Joseph Conrad’s Typhoon

Plot summary by Jim Janus

In Joseph Conrad’s Typhoon (1902), a captain of a ship changes from “having just enough imagination to carry him through each successive day” to doing “something rather clever.”

Early in the story, first mate Jukes updates the log. “Swell increasing. Ship labouring and taking water. Battened down the coolies for the night.”

The coolies were two-hundred men with “yellow faces and pigtails” who worked for years in colonies around the China seas. Now, the Bun Hin company was sending them home by way of cargo steamer, the Nan-Shan. Locked below, each Chinese had his wooden chest “containing the savings of his labours: clothes of ceremony, sticks of incense, a little opium, and a small hoard of silver dollars.”

The swell that Jukes noted was from a nearing storm; the barometer confirmed it. But when he suggested steaming around, Captain MacWhirr refused. “’Three hundred extra miles to the distance, and a pretty coal bill to show. I couldn’t bring myself to do that.’” And, “’How can you tell what a gale is made of till you get it?’”

Jukes thought the captain stupid. The first mate once wrote a friend: “’He’s so jolly innocent that if you were to put your thumb to your nose and wave your fingers at him he would only wonder gravely to himself what got into you. He’s too dense to trouble about, and that’s the truth.’”

The storm increased and tossed the ship so severely that everyone onboard struggled to hang on. Below deck the Chinese were hurled about and their chests tumbled and broke. The coins rolled and the confined men fought over them. The boatswain discovered the chaos and the captain wouldn’t have it. Jukes and the hands–while the storm was quite violent–invaded the hold and took the men’s silver. The taking was ordered by MacWhirr.

The captain was “glad the trouble in the ‘tween-deck had been discovered in time. If the ship had to go after all, then, at least, she wouldn’t be going to the bottom with a lot of people in her fighting teeth and claw. That would have been odious. And in that feeling there was a humane intention and a vague sense of the fitness of things.”

Despite six hours of rocking and flooding, the Nan-Shan reached the temporary calm of the typhoon’s center. Soon the storm would batter again. What’s more, Jukes feared mutiny by the Chinese to take back their silver. Before the trip, the Nan-Shan’s owners transferred her to the Siamese flag. This increased the mate’s concern. He warned the captain, “’Let them only recover a bit, and you’ll see. They will fly at our throats, sir…she isn’t a British ship now.’”

MacWhirr agreed, then told Jukes to watch the ship while he took time in the chart-room.

“In the solitude and the pitch darkness of the cabin, he spoke out as if addressing another being awakened within his breast. ‘I shouldn’t like to lose her,’ he said half aloud. A moment passed, of a stillness so profound that no one could have guessed there was a man sitting in that cabin. Then a murmur arose. ‘She may come out of it yet.’”

The captain returned to the bridge as increasing wind, waves, and darkness threatened the ship. He told Jukes, “‘Keep her facing it—always facing it—that’s the way to get through.’”

The Nan-Shan did get through. On a bright sunshiny day she arrived in Fu-chau. How they avoided the mutiny was revealed in letters that the captain and crew wrote home.

Jukes wrote that the Chinese were still locked below when the typhoon ended. With fifteen hours to port he suggested the captain throw the coins into the hold to let them “fight it out amongst themselves.’” MacWhirr disagreed. “’He wanted as little fuss made as possible, for the sake of the ship’s name and for the sake of the owners.’”

It wasn’t long until Jukes became aware of the captain’s solution. It began when the ship’s steward roused him from sleep. “’The Captain’s letting them out!’”

Jukes flew on deck and distributed rifles to the hands. They all rushed to the chart-room. There MacWhirr was with one of the Chinese who was a clerk and interpreter from the Bun Hin company. MacWhirr–surprised by the rifles–ordered Jukes to take the guns away and to return to help count the money. They would divide the cash equally among the Chinese.

The captain’s plan came to him hours before, when the ship was in the typhoon’s center. It was then he had the “Bun Hin fellow” tell the Chinese they’d get their money back as long as they didn’t cause trouble.

The chief engineer wrote to his wife that the captain, a rather simple man, “has done something rather clever.’”

Jukes’ letter closed, “‘I think that he got out of it very well for such a stupid man.'”

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