“I am glad you’ve read the Heart of D. tho’ of course it’s an awful fudge,” Joseph Conrad wrote to Roger Casement in late 1903. Casement, an Irish diplomat working for the British Foreign Office, had just returned to London from Belgium’s African colony, the Congo Free State, and was about to submit a report to Parliament detailing the existence of a vast system of slavery used to extract ivory and rubber. Looking to draw public attention to the atrocities, Casement traveled to the author’s home outside London to attempt to recruit him into the Congo Reform Association. Conrad was sympathetic: Africa, he told Casement, shared with Europe “the consciousness of the universe in which we live,” and it had been difficult for him to learn that the horrors he witnessed on his 1890 trip up the Congo River had only gotten worse. But he resisted playing the part of an on-the-spot authority and begged off joining Casement’s association. “I would help him but it is not in me,” Conrad later explained to a friend. “I am only a wretched novelist inventing wretched stories and not even up to that miserable game.”

For more than a century, those “wretched stories” and their author have elicited strong opinions. H.L. Mencken described Conrad as a “cosmic artist” who captured “the overwhelming sweep and devastation of universal forces.” E.M. Forster judged Conrad’s writing “misty in the middle as well as at the edges,” more “vapour” than “jewel.” Edward Said thought there were two Conrads: the anti-imperialist who was the first to treat empire as a “system,” and the imperialist who taught that the system was inescapable. Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian author of Things Fall Apart, considered him a “thoroughgoing racist.”

In The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World, Maya Jasanoff takes up Conrad’s life and work not to add to this stockpile of opinion, but to explore how Conrad’s writing captured the early years of globalization, and how the questions he grappled with continue to resonate today. A professor of history at Harvard University, Jasanoff is the author of two previous books, Edge of Empire: Lives, Culture, and Conquest in the East, 1750–1850 (2005) and Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World (2011). Both were more traditional studies—the first of art collectors in British India and Egypt, the second of British loyalists fleeing the American Revolution to Canada and the Caribbean. The Dawn Watch is intended as something different, more experimental and speculative in its exploration of the line separating fiction from nonfiction. As Jasanoff writes, she used “the compass of a historian, the chart of a biographer, and the navigational sextant of a fiction reader” to compose this work. She consulted Conrad’s many biographers; studied his books and the multiple volumes of his published letters; and even retraced some of his voyages. She sailed on a container ship across the Indian Ocean, flew to Kisangani (formerly known as Stanleyville), and took a riverboat down the Congo. Floating to Kinshasa, she reread Heart of Darkness and “batted away tsetse flies.”

Conrad’s novels, writes Jasanoff, are “ethical injunctions,” meditations “on how to behave in a globalizing world.” The Dawn Watch is a reminder that, as Conrad understood, what passes for civilization is really often refined savagery. Jasanoff provides close, contextual readings of The Secret Agent, Lord Jim, Heart of Darkness, and Nostromo, novels that conjure the complacencies and self-delusions of the Western bourgeoisie as all-encompassing, holding everybody in their thrall regardless of status, class, or race. The problem, though, is that Jasanoff seems to have been caught as well.

Joseph Conrad was born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in 1857 into the Polish szlachta, or gentry, in what is now Ukraine but was then ruled by Russia. Conrad’s father, Apollo, was a poet and nationalist often imprisoned by the czarist authorities; he was finally banished in 1862 to the threshold of Siberia, which wrecked his family. Conrad’s parents died within several years of being exiled, and Conrad himself was left physically and emotionally shattered. He was rescued from destitution by his wealthy maternal uncle, who took charge of his education and helped restore him to health. At the age of 16, after a frustrating stint at boarding school, Conrad made his way to Marseille, sailing with the French before joining the British merchant marine and moving to London.

Conrad slipped quickly into the higher rungs of shipboard hierarchy, as Britain’s expanding commercial empire gave him a chance to salvage his identity as part of the gentry. By the 1870s, Britain had largely given up most of the worst practices of merchant-fleet tyranny, including floggings and impressment. But as a captain, Conrad could rule his ships with baronial power. “A Polish nobleman, cased in British tar” was how Conrad, who now started inserting the high-sounding “de” before his surname, described himself.

In the interior provinces of Conrad’s Central European boyhood, where his Polish family stood above the surrounding mass of Ukrainian serfs, coerced labor wasn’t especially racially marked. Now, though, Conrad found himself traveling to the outer limits of a world empire, and the shipboard pecking order generally reflected that empire’s color line. Even as sailing allowed Conrad to reassert something familiar—the “nobleman” status denied him by exile—it introduced something entirely new: “[R]acial difference,” as his literary doppelgänger Charles Marlow observes in one of Conrad’s first seafaring stories, “shapes the fate of nations.”

Conrad saw firsthand the dark side of free trade. In the South Pacific he sailed with a mostly Asian crew, itself divided by status: The cooks and stewards were Chinese; Indians worked below deck; Malays and Filipinos served as quartermasters. Singapore was the staging port from which British merchant ships, including Conrad’s, traded opium, ran guns, and smuggled slaves. In so doing, they transformed cultures and destabilized politics throughout the archipelagoes of the South Seas, and then propped up local potentates to maintain order and supervise the extraction of whatever local crop or mineral was entering the global market.

Conrad’s most famous journey was, of course, to the Congo. Hired by the Belgians to pilot a paddle steamer, Conrad, as he traveled upriver, saw corpses all around—here a “dead body lying by the path in an attitude of meditative repose,” there a “skeleton tied up to a post.” He quit, Jasanoff writes, before his contract was up. Malarial and exhausted, Conrad returned to London and would soon quit sailing altogether and commit himself to writing about it. Yet it was only after Heart of Darkness was published, in 1899, that he began to identify his time in Central Africa as a turning point in his intellectual development, the moment he became more alert to Europe’s artifices. “Before the Congo,” he’d say, “I was just a mere animal.”

Race and the “fate of nations” can be read as a constant preoccupation in Conrad’s writing, even in stories that weren’t, on their surface, about race. Set in 1880s London, The Secret Agent is an unflattering portrait of an anarchist cell and a bomb plot gone awry. Previous scholars have used the story to parse Conrad’s politics. (In 1885, he viewed a good electoral showing by Gladstone liberals as catastrophic: “the Alpine avalanche rolls quicker and quicker as it nears the abyss,” he wrote to a friend. “Where’s the man to stop the rush of social-democratic ideas?”) Conrad, though, always insisted that The Secret Agent wasn’t a polemic about radicals but an effort to capture the futility of human ambition, its “miseries” and “credulities.” Jasanoff takes him at his word, using the story to illuminate Conrad’s early years in London. The Secret Agent, she says, reveals “the tragic irony” of Conrad’s split émigré experience, as London, confronted with a wave of Irish-republican bombings, became a less welcoming place for foreigners.

The story’s irony, though, could be related not just to Conrad’s London residency but also to the kind of hallucinatory terror he had witnessed in the Congo. “Exterminate all the brutes!” he had Heart of Darkness‘s Kurtz scribble at the end of his political manifesto—a symbol of the author’s disillusionment with Europe’s civilizational fantasies. The Secret Agent, published in 1907, eight years after Heart of Darkness, hints at what it means for such disenchantment to be brought home to Europe; how the brutality of empire abroad had left the continent susceptible to a Nietzschean ethics of ruthless domination. One of its characters, the Professor, dreams of “a world like shambles, where the weak would be taken in hand for utter extermination” and where supermen will no longer be held hostage to the guilt-inducing claims of their inferiors, be they in Africa or London. “Exterminate, exterminate! That is the only way of progress,” the Professor says, sounding a lot like Kurtz. It might be a conservative conceit to equate colonialism’s systemic violence with that of marginal, dogmatic anarchists. Nonetheless, the insight is profound: Kurtz will be coming home.

Conrad “wouldn’t have known the word ‘globalization,” writes Jasanoff, who uses the term often in her book. But for her, Conrad witnessed its dawn. As a merchant seaman he participated in, and as a writer he chronicled, all the changes that would bring about what she defines as globalization: an “interdependent economy, open borders, ethnically diverse and networked populations, international institutions and standards,” and “shared cultural reference points.” Those changes were hastened by the British Empire’s move away from mercantilism and toward free trade. London would continue to rule over its colonies, including India, and would soon establish new domains in Africa and the Middle East. But, in a process that started in the first half of the 1800s, the liberalization of the rules of commerce and shipping led to, in Jasanoff’s estimation, an unprecedented period of openness. There were “no restrictions on who could come into the country” that Conrad adopted as home, she writes, “no passports or visas required, no need to prove that you had means of support. Nobody could be forced into military service. Nobody could be jailed merely for saying or writing something against the establishment. Nobody got extradited on political grounds. Freedom turned London into Europe’s beachcomber,” and London, as a result of taking in drift-people like Conrad, was a “city settling into its own greatness.”

Jasanoff’s high opinion of the period is captured in a glaring error. “Europeans,” she writes, “had stopped coming to Africa for slaves in 1808.” This isn’t true. Jasanoff might here be referring to Britain’s 1807 abolition of its involvement in the international slave trade, and the fact that the Royal Navy did commit itself to intercepting slave ships leaving the continent. But Spain, Portugal, and France continued to raid Africa, as did, occasionally, Liverpool contrabandists. The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database lists hundreds of ships sailing under European flags or originating directly from European ports, including Barcelona, Nantes, and Lisbon, taking humans out of Africa and bringing them to the Americas between 1809 and 1866.

Jasanoff’s gaffe is faithful to the kind of story she wants to tell us about this era, which takes the ever more cosmopolitan and laissez-faire British Empire (and especially its metropolis, London) as the baseline of what a good globalized society might look like—while largely ignoring how free trade was responsible for a variety of atrocities. Conrad was no innocent, in fact, to the violence of this new free-trade era, serving on a ship that smuggled slaves and guns between Singapore and Borneo—a fact that Jasanoff mentions, but only in passing.

Twenty years ago, shortly after we all learned the word “globalization,” Adam Hochschild’s King Leopolds Ghost also explored the relationship of fact to fiction in Conrad’s writings, in particular what Heart of Darkness might say about Belgian colonialism in the Congo, which between 1885 and 1908 resulted in the deaths of an estimated 10 million Congolese, the victims of murder, exhaustion, starvation, exposure, and disease. Untold numbers more were tortured and mutilated. Hochschild wanted to be clear that Heart of Darkness should not be read as a general parable about a universal human capacity for violence. Conrad had a specific story to tell—one about the horrors of European violence in the Congo. Yet the novel was often cut “loose from its historical moorings” and taken as a “parable for all times and places, not as a book about one time and place.” Hochschild reminded readers that it was not just a morality tale about the fall from “Victorian innocence.” Rather, it was a “precise and detailed” account of a monstrous crime committed by a system that justified itself under the banner of free trade.

Jasanoff does exactly what Hochschild urges readers of Conrad not to do: She takes Heart of Darkness, along with Conrad’s other works, primarily as allegories revealing truths “about human nature itself.” In her discussion of the Congo Free State, Jasanoff also signals her belief that British liberalism offered a potentially more humane way of extracting resources from Africa, noting that the worst of Leopold’s crimes came only after he turned away from Victorian openness, after he rejected the kind of “free trade ethos” associated with his first cousin, Queen Victoria. Yet one might note that Victoria’s “free trade ethos” was equally barbaric: In the last decades of the 19th century, in South Asia, it destroyed local markets and subsistence food production, resulting, when natural disaster hit, in hunger of unimaginable proportions, even as the same ethos mandated a laissez-faire response to the crisis. As Indians begged colonial administrators to stop exporting food, they were told the market would sort itself out. Between 1876 and 1902, an estimated 13 million to 29 million people in British-controlled territory starved to death. The Belgians claimed they were suppressing cannibalism in the Congo with their brutal regime. The free-trade ethos created it in India, as some of the desperate devoured the dead.

By the end of The Dawn Watch, Jasanoff seems adrift, weighed down by her own metaphor-heavy prose. “A river is nature’s plotline: it carries you from here to there,” she writes. “You can’t tell a river’s source by standing midstream, but you can take the measure of its flow. Conrad’s imagination, like his experience, coursed over continents.” It’s not clear why Jasanoff followed Conrad’s path across the Indian Ocean and the Congo. She logged many miles, but the payoff is slight, offered up in a short epilogue: “What Conrad made me see, I realized, was a set of forces whose shapes may have changed but whose challenges have not.”

Jasanoff understands these challenges mostly as atavistic reactions against the kind of “global openness” she believes London exemplified in the 1880s. The successors of the Irish republicans and anarchists who terrorized cosmopolitan cities in Conrad’s time, Jasanoff asserts, lurk in “Internet chat rooms or terrorist cells.” Brexit voters, she adds, would also have been familiar to Conrad as those who “had seen earlier waves of xenophobia follow from a period of global openness.” And so Conrad’s “Congo story,” a “precise and detailed” description of one among many colonial crimes during the golden years of free-trade liberalism, is restored to its traditional function as a cautionary fable of what might result if liberalism were abandoned. Heart of Darkness, Jasanoff tells us, “had always been about more than one specific place”: It conveys the “universal potential for savagery.”

Writers have long appreciated the role that Conrad played in creating the moral imagination of the modern age, including many of the Latin American writers who, after his death, began to reinvent the historical epic as an avant-garde form. As a young diplomat in Colombo and Rangoon, Pablo Neruda read Conrad in English “under the shade of coconut trees,” identifying with his “strange, exiled and exterminated” creations. Jorge Luis Borges thought Conrad the greatest heir to the tradition of desengaño, the ironic skepticism that took hold of Spanish writers after that first moment of globalization—the conquest of America—led them to lose their Christian piety. Borges spun off stories from Conrad’s novels and identified the Polish-British writer as a bridge between Cervantes and what would come to be known as magical realism. Conrad, Borges said, purged the “supernatural” from his stories while making the everyday “marvelous.” Gabriel García Márquez, too, shared Conrad’s desengaño—his imagined Macondo in One Hundred Years of Solitude is, after all, destroyed—yet he rejected Conrad’s style of self-serving detachment, which presents history as tragedy to justify itself.

Conrad’s fatalism sharpened his ability to see through Victorian cant, to understand the way that terror on the margins will rebound into the heartland. But fatalism also allowed him the conceit of impunity. “I shall never need to be consoled for any act of my life,” Conrad said, on the cusp of launching his writing career, sounding much like The Secret Agents Nietzschean Professor, “because I am strong enough to judge my conscience instead of being its slave.” True freedom, Conrad wrote, meant rejecting the idea that guilt could be expiated through ritualized acts of contrition and self-implication, which is perhaps why Conrad refused not only to join the Congo Reform Association, but also to sign a petition pleading to spare Casement’s life after he was found guilty of running guns to Irish revolutionaries. “A truly tragic personality,” was how Conrad described him.

“Conrad was rightly skeptical about imperial promises of progress,” Jasanoff says, explaining (in an earlier essay) that her encounter with Congolese poverty brought her to a “hideous realization: Measured in relative terms, most people in Congo were probably better off 100 years ago.” That realization is left undeveloped. Is her point that all politics, both against and in defense of the empire of capital, is futile? She doesn’t say. But Jasanoff does identify Mobutu Sese Seko, installed by Washington, Paris, and Brussels in the early 1960s as the country’s long-running Cold War dictator, as “Congo’s modern-day Kurtz,” without mentioning the role that Western nations played in turning him into, as Conrad called his original, “a first-class agent.”