Andrea Rehn, ‘White Rajas, Native Princes and Savage Pirates: Lord Jim and the Cult of White Sovereignty’

1863 James Brooke 1 Cent Coin
1863 James Brooke 1 Cent Coin.

Andrea Rehn’s article “White Rajas, Native Princes and Savage Pirates: Lord Jim and the Cult of White Sovereignty” reads Conrad’s Lord Jim as an ironic but also nostalgic re-imagining of the first of the white rajas, James Brooke. This figurehead of informal imperial expansion was idolized in England, as archival documents reveal, for his charismatic bestowal of the rule of law in Borneo. Ironically, Brooke achieved sovereignty through his personal suspension of law, an example of what Carl Schmitt terms the “sovereign exception.”

In Conrad’s version, Jim emerges as an individual embodiment of colonial hegemony who governs with not only the consent but the ostensible worship of the governed. This fantasy of ecstatic submission by colonized people effaces the violence at the heart of imperial conquest, while the novel’s eroticized descriptions of Jim reflect the worship it attributes to Jim’s subjects. Poised, then, at the cusp of what Gannanath Obeyesekere would call a “double deification,” Jim gains his charisma from his disavowed similarity to pirates. This article explores how the discourses of law breaking, masculinity, piracy, and colonial sovereignty constitute Lord Jim the novel as well as the historical figure of the white raja through the retelling of a familiar myth of native worship of whitenesss.

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