‘The sea-reach of the Thames stretched before us like the beginning of an interminable waterway. In the offing the sea and the sky were welded together without a joint, and in the luminous space the tanned sails of the barges drifting up with the tide seemed to stand still in red clusters of canvas sharply peaked, with gleams of varnished sprits’.
Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
On Conrad’s ‘interminable waterway’, trade followed the flag and colonial misadventure cast a shadow over early globalisation. At the high watermark of European imperial effort, the interconnected pieces of the world economy still struggled with poor communications technology, limited cross-cultural understanding, and the tyranny of distance.
In the 21st century, practitioners of international trade are building more positive themes onto earlier traditions in a time of instant communications, accessible air travel and the collective energy of an Internet-enabled global citizenry.
The modern enhances the traditional – A380s and video Skype increase the efficiency of cooperative endeavour across continents and oceans; this collective effort underpinned by the rule of law and the humble INCOTERM. Yet the face-to-face meeting and the shared experience of solving problems in person remains at the heart of the experience and in this is continuity with the past.
As Australia exports its way to sustainable wealth and engages with friendly markets across Asia in the era of Free Trade Agreements with China, South Korea and Japan, those craftspeople of international trade – deal negotiators, government officials, goods inspectors, project managers, currency experts, freight forwarders, translators, pilots, drivers, ship’s captains and diligent clerks all – are part of a proud yet complex tradition.
Exciting times to be a food producer with surplus to export, or an ambitious services firm ready to engage with the Asian Century – architects, industrial designers or environmental scientists. Tourism operators, arts institutions and those in advanced manufacturing are poised for export success, too, and like many Australians stand looking to seaward.
‘The Director of Companies was our captain and our host. We four affectionately watched his back as he stood in the bows looking to seaward. On the whole river there was nothing that looked half so nautical. He resembled a pilot, which to a seaman is trustworthiness personified. It was difficult to realize his work was not out there in the luminous estuary, but behind him, within the brooding gloom’.