The Dukono Volcano on Halmahera

When our Coral Expeditions cruise arrived in the town of Tobelo on the northwestern arm of the island of Halmahera in October 2018, the Dukono volcano was erupting ash. This should not have been a surprise since research shows that the volcano has been erupting almost continuously  since 1978.

Dukono2

The Dukono volcano as seen from the Coral Discoverer

A rift in the earth’s mantle has caused a sea floor spreading zone between the islands of Sulawesi and Halmahere, causing subduction and related volcanic activity along the edge of both islands. There are sixteen volcanoes on the Halmahera volcanic arc, many of which are still active, and an equal number along the Sangihe volcanic arc.

MoluccaSeaGeologys

This seafloor map shows the central ridge, like the larger mid-Atlantic ridge, formed by the intrusion of oceanic magma. This intrusion causes spreading of the sea floor and the related subduction zones are shown by the seafloor trenches developed on each side of the central ridge . The water filled sediments that are subducted into the earths interior then become superheated, melt the surrounding rocks, and cause the volcanic activity.

Google Map

The related volcanoes can be best seen on this topographical map of Halmahera which shows a line of volcanoes formed along the western side of the island, including the clove islands of Ternate, Tidore, Moti and Makian which are offshore.

800px-Halmahera_Topography

The Dukono volcano is only 10 km from the town of Tobelo. While we were there it was continuously erupting ash, but fortunately the wind was blowing to the northeast and away from the town.

Ash cloud

The Dukono volcano as seen from the town of Tobelo

dukono

A closer view of the erupting Dukono volcano

 

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Joseph Conrad’s EASTERN VOYAGES – Book Review by Mark Heyward

The title caught my eye immediately: Joseph Conrad’s Eastern Voyages, Tales of Singapore and an East Borneo River. The cover, with its image of sailing ships and steamships in Singapore whet my appetite for a bookish journey back to some of my favourite haunts in Indonesia and Southeast Asia.

Ian Burnet’s latest offering follows a now familiar pattern. His no-nonsense prose draws on thorough research and a deep knowledge of Indonesia. But it is his first-hand experience of living, working and travelling in the Indonesian archipelago that brings the narrative to life. A natural storyteller, Burnet writes with a personal touch, as if he is giving a talk on one of his guided trips to Eastern Indonesia. The stories, the cultures and characters of the region are introduced through anecdotes, vignettes and pen portraits which illustrate the broader sweep of history.

Burnet’s first six books explore the history of European exploration and colonization of the region (Spice Islands, East Indies), and its cultures and geography (Archipelago, Where Australia Collides with Asia, The Tasman Map). The new book looks deep into the late colonial era through the lens of Joseph Conrad’s novels. This is a clever device, enabling Burnet to celebrate the novelist and his works, while at the same time exploring this remarkable region in its heyday of travel and commerce at the end of the nineteenth century. It is a universal yet personal tale, told through the intimate stories of individuals, their ambitions and shifting alliances, their loves and hates, and ultimately flawed humanity set against the muddy rivers, the open oceans and the bustling seaports of the time. And all of this resonates with contemporary Southeast Asia. Somehow the characters seem just as real and relevant today as a hundred years ago.

Born to Polish parents in Eastern Europe in 1857, Josef Teodor Konrad Korzenioswki, reinvented himself as Joseph Conrad and joined the British Merchant Marine in 1878, becoming a British citizen in 1886. After a series of voyages to Singapore, Sydney and various ports in what is now Indonesia and Southeast Asia, Conrad received his first and only command, as Captain of the Otago in 1888.

The Otago in heavy seas. State Library of Queensland.

This was the high period of tall ships, when three-masted clippers and windjammers crisscrossed the globe, carrying goods back and forth from Europe to the new worlds of Southeast Asia and shiploads of emigrants to the colonies in the south. But, as Burnet’s book describes, sail was already giving way to steam. The tall ships jostled for position in crowded eastern ports with sampans, junks, bumboats, Bugis schooners and the new steel steamers with their smokestacks, oil slicks and plumes of coal smoke smudging tropical skies.

Conrad’s career as a writer began in 1889. Over the next thirty years he published fourteen books and he is recognized as one of Britain’s greatest novelists. The barque he commanded, the Otago, now lies forgotten in shallow water on the shores of the Derwent River, where I live in Tasmania, her rusting spine a sad memorial to the great age of sail. But Conrad’s books remain to tell the story of that remarkable period.

In An Outcast of the Islands, Conrad laments the passing of the age of sail.

Like a beautiful and unscrupulous woman, the sea of the past was glorious in its smiles, irresistible in its anger, capricious, enticing, illogical, irresponsible; a thing to love, a thing to fear. It cast a spell, it gave joy, it lulled gently into boundless faith; then with quick and causeless anger it killed. But its cruelty was redeemed by the charm of its inscrutable mystery, by the immensity of its promise, by the supreme witchery of its possible favour. Strong men with childlike hearts were faithful to it, were content to live by its grace—to die by its will….

Then a great pall of smoke sent out by countless steam-boats was spread over the restless mirror of the Infinite. The hand of the engineer tore down the veil of the terrible beauty in order that greedy and faithless landlubbers might pocket dividends. The mystery was destroyed. Like all mysteries, it lived only in the hearts of its worshippers. The hearts changed; the men changed. The once loving and devoted servants went out armed with fire and iron, and conquering the fear of their own hearts became a calculating crowd of cold and exacting masters. The sea of the past was an incomparably beautiful mistress, with inscrutable face, with cruel and promising eyes. The sea of to-day is a used-up drudge, wrinkled and defaced by the churned-up wakes of brutal propellers, robbed of the enslaving charm of its vastness, stripped of its beauty, of its mystery and of its promise.

I have always harboured a love of the sea, a willing victim to the romance of sail. Growing up in the remote harbour town of Hobart, how could one not grow to love the sea and her many moods? Living and working for thirty years in Jakarta, Singapore, Makassar and Kalimantan, on the east coast of Borneo, has deepened that love. It is the sea and the vessels who sailed upon her that connect us all, historically linking my hometown of Hobart to the great ports of Southeast Asia and the remote jungle rivers of Borneo. So, Conrad’s fictionalised experiences in Singapore, Kalimantan and Southeast Asia have long intrigued me – and Burnet’s book resonates.

The Vidar in Macassar Harbour. J.C.Rappard

The vibrant bustling jumble of cultures, and the mercantile seafaring world that Conrad conjures up provide a seductive setting for the personal narratives of his novels. In Joseph Conrad’s Eastern Voyages, Tales of Singapore and an East Borneo River, Ian Burnet takes the reader back to that time at the tail end of the 19th Century, when adventurers and opportunists from the various European nations rubbed shoulders, struggling to gain a commercial edge over the Chinese, the Arabs and coastal Malays who traded with the indigenous upriver Dayaks of Borneo. Burnet’s book brings that world back, enlisting Conrad’s prose from Youth to recreate that first taste of Asia that many of us from the ‘West’ have felt.

Suddenly a puff of wind, a puff faint and tepid and laden with strange odours of blossoms, of aromatic wood, comes out of the still night – the first sigh of the East in my face … It was impalpable and enslaving, like a charm, like a whispered promise of mysterious delight.

Burnet’s book follows Joseph Conrad from his early life through to his seafaring years and his eventual retirement to England. He takes us through Conrad’s novels, and the various characters that inhabit them, the books ordered according to the sequence of events they depict from the novelist’s life experience, rather than the year each was published. The text is sprinkled with illustrations from the period, which help to establish the context.

Ian Burnet has captured something of Conrad’s world and something of his own love of Indonesia and the region in Joseph Conrad’s Eastern Voyages. It is a great summer read, and, for me, an enticement – as if I needed one – to escape the confines of my covid exile and return to the islands; to once again taste the sigh of the East in my face.

Mark Heyward

Mark Heyward is an Australian educator who has worked for over 30 years in Indonesia. He has published numerous articles for magazines and national papers in Indonesia and Australia on education, culture, literature, travel and the arts. His book, Crazy Little Heaven, an Indonesian Journey, is now in its second edition in both English and Indonesian.

3rd January, 2022.

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A French Voyage to the Spice Islands 1838

Dutch vessels in Ambon Bay. Louis Le Breton

From 1837 to 1840 the French vessels Astrolabe and Zellee commanded by Dumont d’Urville conducted a scientific expedition around the Pacific including a visit to the Moluccan Islands of Ternate, Ambon, Banda and Ceram. The official ship’s artist had died during the voyage and the Assistant Surgeon, Louis Le Breton had taken over as the ship’s artist. Whatever his skills as a doctor, his artistic skills are remarkable and self-evident from these sketches, paintings and lithographs that he produced.

The Strait in Ternate. Louis Le Breton

In Ternate, enterprising merchants brought out to the ship a large number of stuffed Birds of Paradise. There was a glut of birds because no European ship had called there for months and no fewer than four hundred of these birds changed hands.

The Sultan Mosque in Ternate. Louis Le Breton

After a banquet at the Dutch Residency they attended a reception in their honour by the Sultan of Ternate. The evening began with tea, served in exquisite china the Sultan had received from the Dutch Royal Family. All around the huge whitewashed reception room were luxurious gifts from Holland, which the Sultan showed off with great pride and the evening concluded with traditional dances.

Anchored off Fort Victoria in Ambon Bay. Louis Le Breton

After an uneventful four day voyage from Ternate they anchored off Fort Victoria in Ambon. During their twelve days here, the ships rigging were checked and repaired, water and provisions were replenished and for the officers there were numerous invitations to lunches, dinners and receptions.

Collecting fresh water from a stream in Ambon. Louis Le Breton
The river at Batu Merah in Ambon. Louis le Breton

From Ambon they sailed to the Banda Islands a visit which was marked by the same generous hospitality. D’Urville went with the Dutch Governor to inspect the nutmeg plantations on the island of Lontar and some of the crew climbed the Gunung Api volcano.

Gunung Api and ships in the strait of Banda. Louis Le Breton

From Banda they sailed towards Ceram, the village of Warrou, and then towards the New Guinea coast and the Torres Strait.

The village of Warrou on Ceram. Louis Le Breton
A Mosque in the village of Warrou on Ceram. Louis Le Breton

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The Tasman Map – IMCOS Book Review

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The Wallace Line – Nature’s Great Divide – ABC TV November 30 at 9:30pm

The Orang Hutan in Borneo

Australia Remastered returns to ABC in a 3 part series billed as Australia Remastered: Nature’s Great Divide.

Australia and Asia are divided by a narrow strait that separates the Indonesian islands of Bali and Lombok. Known as the Wallace line, it’s one of the greatest divides in nature. Safe behind this barrier, life in Australia has evolved in isolation, creating species found nowhere else on earth.

A Separate Realm:

While elephants and tigers patrol the lush forests of South East Asia, on the Australian side of the Wallace Line, kangaroos and giant lizards roam across vast plains. Safe from large predators, marsupials and strange monotremes have adapted to survive in Australia’s harsh landscape. This is the story of how Nature’s Great Divide has protected Australia’s wild world, allowing life to evolve in parallel, and creating a separate and unique wild realm.

9:30pm Tuesday November 30 on ABC.

The Komodo Dragon – the last of the Australian megafauna on Komodo Island

Where Australia Collides with Asia

This book follows the epic voyages of natural history of Continent Australia, Joseph Banks, Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace.

The voyage of Continent Australia after it breaks away from Antarctica 50 million years ago with its raft of Gondwanaland flora and fauna and begins its journey north towards the equator.

The voyage of Joseph Banks on the Endeavour who with Daniel Solander became the first trained naturalists to describe the unique flora and fauna of Continent Australia that had evolved during its 30 million years of isolation.

The voyage of Charles Darwin on the Beagle, who after his observations in South America and the Galapagos Islands, sat on the banks of the Coxs River in New South Wales and tried to rationalize his belief in the idea of biblical creation and understand the origin of species.

The voyage of Alfred Russel Wallace, who realized that the Lombok Strait in Indonesia represents the biogeographical boundary between the fauna of Asia and those of Australasia. It was tectonic plate movement that brought these disparate worlds together and it was Alfred Russel Wallace’s ‘Letter from Ternate’ that forced Charles Darwin to finally publish his landmark work ‘On the Origin of Species’.

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Joseph Conrad’s EASTERN VOYAGES at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival

I was recently invited to appear at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival. Moderated by Virania Munaf the session has now been posted on YouTube and to view please follow this link:

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Maps of the Pacific – the Tasman Map remastered

The remastered Tasman Map is now on view at the Maps of the Pacific exhibition which which is being held at the NSW State Library until April 2022. More than 12 months of conservation work has gone into preparing the Mitchell Library’s Tasman Map for its first public outing in 10 years.

Conservator Dana Kahabka consulted international experts and developed an eco-friendly solvent to remove varnish without damaging the map. The 380-hour operation used 6000 cotton swabs, 2400 pieces of abaca tissue and three litres of solvent and is the first time anything like this has been attempted by the Library’s conservation team.

Conservator Dana Kahabka working on the Tasman Map, photo by Joy Lai, (Mitchell Library)

It is believed that Prince Roland Bonaparte, the great-nephew of Napoleon I, had the map varnished and framed after buying it at auction in 1891, and it was in this condition that it arrived at the library in 1933.

The 1644 Tasman Map as received from Princess Marie Bonaparte in 1933 (Mitchell Library)

The work revealed previously obscured details and subtle markings on the seventeenth-century manuscript chart which is was compiled in Batavia in late 1644 or early 1645, as a display map for the Directors of the Amsterdam Chamber of the United Dutch East India Company (VOC).

Following the conservation work the chart was rescanned by the digitisation team.  Joy Lai the Library’s Imaging Specialist, set up strobe lighting in our studio to ensure even illumination across the object.  The chart was digitised in six frames using a high-resolution medium format camera, ensuring maximum colour accuracy was captured across its surface texture and fine detail.   Joy then combined these files to produce a single, master image, approximately 1 gigabyte, 15000 pixels long by 12500 pixels high. This new preservation master reveals the unvarnished surface, providing an opportunity to deep zoom into the intricate features of cartouche and coastlines. 

Detail of the Tasman Map before and after the treatment.

Detail of the Tasman Map before treatment
Detail of the Tasman Map after treatment

The remastered Tasman Map is now on view at the wonderful Maps of the Pacific exhibition which which is being held at the NSW State Library until April 2022.

Maps of the Pacific – Curators Maggie Patton and Alice Tonkinson

Over a period of only forty years from 1606 to 1644 and based on sixteen separate discoveries the first map of Australia took shape. The Tasman Map shows a recognisable outline of the north, west and south coasts of Australia that was not to change for another 125 years until the British explorer James Cook chartered the east coast of Australia. It was in 1925 and 1933 that the Mitchell Library in Sydney, Australia, acquired both the Tasman Huydecoper Journal and the Tasman Bonaparte Map which are icons of both Dutch and Australian History.

The story of the Tasman Map and how the library managed to acquire these treasures of Dutch exploration and cartography are told in the book The Tasman Map which is available for purchase in the Library Bookshop.

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Oxford in Asia paperbacks

First published in 1930 by Jonathan Cape and reissued by Oxford in Asia in 1982. Painting by Walter Spies, 1939

‘Oxford in Asia’ paperbacks present a wide range of books on South-East Asia. Many of these are reissues which were widely acclaimed when first published, while others were overlooked because of the circumstances of their publication and have long been unavailable.

These works include a rich field of literature on the history and culture of South-East Asia and old books of travels. Many of these works are now out of print and only available with difficulty and at great expense. Because of continuing demand from librarians, scholars, and students for much of this literature, since the 1960’s Oxford University Press has been reissuing the most important works on South-East Asia, with the addition of an Introduction written by a specialist.

‘Images of Asia’ offers a rnge of titles covering aspects of life and culture in South-East Asia. Each book in the series combines an introductory text, written for the non-specialist reader, with extensive illustrations both in colour and black and white. ‘Images of Asia’ therefore provides a means of acquiring a deeper understanding and appreciation of the region in all its diversity.

Between the 1960’s and the mid 1990’s Oxford published more than 80 ‘Oxford in Asia’ titles but the series has now been discontinued. With their white covers and often with a book image on the spine they are easily recognised and I have been collecting them for more than twenty years in second-hand bookshops in Sydney, Melbourne, Perth, Bali, Jakarta, Singapore and Amsterdam. I am sure there are more to be found out there and will continue the search.

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Joseph Conrad’s Eastern Voyages – SIGNALS Book Review

Suddenly a puff of wind, a puff faint and tepid and laden with strange odours of blossoms, of aromatic wood, comes out of the still night – the first sigh of the East in my face … It was impalpable and enslaving, like a charm, like a whispered promise of mysterious delight.

Thus begins Ian Burnet’s sixth book inspired by his former working life in the oceanic world of South-East Asia and its great archipelagos, and by his ongoing passion for those people and places. The books have ranged widely over subjects that include the ancient spice trades; colonial enterprises, voyages and map making; geology, geography and anthropology; the great naturalists Banks, Darwin and Wallace – and now into the loftiest realms of English literature. All with a focus on the islands of South-East Asia.


The opening quote is from Joseph Conrad’s semi-autobiographical novella Youth, which recalls his first encounter with the East and his first ‘command’ as a young officer on late 19th-century sailing ships, when he was given charge of one of the lifeboats of a sinking ship. It was the first thing I ever read by this revered giant of English letters, who had once been master of an iron-hulled barque that was quite like James Craig, now moored at the museum’s Wharf 7.

Joseph Conrad

This literary genius, born in Poland as Josef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, mastered English as a fourth language (after Polish, Russian and French). When I read this new book, I realised that it provides a key to understanding Conrad that would have greatly benefited me in my own youth, reading Conrad at high school and as an undergraduate. That’s because author Ian Burnet devotes himself to analysing the two most prominent influences in Conrad’s writing: seafaring and the tantalising East. It’s a perspective that opens up Conrad’s writing to the general reader far more than the many volumes of academic literary criticism that it has attracted for the last century.

Youth was on the English syllabus at my suburban, 1960s Sydney high school, as far from Asia and seafaring as it and my own limited life experiences could possibly be. It’s Conrad at his most accessible and romantic, and it gave me nothing like the struggle I had a few years later trying to digest masses of Conrad as an undergrad weighed down by the canons of English literature. It would take a few years more, after I had become a seafarer myself and been enchanted by my own first encounters with Asia, before I was able to revisit Conrad’s work with a better understanding of his world, and glimpse a good deal of its magic. Although I confess that, to this day, I can find some of his language and sensibilities rather heavy going.


Burnet first interweaves an engaging biography of the writer with accounts of his formative voyages as a merchant seaman. While serving from time to time on steamships, Conrad dedicated himself to sail with a serious, thoughtful passion. Burnet devotes intervening chapters to setting the scene, historically but vividly, of key South-East Asian seaports and coasts that Conrad knew. These included the island of Borneo, British Singapore and Makassar in the Dutch Celebes – vibrant and fascinating sea hubs where Conrad spent time. Another colonial port featuring in this biographical section is Sydney, which Conrad knew quite well. He visited the harbour city first as an ordinary seaman on The Duke of Sutherland in 1879, later as master of his first and only command, the 400-tonne British barque Otago in the late 1880s. This chapter also tells of Conrad’s thwarted love for a charming and beautiful young Frenchwoman in Mauritius, where he sailed as master of Otago. Several years later he married a younger, attractive but unsophisticated Englishwoman, then left the sea to become a highly successful novelist exploring the trials of the human spirit.


On almost every page, Burnet brings his account to life with quotations from Conrad’s own writing, and with a fine selection of historical artworks, lithographs, photographs and maps that give the reader a real taste of that world of ships and exotic shores. In the second half of Joseph Conrad’s Eastern Voyages, Burnet switches to focus on just four of Conrad’s 14 novels.
They are Conrad’s, Almayer’s Folly (1895), An Outcast of The Islands (1896), Lord Jim (1900) and The Rescue (1920). All four works set characters and events in a remote trading station in an obscure sultanate, hidden up a mysterious river in an island of the Dutch East Indies. Conrad gives this river and its trading station different fictional names in different novels, but It’s perhaps most familiar as Patusan in Lord Jim. This is among the most widely-read of his works and reached even larger audiences as a film released in 1965. In this final section, Burnet shows how some of the real, larger-than-life characters of the 19th-century East Indies inspired Conrad’s fictional figures. They include the charismatic trader Tom Lingard, Kaspar Almayer and Lord Jim.

Burnet demonstrates how the great novelist’s earlier life as a merchant seafarer in South-East Asia gave him the intimate knowledge of its people, customs, tropical lands, and seascapes. From this background emerges his vivid cast of sultans, warriors, traders, beachcombers and lovers. But Conrad was also able to observe with critical distance the actions of British and Dutch colonialists. Conrad never gives the real name of that hard-to-find jungle river. After I gained some personal knowledge of the Indonesian archipelago, I remember re-reading Lord Jim and figuring Patusan was in Sumatra.

Not even close! So I’m much indebted to Burnet for showing me where it actually was. In 1887–88 Conrad made repeated voyages as first mate on a little Tyne-built, auxiliary-sail coasting steamer called Vidar. Owned by an Arab merchant, its run was from Singapore to Makassar and on to a trading post up the Berau River of East Borneo (now known as Kalimantan in Indonesia). Burnet demonstrates that this was the river of Lord Jim, Almayer’s Folly and An Outcast of the Islands. Detailed maps show every arm and reach of the river that feature in Conrad’s stories. And for the pleasure of ship-loving readers like this reviewer, he’s even located an image showing SS Vidar in Makassar.

The trading ship Vidar in Macassar

As a final footnote, the riveted-iron remnant hulk of Conrad’s command Otago can be visited at low tide, on the eastern shore of the Derwent River in Tasmania. It rests opposite Hobart’s famous MONA art museum, while the ship’s handsome companionway is preserved in the Maritime Museum of Tasmania. That’s a modest maritime-literature pilgrimage I once made myself on a Hobart holiday … perhaps to atone for undervaluing this great writer when I was a younger reader.

Jeffrey Mellefont is the former editor of Signals and an Honorary Research Associate of the Australian National Maritime Museum. This article is from Signals Quarterly 136, 2021.

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Asian Review of Books – Joseph Conrad’s EASTERN VOYAGES

Joseph Conrad (1857-1924) is perhaps the most famous example of a multicultural writer in the history of British literature. His novels have been translated, serialized, made into movies, and taught at numerous schools and universities throughout the English-speaking world and beyond. His multicultural credentials are impressive: he was born Józef Teodor Nalęcz (Ian Burnet misses this one in his recent study: it was the name of the Polish noble family to which Conrad belonged) Konrad Korzeniowski in Berdychev, Ukraine, then part of the Russian Empire and formerly a town in the Kingdom of Poland. His father Apollo was a Polish poet, translator of Shakespeare and a dedicated Polish patriot. Conrad’s first language was Polish, of course, and he learned Latin at school, but he added German, French and finally English to the list. He also knew some Russian but avoided using it for patriotic reasons. 

Joseph Conrad by George Charles Beresford
National Portrait Gallery

A good half of Conrad’s published books, including the better-known ones such as Lord Jim (1900) and An Outcast of the Islands (1896) were set in Asian lands, notably in what are now Malaysia and Indonesia, with Heart of Darkness (1899), perhaps his most famous work, being set in the Congo and Nostromo (1904) in South America. His very first novel in English, Almayer’s Folly, appeared in 1895, and is set in Borneo with a Java-born Dutch protagonist. Other places featured in his novels include London, Geneva, Marseilles, and St. Petersburg. Conrad also wrote “Prince Roman”, a story based on Polish history, but Poland itself does not play a part in his novels, which, together with his identification as an “English” writer, caused a certain amount of anxiety amongst his fellow-writers in Poland, who questioned his patriotism. In the end, as he himself put it, Conrad wrote in English because ‘it was I who was adopted by the genius of the language … which made me its own so completely that its very idioms, I truly believe, had a direct action on my temperament’.

Joseph Conrad’s EASTERN VOYAGES (Alfred Street Press, 2021)

Ian Burnet, an Australia-based traveler, writer and historian who is well-acquainted with the former Dutch East Indies, sets out in this handsomely-produced book to show how Conrad “was able to convert actual events of his own experience into enduring fiction,” referring to Conrad’s own statement that he had written his books “in retrospect of what I saw and learnt during the first thirty-five years of my life.” This being said, though, Burnet is aware that not all Conrad’s output is autobiographical, and he finds most of his material in the earlier works like Almayer’s FollyAn Outcast of the IslandsLord Jim and The Rescue (1920, but begun over twenty years earlier). These four novels, all based in Borneo, had characters based on people Conrad had met or known in his eastern voyages; Burnet works backwards with the material, reordering the narrative sequence and focusing on background material to definitively link Conrad’s life with the events of the novels, effectively building on Conrad’s own retrospective memory and quoting liberally from the novels to connect the fictional and non-fictional worlds.

The result is interesting—Burnet is not a literary scholar, but an enthusiastic and intelligent reader of Conrad, which makes this book ideal to read if one is curious about Conrad but not that well-acquainted with his books; it is not much use for scholars of Conrad. He attempts to describe a world with which the creator of the fiction (Conrad) interacts with his own past through his writings, and has unearthed illustrations to enhance his narrative. He traces the ships mentioned by Conrad to their real-world counterparts and gives biographical information on the actual people on whom Conrad modeled his characters.

The trading ship Vidar in Macassar Harbour
J.C.Rappard, Antique Maps of Indonesia

Most of this information may be found elsewhere, but Burnet is quite good at describing people and scenes, especially the latter, as he has been there himself, smelt the air, felt the heat and eaten the food. Prefacing Chapter 7, “East Borneo”, is a quote from Lord Jim in which Conrad writes about the Dutch and English traders’ “passion for pepper”, which “seemed to burn like a flame of love” within them and which made them “defy death in a thousand shapes; the unknown seas, the loathsome and strange diseases; wounds, captivity, hunger, pestilence, and despair.” For Burnet himself as a boy, though, the name Borneo suggested “Malay Sultans, White Rajahs, fierce pirates and beautiful princesses. Wild rivers and steamy jungles filled with tattooed head-hunters armed with poisoned blowpipes” [sic]. Well, Conrad serves up all of these and more, which lets us understand how the adult Burnet became absorbed with his books.

This having been said, there are some things about this book that are problematic. Burnet keeps formal analysis to a minimum, simply matching events and places to the novels and providing background information. He does, however, offer some opinions and quote contemporary reviews. He observes, for example, that Conrad’s protagonist Willems in An Outcast of the Islands is “a victim of his own illusions, of his search for material gratification, and finally his obsession with the beautiful and erotic Aissa.” He suggests that Almayer was “a failure, an anti-hero”, and that “for that time” (1899) Almayer’s Folly “had a very un-English perspective.” For a Conrad scholar or someone who is well-acquainted with the novels, these observations are commonplaces, but it has to be remembered that this isn’t a work of literary criticism, however frustrating it is to readers who want a bit more.

These reservations aside, I would nonetheless recommend this book to readers who are not familiar with Conrad,  but are seeking an informative introduction to this difficult writer’s life and works.

John Butler recently retired as Associate Professor of Humanities at the University College of the North in The Pas, Manitoba, Canada, and has taught at universities in Canada, Nigeria and Japan. He specializes in early modern travel-literature (especially Asian travel) and seventeenth-century intellectual history. His books include an edition of Sir Thomas Herbert’s Travels in Africa, Persia and Asia the Great (2012) and most recently an edition of Sir Paul Rycaut’s Present State of the Ottoman Empire (1667) and a book of essays, Off the Beaten Track: Essays on Unknown Travel Writers.

Please note that EASTERN VOYAGES was not written as an academic text. As stated in the very first sentence of the book ‘The life of Josef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski reads like an adventure story, an adventure story written by somebody like Joseph Conrad’. So perhaps it is best described as an adventure story with a literary twist. For some reason John Butler has mainly chosen to review the book from the point of view of an academic text which is surprising but it goes to prove that at least in this case ‘once an academic then always an academic.’

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Best-Selling Dutch Biography Books

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