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Sensing Grounds: Mangroves, Unauthentic Belonging, Extra-Territoriality


When R.L. Stevenson undertook his first transatlantic voyage at the age of 25, journeying to reunite with his future wife in California, he wrote the essay “The Amateur Emigrant.” This writing became the first chapter of his collected works, Essays of Travel, published in 1905. On board the Devonia from London to New York in August of 1879, he opens with scenes from “The Second Cabin”:

A few Scandinavians, who had already grown acquainted on the North Sea, were friendly and voluble over their long pipes; but among English speakers distance and suspicion reigned supreme. The sun was soon overclouded, the wind freshened and grew sharp as we continued to descend the widening estuary; and with the falling temperature the gloom among the passengers increased.

In this account by Stevenson, and also more famously in the opening passages of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, we are made to bear witness to the beginning of a journey, and to immediately access a plot of characters that are compatriots in making a specific voyage. While they are initially sketched with their codes of national belonging and social standing (the Lawyer, the Accountant, the Director, a fine young Irishman), they soon develop from a descriptive assemblage of exaggerated personal traits into a collective chorus brought together by the bond of the sea, by the mesh of travel memories and cultural relations formed through a shared sea-route.

These ships become a sensing ground—a space of exposed bodies, ideologies, infrastructural and social productions. From their shared departure point of the Thames, the Devonia and The Nellie both lift their anchor and therein also depart from “European gloom.” While the Nellie sets course towards the New World of California, Conrad’s steamboat glides into the final leg of its journey where it is deeper and quieter. There is a sense of alienation and incomprehension in the unknowable quality of his environ—the entrance into an unearthly earth. He then states, “We were cut off from the comprehension of our surroundings. We glided past like phantoms, wondering and secretly appalled, as sane men would be before an enthusiastic outbreak in a madhouse.”

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