Joseph Conrad - Merchant Navy - British Voyages - Master


On 16 February 1887 he signed on as first mate of an iron barque, the Highland Forest, lying in port at Amsterdam. The ship had a crew of 18, including as many as 14 foreigners. The captain was a 34-year-old Irishman, John McWhir (Conrad gave the same name, with an additional r, to the much older master of the Nan-Shan in the 1902 novel Typhoon). The Highland Forest left Amsterdam on 18 February and ran into strong gales. By Conrad's account, some spars were carried away, and a piece of one struck and injured him. On 20 June the ship reached Semarang, Java, and Conrad signed off on 1 July. Next day he boarded the steamship Celestial, disembarking on 6 July at Singapore, where he went for treatment to the European Hospital; Conrad would describe it in his 1900 novel Lord Jim, whose hero had likewise been injured by a falling spar.

The first mate of the S.S. Celestial, which had brought Conrad to Singapore, was Frederick Havelock Brooksbank, son-in-law of the then well-known merchant and sailor William Lingard, prototype of Tom Lingard in Almayer's Folly (1895), An Outcast of the Islands (1896) and The Rescue (1920). Conrad never met William Lingard but heard much about him, mainly from Lingard's nephews, James and Joshua Lingard. It was probably through Brooksbank that Conrad met James Craig, master of the small steamer Vidar, which made voyages between Sinapore and small ports on Borneo and Sulawesi. James (Jim) Lingard had been living for some years as a trading agent on Borneo, at Berau, on the Berau River. On 22 August 1887 Conrad sailed from Singapore in the Vidar as first mate; he made four voyages in her: 22 August – 26 September; 30 September – 31 October; 4 November – 1 December 1887; and the last, ending 2 January 1888.

Apart from the six days at Muntok in 1883, this was Conrad's first opportunity to see the East up close. The Vidar penetrated deep inland, steaming up the rivers. Of the six ports of call, four lay in the country's interior, two as much as 30 miles from the sea.

Against the primeval natural background of lush, insatiable, and putrefying vegetation the trading posts must have appeared either as foolish challenges to the invincible forces of the tropics, or as pathetic proof of the vanity of human endeavor. articularly grotesque must have been the impression made by white men, who, cut off from their own civilizations, often became alcoholics or hopeless cranks. our such men lived at Tanjung Redeb James Lingard... and a Eurasian Dutchman, Charles William Olmeijer (or Ohlmeijer), who had lived there for seventeen years.

Olmeijer, his name transcribed phonetically as "Almayer", became the protagonist of Conrad's first novel, Almayer's Folly (1895) and a hero of the second, An Outcast of the Islands (1896); he also appears in the autobiographical volume, A Personal Record (1912), where Conrad writes: "If I had not got to know Almayer pretty well it is almost certain there would never have been a line of mine in print." But as Jocelyn Baines observes, "This was paying Almayer too big a compliment because when someone is ready to write there will always be an Almayer to hand." In reality, Conrad did not get to know Olmeijer well at all. As he was to write in March 1917, "e had no social shore connections. t isn't very practicable for a seaman." A few days earlier, he had written his publisher: "... I knew very little of and about shore-people. I was chief mate of the S.S. Vidar and very busy whenever in harbour." Neither the pathetic Almayer of A Personal Record nor the tragic Almayer of Almayer's Folly have much in common with the real Olmeijer. Conrad used the names of people he met, and occasionally their external appearances, in his writings only as aids in creating a fictional world from his reminiscences, books that he had read, and his own imagination.

Given Conrad's negligible personal acquaintance with the peoples of the Malay Archipelago, why does this area loom so large in his early work? (Leaving aside The Rescue, whose completion was repeatedly deferred till 1920, the last of the Malay novels was Lord Jim, published in 1900.) Najder argues that Conrad, the exile and wanderer, was painfully aware of a difficulty that he confessed more than once: the lack of a common cultural background with his Anglophone readers; he could not compete with English-language authors writing about the Anglosphere. The choice of a non-English setting suggested itself the more because it freed him from an embarrassing division of loyalty: Almayer's Folly, and later "An Outpost of Progress" (1897, set in a Congo savagely exploited by King Leopold II of Belgium) and "Heart of Darkness" (1899, likewise set in the Congo), contain many bitter reflections on colonialism. The Malay states came theoretically under the suzerainty of the Dutch government; Conrad did not write about the area's British dependencies, which he never visited. He "was apparently intrigued by... struggles aimed at preserving national independence. The prolific and destructive richness of tropical nature and the dreariness of human life within it accorded well with the pessimistic mood of his early works."

On 4 January 1888 "J. Korzeniowski," just turned 30, signed off the Vidar at Singapore. For two weeks, while waiting for a ship to Europe, he stayed at the Sailors' Home (for officers only), where he quarreled with the steward, a certain Phillips, a professional do-gooder. Three decades later, Conrad described his stay in The Shadow Line (1917), a novel he termed "not a story really but exact autobiography" — a misleading description, as usual with Conrad's "autobiographical" pieces.

On 19 January 1888 he was appointed captain of the barque Otago and left by steamer for Bangkok, Siam (Thailand), where on 24 January he took up his first command. The Otago, the smallest vessel he had sailed in except for the coaster Vidar, left Bangkok on 9 February. After a three-day stop at Singapore, on 3 March it headed for Sydney, Australia, arriving on 7 May. On 22 May it left for Melbourne; arriving after a difficult and stormy passage, it stayed at anchor in the Melbourne roadstead till 8 June. After taking on a load of wheat, it left for Sydney on 7 July. Arriving five days later, it stayed until 7 August.

The Otago's next voyage, with a cargo of fertilizer, soap and tallow, was to Mauritius, then a British possession east of Madagascar in the southwest Indian Ocean. The ship reached Port Louis on 30 September 1888, setting sail again for Melbourne on 21 November 1888 with a cargo of sugar, arriving on 5 January 1889. The Otago stayed close to the Australian coast. After being towed to Port Phillip Bay and visiting Port Minlacowie in Spencer Gulf, the Otago sailed around the Yorke Peninsula, arriving at Port Adelaide on 26 March 1889. Soon after, Captain Korzeniowski gave up his command. He was, Najder explains, "not a typical seaman... e did not regard his work at sea as permanent... bove all... he had exceptionally wide-ranging interests and cultural needs. Once the first charm of commanding a ship faded, the future writer must have felt the dreariness of sailing in the Antipodes... He must have been oppressed by a sense of being cut off from Europe, deprived of newspapers, books and current news. Even the chances of improving his English were slight: one of his officers in the Otago was a German and the other a Finn. he command of a small barque with a crew of nine could satisfy neither ambitions nor his needs."

Korzeniowski left Port Adelaide on 3 April as a passenger on the German steamer Nürnberg (listed as "Captain Conrad") and, passing through the Suez Canal, disembarked on 14 May at Southampton, England.

Conrad's success in the British Merchant Navy so far had been modest. He had not been captain or first mate in a large vessel, nor had he worked for a firm of importance. "His foreign origin and looks," writes Najder, "were no help to him." Nor had he reached the highest rank in seamanship at the time (discontinued in the 1990s), that of Extra Master, which required an additional examination. For the time being, he lived on his savings and a modest income from his share in the firm of Baar, Moering & Company.

By the autumn of 1889 he found an occupation that could compensate for his disappointments and help him cope with his inner perplexities: he began writing Almayer's Folly.

he son of a writer, praised by his uncle for the beautiful style of his letters, the man who from the very first page showed a serious, professional approach to his work, presented his start on Almayer's Folly as a casual and non-binding incident... et he must have felt a pronounced need to write. Every page right from th first one testifies that writing was not something he took up for amusement or to pass time. Just the contrary: it was a serious undertaking, supported by careful, diligent reading of the masters and aimed at shaping his own attitude to art and to reality.... e do not know the sources of his artistic impulses and creative gifts.

Conrad's later letters to literary friends show the attention that he devoted to analysis of style, to individual words and expressions, to the emotional tone of phrases, to the atmosphere created by language. In this, Conrad in his own way followed the example of Gustave Flaubert, notorious for searching days on end for le mot juste — for the right word to render the "essence of the matter." Najder opines: "riting in a foreign language admits a greater temerity in tackling personally sensitive problems, for it leaves uncommitted the most spontaneous, deeper reaches of the psyche, and allows a greater distance in treating matters we would hardly dare approach in the language of our childhood. As a rule it is easier both to swear and to analyze dispassionately in an acquired language." Years later Conrad, when asked why he did not write in French, which he spoke fluently, would reply (puckishly?): "Ah... to write French you have to know it. English is so plastic — if you haven't got the word you can make it."

The chances of finding a new job in England seeming slender, Conrad made inquiries on the European Continent. In the first half of November 1889 he traveled to Brussels, Belgium, to meet Albert Thys, powerful deputy director of the Société Anonyme Belge pour le Commerce du Haut-Congo. Apparently the idea of working in Africa had occurred to Conrad for lack of something else; but it probably rekindled his old interest, recently revived by Henry Morton Stanley's expedition in search of Emin Pasha. Additionally, the work paid better than a command at sea.

After Johannes Freiesleben, Danish master of the steamship Florida, was murdered by Congo tribesmen on 29 January 1890, Conrad was appointed by Thys' company to take his place. On 10 May 1890, at Bordeaux, he boarded the S.S. Ville de Maceio to begin what Najder calls "the most traumatic journey of his life."

After his November 1889 meeting with Thys, and before departing for the Congo, Conrad had again gone to Brussels, on 5 February 1890, where he made the acquaintance of a distant relative, Aleksander Poradowski, who had emigrated from Poland after the 1863 Uprising, and who died two days after Conrad's arrival. Conrad's meeting with Poradowski's widow Marguerite, née Gachet, would prove an important event in his life. His 42-year-old "aunt", daughter of a French historian who had settled in Belgium, was a writer whose translations from Polish, and her own fiction, mostly based on Polish and Ukrainian motifs, had been published since 1880 in the renowned Revue des Deux Mondes. For probably the first time since childhood, Conrad had come in direct contact with someone actively engaged in literature.

A few days later Conrad had left for Warsaw, arriving on 9 or 10 February and staying until 12 February. Then he made a two-day visit to Lublin to see his relatives Aniela and Karol Zagórski. On 16 February he was driven in a sleigh from Kalinówka railway station to Kazimierówka, visiting his uncle Bobrowski there till 18 April. At social gatherings, Conrad put off some of the participants. One of them recalled: "He answered all questions with a strained politeness, he spoke with concentration and listened carefully but one could not fail to notice his extreme boredom.... He spoke with a hint of a foreign accent and occasional bursts of our characteristic borderland intonation." Najder interprets Conrad's demeanor:

An inhabitant of London, the capital of the world's richest and most powerful country, comes to a village in the backwoods of... Ukraine. He is a traveler who has seen a great deal and is... under contract with a huge company, which is supposed not only to profit from trade but also to civilize black Africa. The traveler is a Pole, but without hope that his partitioned motherland will ever become free and unified; he is conscious... that in the modern prosperous and open world no one is interested in Polish affairs and very few even know where the country is, and he is aware that to be continually harping on wrongs, suffering, and oppression evokes, at best, pity mixed with repugnance.

En route to the Congo, near Grand-Popo, Benin, Conrad saw a French man-of-war, Le Seignelay, shelling a native camp hidden in the jungle. The incident would acquire symbolic import in Heart of Darkness (1899).

On 12 June 1890 the Ville de Maceio reached Boma, 50 miles up from the Congo River estuary. Next day Conrad boarded a small steamer for Matadi, 30 miles farther up, and five miles below the last navigable point on the lower Congo River before rapids make it impassable for a long stretch upriver—the chief Congo seaport, founded as late as 1879 by Henry Morton Stanley. At Matadi Conrad was held up for 15 days and met Roger Casement, who had already been working several years in the Congo. The diary that Conrad kept uniquely for his first 67 days in the Congo shows that he thought very highly of Casement, the future author of a 1904 report on atrocities perpetrated against the native Congolese population, for his own personal profit, by Belgium's King Leopold II.

It was only on 28 June that Conrad could begin the tedious 230-mile overland trek to the port of Kinshasa, which he completed on 2 August 1890. The steamer Florida, which he was to have commanded, had been seriously damaged and was unfit for sailing. In any case, he could not have taken command immediately on an unfamiliar river; next day he boarded the river steamer Roi des Belges (King of the Belgians), commanded by a young Dane, Ludvig Rasmus Koch.

The small, clumsy, noisy river steamer left Kinshasa on 3 August 1890, bound up the Congo River. On the way, over a distance of more than 500 miles, Conrad spotted no more than six villages; later, says Najder, Heart of Darkness would "convincingly depict... the threatening atmosphere of isolation." The country, formerly rich, had been entirely ruined by the effects of Belgian colonization. One of the four company officials aboard the steamer was Alphonse Keyaerts, whose name Conrad would appropriate for the character Kayerts in his other African tale, "An Outpost of Progress" (1897).

On 1 September 1890 the steamer reached Stanley Falls (now Kisangani), then an important Congo Free State government center. On 6 September, Conrad was appointed "to take over the command of the SS Roi des Belges... until the recovery of Captain Koch." This, writes Najder, "constitutes the only basis for Conrad's later claim of having commanded a 'steamer.'" The ship probably left Stanley Falls back for Kinshasa on 7 or 8 September. On board was Georges-Antoine Klein, a young Frenchman who had recently been appointed the company's commercial agent at Stanley Falls. On 21 September, Klein, who had been ill with dysentery, died. His name (later changed to "Kurtz") appears in the manuscript of Heart of Darkness; otherwise the Frenchman seems not to have had much in common with the novel's character.

It is unknown whether or how long Conrad was in command of the Roi des Belges on the way to Kinshasa. When the ship arrived at Bangala on 15 September 1890, Captain Koch was already back in charge.

Arriving back at Kinshasa on 24 September 1890, Conrad found a letter from Maria Bobrowska, in Poland — the daughter of his uncle Tadeusz Bobrowski's brother, Kazimierz Bobrowski; and three letters from Marguerite Poradowska. Conrad wrote Poradowska:

I find everything repugnant here. Men and things, but especially men.... The director is a common ivory-dealer with sordid instincts who imagines himself a merchant while in fact he is only a kind of African shopkeeper. His name is Delcommune. He hates the English, and I am of course regarded as one. While he is here I can hope for neither promotion nor a raise in salary.... I have no vessel to command.... ost of all I regret having tied myself down for three years. True, it is hardly likely that I shall last them out. Either they will pick some groundless quarrel with me to send me home... or another attack of dysentery will send me back to Europe, if not into the other world, which would at last finally solve all my troubles!

Najder traces Conrad's conflicts with Delcommune and the other Société Anonyme Belge employees to the "sordid instincts" that motivated Delcommune and the company. "'Unreliable' persons Korzeniowski... are not admitted to business." Agents were paid high premiums for reducing the costs of obtaining rubber and ivory. Massive deliveries were made compulsory; and punitive expeditions, by members of hostile tribes and cannibals, were sent against non-complying natives. For the natives, the enforced deliveries often meant starvation, since they were left with no time to grow and harvest their crops.

On 26 September 1890 Conrad left Kinshasa by canoe for Bamou, 30 miles down-river, to get wood cut for the construction of the local station. There he fell ill with dysentery and fever. On 19 October he wrote his uncle Bobrowski from Kinshasa that he was unwell and intended to return to Europe. By 4 December he was back at Matadi. It is not known when and on what ship he returned to Europe. In late January 1891 he appeared in Brussels; on 1 February he was in London. His letters do not mention his recent experiences; he apparently wanted only to forget. As would be suggested in Heart of Darkness (1899), Conrad was aware how close he had been to himself becoming one of the European despoilers of Africa. His experiences there reinforced his mistrust of human nature.

Conrad's African experience made him one of the fiercest critics of the "white man's mission." It was also, writes Najder, his most daring and last "attempt to become... a cog in the mechanism of society. By accepting the job in the trading company, he joined, for once in his life, an organized, large-scale group activity on land.... Until his death he remained a recluse... and never became involved with any institution or clearly defined group of people."

Conrad spent some months at loose ends and apparently depressed. At last, on 14 November 1891, he decided to step down in rank and accept a berth as first mate in the passenger clipper ship Torrens. Seven days later the ship left London for Australia, on the way picking up passengers at Plymouth.

It was possibly the finest ship ever launched (1875) from a Sunderland yard. For fifteen years (1875–90), no ship approached her speed for the outward passage to Australia. On her record-breaking run to Adelaide, she covered 16,000 miles (26,000 km) in 64 days. Conrad writes of her:

A ship of brilliant qualities – the way the ship had of letting big seas slip under her did one's heart good to watch. It resembled so much an exhibition of intelligent grace and unerring skill that it could fascinate even the least seamanlike of our passengers.

It was the first time Conrad had served on a passenger boat, and it provided opportunities for social contacts with members of the educated class; Conrad made his first acquaintances with Englishmen who were not seamen. During four long voyages in the Torrens Conrad enjoyed a much more cultivated atmosphere than on any ship he had previously served on.

After a calm passage of a hundred days, on 28 February 1892 the Torrens arrived in Adelaide. Conrad spent over a month in Australia. While he was there, a letter from his uncle Bobrowski informed him that Conrad's cousin Stanisław Bobrowski had been accused, in essence, of social propaganda with "a tint of nationalism" and had been jailed in the same Warsaw Citadel where Conrad's father had once been held.

On 10 April 1892 Conrad left Adelaide in the Torrens and, after 145 days, with stops at Capetown, South Africa, and Saint Helena, on 2 September arrived in London. He stayed there almost two months, undecided about his future; he would have liked to have had a ship's command, but that did not seem in the cards.

On 25 October 1892 he left London again aboard the Torrens. Sea voyages were then considered a health cure, especially for tuberculosis; two convalescing passengers died on the way. Another, William Henry Jacques, a consumptive Cambridge graduate who would die less than a year later (19 September 1893), was, according to Conrad's A Personal Record, the first reader of the still-unfinished manuscript of Almayer's Folly; Jacques encouraged Conrad to continue writing the novel. After a passage of 97 days, on 30 January 1893, the Torrens arrived at Port Adelaide. Writing to Poradowska, Conrad complained of "the uniform grey of my existence" and expressed nostalgia for cultivated life and the broad intellectual interests of his correspondent's milieu.

When the Torrens left Adelaide on 13 March 1893, the passengers included two young Englishmen returning from Australia and New Zealand: 25-year-old lawyer and future novelist John Galsworthy; and Edward Lancelot Sanderson, who was going to help his father run a boys' preparatory school at Elstree. They were probably the first Englishmen and non-sailors with whom Conrad struck up a friendship. The protagonist of one of Galsworthy's first literary attempts, "The Doldrums" (1895–96), the first mate Armand, is obviously modeled on Conrad. At Capetown, where the Torrens remained from 17 to 19 May, Galsworthy left the ship to look at the local mines. Sanderson continued his voyage and seems to have been the first to develop closer ties with Conrad. On 26 July 1893 the Torrens docked at London, and "J. Conrad Korzemowin" (per the certificate of discharge) had, without knowing it, completed his last long-distance voyage as a seaman.

In London, letters awaited him from his Uncle Tadeusz Bobrowski, who was in poor health. They discussed Conrad's prospective visit to the uncle and informed Conrad of the trial of his cousin Stanisław Bobrowski — sentenced to 18 months' imprisonment, not counting over a year spent under arrest, and sent to a St. Petersburg prison.

Conrad resigned from the Torrens, probably because he had lost hope of succeeding his friend W.H. Cope as its captain, and possibly because he was tired of the sailor's profession. He left for Ukraine most likely in early August 1893 and remained with his mentor-uncle at Kazimierówka for over a month. He wrote Poradowska that he had spent five days ill in bed, "nursed as if I were a little child." She, in a letter, made something of a jealous scene over Maria Ołdakowska, a niece of her late husband Aleksander Poradowski who was getting married.

Najder writes that a graph of Conrad's sailing career would be "a broken line, but one that climbs between 1874 and 1889.... The expedition to Africa stops this upward climb and marks the beginning of a steady... decline. After three years the captain is back to being only second mate, and in a ship going nowhere." That ship was the 2,097-ton steamer Adowa (named for a historic town in Ethiopia), which was to carry emigrants from France to Quebec. Conrad signed on in London on 29 November 1893. On 4 December the Adowa put in at Rouen. She was expected to leave 9 December for La Rochelle and from there for Quebec City, but passengers failed to materialize — the French showed no eagerness to join in the late-19th-century waves of emigration to the New World — and the steamer remained idle in France. Writing Poradowska, Conrad considered the possibility of a job as a pilot on the Suez Canal. Bored at Rouen, he there began work on chapter 10 (of the 12 chapters) of Almayer's Folly. He wrote Poradowska jokingly how he was taken at the post office for a bomb-carrying anarchist; France was then the scene of many acts of violence, including bombings.

On 10 January 1894 the Adowa left Rouen for London. On 17 January 36-year-old "J. Conrad" disembarked and unknowingly ended his service at sea.

Six months later, as one of 176 witnesses, he testified before the Board of Trade's Departmental Committee on the Manning of Merchant Ships. He stated that the Adowa was not sufficiently manned, but considered the manning of the Skimmer of the Seas, the Otago and the Torrens satisfactory. Conrad departed from the truth in reporting the length of his service and posts held. He maintained that he had spent 18 months on the Congo River "in command of a steamer," when in fact he had spent only six weeks on the Congo; he also added three months to his command of the Otago, and claimed that he had made two voyages to Mauritius and two passages through Torres Strait; he lengthened his service in the Torrens by three months; and he alleged that he had made a transatlantic voyage in the Adowa. He was silent about his service in French ships, and about all his Continental European connections generally.

In fact, during the 19 years from the time that Conrad had left Kraków in October 1874 until he signed off the Adowa in January 1894, he had worked in ships, including long periods in ports, for 10 years and almost 8 months. He had spent just over 8 years at sea — 9 months of this as a passenger.

He had served as a crew member (steward, apprentice, able-bodied seaman) for over two and a half years (21 months of that at sea); as third mate, 8 months; as second mate (his longest service), almost 4 years (only two and a half years of that at sea); as first mate, two years and three months (two years of that at sea); as captain, one year and two months (half of that at sea). Of his nearly 11 years at sea, 9 months were in steamers.

A bequest from Conrad's uncle and mentor, Tadeusz Bobrowski (who had died on 1 January 1894) — which bequest Conrad, typically, would soon manage to lose — for the moment made it easier for him to retire from the sea and devote himself to a literary career.

Read more about this topic:  Joseph Conrad, Merchant Navy, British Voyages

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