempt to link the Tampa to the attacks on the U.S. Other politicians quickly endorsed Reith’s idea that asylum seekers from countries like Afghanistan were potential ‘terrorist sleepers’.7 In the tumult of emotion that followed, horror at the September 11 attacks combined with Western jingoism, moral panic and racist antagonism towards anyone perceived as Arab or Muslim. As hijabed women were reviled in the streets of Sydney and a bus carrying Islamic school children stoned in Brisbane, the government introduced a second ‘Border Protection’ Bill.8 The Prime Minister’s support rocketed in the polls. The Labor opposition succumbed with indecent haste, not even bothering with a fig leaf of principle to conceal its boundless political opportunism.

Commentators like Richard Glover on ABC Radio were quick to point out the sheer irrationality of connecting the unknown September 11 assailants with asylum seekers like those on the Tampa. The connections are certainly illogical, but far from accidental or inexplicable. The conflation of the high levels of existing hostility towards asylum seekers with the revulsion, fear and desire for retaliation aroused by mass destruction in the U.S. is eminently explicable by reference to the representational histories drawn on in Lord Jim. The hysterical and violent response to asylum seekers in the days following the destruction of the Twin Towers, authorised and cultivated as it was in official statements by figures such Reith, in this context becomes far more comprehensible.

But while the images and discourses of empire provide one easily accessible framework into which asylum seekers can be inserted, what other possibilities and frames are available for official understandings of asylum seekers? Are historically explicable responses inevitable and necessary ones? Our attitudes towards refugees are not inescapably bound up in colonial representations and racist stereotypes; we are not condemned to an endless recycling of Conradian narratives and images. An alternative framework based on a discourse of human rights and international commitment was employed by Canadian Prime Minister Jean Cretien when, in the wake of the U.S. attacks, he faced questions about asylum seekers and migrants as potential terrorists:

Let there be no doubt. We will allow no one to force us to sacrifice our values and traditions under the pressure of urgent circumstances. We will continue to welcome people from the whole world. We will continue to offer refuge to the persecuted’.9

Cretien’s rhetoric is positioned unequivocally in a discourse of universal human rights, democratic freedoms and anti-discrimination, and in the idea of Canada as a country that offers protection for the persecuted and suffering regardless of external pressures. This idea of the nation as a universal beacon of protection is common to settler societies such as Canada, the U.S. and (at certain periods) Australia, where it runs parallel with discourses of xenophobia, racial exclusion and imperial expansionism. While the universalist discourse of rights has its own problematic history, it can operate as a powerful ethical force to mobilise support for beleaguered groups in a society.10

In Australia the appeal of human rights discourse has been weakened and discredited in recent years by Hansonism, as well as by the government’s repeated disagreements with the United Nations, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, Amnesty International and similar bodies. This vitiated rights discourse is not available to us now as a unifying element in troubled times. Instead of a focus on equal access for all to the institutions of citizenship, the discourse drawn on by the Canadian PM, Australian ‘multiculturalism’ in recent years has been confined to exhorting the Anglo majority to display ‘tolerance’ towards racial and ethnic minorities.11 At the same time, the insistence on ‘decency’ as an innate national characteristic blocks attempts to examine past or present policies from a human rights perspective.

We need only compare Prime Minister Cretien’s statement with our own Prime Minister’s response to the attacks on Muslims in the weeks following September 11 to understand how differently human rights discourse operates in the two national rhetorics. Following the torching of a Brisbane mosque, the Australian PM commented:

If it is an act of vandalism or vilification, I condemn it unreservedly… Islamic Australians are as entitled as I am to a place in this community. If their loyalty is to Australia as is ours, and their commitment is to this country, we must not allow our natural anger at the extremes of Islam which have been manifested in the attack on the World Trade Center to spill over on to Islamic people generally.12

In contrast to the absolutes in Cretien’s speech, Prime Minister Howard’s position is modified by a string of qualifications. ‘Islamic Australians are … entitled … to a place in this community. If their loyalty is to Australia as is ours, and their commitment is to this country… ‘ For Islamic Australians the protection of the state from racist violence is made conditional on a demonstration of ‘commitment’ and ‘loyalty’, while the commitment of other Australians, ‘us’, is read as given. The progressive use of the pronouns, I, ours, we,strongly identifies Prime Minister Howard as speaking as an Anglo-Australian, not as a Prime Minister presiding over a nation that is racially and religiously non-discriminatory. ‘Natural anger’ at the U.S. attacks is attributed only to some (non-Muslim) Australians, whose ‘natural anger’ is then naturally conflated with the arsonists’ anger at the ‘extremes of Islam’ and seen to ‘spill over’ by extension ‘on to Islamic people generally’.13 The unequivocal assertion of the (then as yet unproven) link between the U.S. attacks and the ‘extremes of Islam’ strongly contrasts with the cautious and conditional way in which the attack on the mosque is described: ‘If it is an act of vandalism or vilification‘. ‘Vandalism’ and ‘vilification’ are at best an inadequate pair of alternatives to represent the deliberate destruction by fire of a place of worship.

(And suddenly as I write I feel the touch of a shadow from Colombo in July 1983, a moment no non-racist Sri Lankan forgets. As mobs, sometimes incited by government MPs, robbed, burnt, raped and killed Tamils on the streets, our one hope was for a broadcast by the Prime Minister: a strong message of leadership to reign in his supporters and deflect the gathering avalanche of violence. Instead, Prime Minister Junius Richard Jayewardene, considered until then by my parents and many other Colombo Tamils as an old school, parliamentary type, spoke about ‘appeasing the just anger’ felt by many at the murder of 13 Sinhala soldiers by Tamil separatists. Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister had waved a green flag to the racist mobs. After the pogroms of 1983, Tamil separatist groups, which until then had only a small number of active members, enjoyed a vast surge in recruitment. The deadly and dirty Sri Lankan civil war began in earnest.)

Of course Chippendale, where I write this today, is not Colombo (although in the week of September 11, I was racially abused on Sydney’s Broadway as I was on Colombo’s streets almost twenty years ago). Australia is not Sri Lanka. But it is as well to remember that multiethnic, multiracial societies are not geared towards unavoidable conflict. For that to happen active choices must be made; one set of options adopted over another; certain things said or not said; positions actively staked out; exclusions and inclusions clearly demarcated. As the recent work of Henry Reynolds shows, alongside the stream of racism, exclusion and violence there also always exists the possibility of dissent and opposition; of critiquing the racial claims and myths of our society; of challenging the stereotypes that would exclude certain groups from full citizenship in the public sphere. 14 Historically this stream is a source of counter-representations and narratives that resist the powerful, ongoing legacies of empire in Australia.


1 Joseph Conrad, ‘Author’s Note’, Lord Jim (New York: Norton 1968), p 2. Further references to this edition are given after quotations in the text.

2 Paul Kelly, ‘How PM’s ship came in’, Australian 22-23 September 2001, p. 29 and David Marr, ‘Still Adrift’, Sydney Morning Herald 22-23 September 2001, p. 32.

3 Kelly. See also James Jupp, ‘Australia’s Refugee and Humanitarian Policies’ in William Mayley and others, Refugees and the Myth of the Borderless World (Canberra: Department of International Relations, RSPAS, 2002) pp. 38-39.


5footnote Paul McGeough, ‘When the poor cry freedom and sell their souls to people smugglers’, Sydney Morning Herald 4 September 2001, p. 1.

6 On Australian invasion narratives see David Walker, Anxious Nation (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1999) pp. 98-112.

7 See Ian Henderson, ‘PM warns of anger if boatpeople let in’ Australian 17 October 2001, p. 5.

8 On the post 9/11experiences of Muslims in Australia see Omeima Sukkarieh and Mia Zahra, ‘Silence that Speaks and Dreams that Cry!’http://www.international.activism.hss.uts.edu.au/w_violence/transcripts/sukkarieh.html

9 James Smith, ‘Canada tries to remain a refuge for the persecuted’, Sydney Morning Herald 9 September 2001, p. 4.

10 On the limits of human rights, see Angela Mitropoulos, ‘The Barbed End of Human Rights’ Overland no. 164,
pp 51-55, and Suvendrini Perera, ‘What is a camp?’ in Borderphobias: the Politics of Insecurity Post 9/11 Borderlandsejournal vol.1, no.1 http://www.borderlandsejournal.adelaide.edu.au

11 See Suvendrini Perera and Joseph Pugliese, “‘Racial Suicide”: The Relicensing of Racism in Australia’ Race & Class vol. 39 no. 2, 1997, pp. 1-20.

12 Katherine Shine, ‘PM outraged as arson destroys Brisbane mosque’, Sun Herald 23 September 2001, p. 3; my italics.

13 The rhetorical moves here are reminiscent of the strategies discussed by Guy Rundle as working to ‘include out’ Indigenous people and other minoritised groups in the Prime Minister’s draft preamble to the constitution (p. 23). See Rundle, ‘The Opportunist: John Howard and the Triumph of Reaction’, Quarterly Essay no. 3, 2001, pp.1-74.

14 See Henry Reynolds, This Whispering in our Hearts (St Leonards: Allen & Unwin, 1998).

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