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.


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.


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.


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


A closer view of the erupting Dukono volcano


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Joseph Conrad’s Eastern World – National Geographic, March 1924

The Earth is a stage, and though it may be an advantage, even to the right comprehension of the play, to know its exact configuration, it is always the drama of human endeavour that will be the thing, with a ruling passion expressed by outward action, marching perhaps blindly to success or failure, which themselves are often undistinguishable from each other at first.

Of all the sciences, geography finds its origin in action, and, what is more, in adventurous action of the kind that appeals to sedentary people, who like to dream of arduous adventure in the manner of prisoners dreaming behind their bars of all the hardships and hazards of liberty, dear to the heart of man.

Joseph Conrad, National Geographic, March 1924

No region on his voyages across the world inspired Joseph Conrad more than the lush, green archipelago’s of South East Asia, the ancient city of Bangkok; the busy port of Singapore, awhisper with sea intrigue; the resource- rich forests of Borneo; the steamy, storm-crossed seas of South China, Celebes and Java; and the pirate-pillaged straits of Macassar and Malacca; these are the settings for the stories and novels of Conrad’s early work.

Keppel Harbour, Singapore, 1850’s

As shown in this painting of a Singapore harbour, Conrad’s time in the East coincided with the last days of sail, the rise of steam and the high water mark of colonial trade. His stories of Dutch traders, English adventurer’s, Brunei rovers and Malay, Bugis and Arab rulers unfold against a backdrop of exotic island landscapes, reef-sharpened shallows, and deadly straits. Conrad’s characters develop within a climate heavy with the threat of monsoon, typhoon or tsunami.

The Journeys that inspired the South Seas stories, National Geographic Magazine, 1924.
Please click and enlarge to see the details of his voyages and his books.

Joseph Conrad serves as first officer on the trading vessel Vidar from August 22, 1887 to January 4, 1888. His voyages along the treacherous Karimata and Macassar Strait to Tanjung Redeb in East Borneo inspired his books – Almayers Folly, An Outcast of the Islands, Lord Jim, Victory and The Rescue.

Plan of the trading ship Vidar

The Vidar was a Singapore ship captained by James Craig, with Joseph Conrad as the Chief Officer, two British engineers and a crew of Malays, Chinese and Indians from Singapore. Most of their cargo of English and Dutch goods would be unloaded in Macassar before they sailed on to collect rubber, rattan and other archipelago goods in the remote trading post of Tanjung Redeb on the northeast coast of Borneo, which became Sambir or Patusan in his books.

The Vidar in Macassar, 1883, J.C.Rappard

Joseph Conrad’s Eastern Voyages – Tales of Singapore and an East Borneo River

Ian Burnet’s book, published this year, is a very welcome addition to a complex area of Conrad’s life and writing. It is a curious feature of Conrad studies that few Conrad scholars have been to many of the places in the region that feature in his Malay fiction, and it is refreshing to read a book that contains Burnet’s knowledge of Indonesia and of Singapore. This, and his sensitive response to Conrad himself, make themselves felt throughout the short book, a book that would be justifiably classed as suggested reading for any reader or student of Conrad’s works set in this part of the world’.

Andrew Francis – Joseph Conrad Society of America

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The Struggle for Indonesian Independence – Hatta and Sjahrir in exile in Banda

Mohammad Hatta ditangkap oleh Pemerintah Colonial pada 25 Februari 1934, dan dipenjarakan di Penjara Glodok. Sebelum ia di berankatkan ke Boven Digul, Hatta diizinkan keluar selama tiga hari untuk mengepak buku-bukanya dalan enam belas peti. Pada salah satu hari itu foto ini dibuat di Kebon Jeruk nomor 37.

After his return from the Netherlands in 1932. Mohammad Hatta was arrested by the Colonial Government on 25 February 1934 and jailed in Glodok prison until his deportation to Boven Digul in January 1935. Before his departure he was allowed to pack up his books in sixteen chests. This picture was taken on one of those days at Kebon Jeruk number 37.

Mohammad Hatta at home with his mother and sisters

Hatta and Sjahrir were moved from Boven Digul arriving on the colonial vessel Fomalhaut on February 11 1936, and were greeted by a large crowd while landing in Banda Neira.

Hatta and Sjahrir temporarily stayed in the house of a fellow exile Tjipto Mangunkusumo for a week until they were able to move to their own residence which happened to be next to the jail. A few months later Sjahrir decided to move to another residence.

Dr. Tjipto Mangunkusumo and his wife

Rumah Pengasinan Sutan Sjahrir
Sutan Sjahrir on Banda with members of the Alwi family

In total their were sixteen political detainees living in Banda from 1880 until 1942 as listed in this memorial erected by Des Alwi.

To occupy their time Hatta and Sjahrir opened an afternoon school for the children of Banda Neira. Hatta gave lessons to the older children and Sjahrir to the younger ones. The house has been restored as a national memorial and the desks and the blackboard from the school are in place in the rear of the Hatta house.

Exile Residence of Mohammad Hatta
The school in the rear of the house

After Pearl Harbour was attacked by the Japanese in December 1941, the Dutch Governor General in Batavia ordered that Hatta and Sjahrir be brought back to Java. In the early morning of January 31, 1942 a Catalina seaplane of the American Navy landed in the harbour and according to Sjahrir:

We had to leave before daylight, because otherwise it would not be possible. The Japanese were in Ambon and their planes were expected to follow the Catalina at any moment. All of Banda was on the dock – half awake, half dressed, unwashed, and frightened – to see us off.

On July 7, 1942 Soekarno returned to Batavia from his ten years of exile in Sumatra. Soon after his return, he, Hatta and Sjahrir met to plan their response to the Japanese occupation and their plans for Indonesian independence. It was agreed that for the time being Soekarno and Hatta would cooperate with the Japanese, while Sjahrir and his friends , who were anti-fascist democrats would be active in the underground with the goal of resurrecting the nationalist movement.

After the bombing of Hiroshima and the Japanese surrender on August 15, 1945 then on August 17, 1945 Soekarno and Hatta proclaimed the independence of the Republic of Indonesia.

The Proclamation of Independence
Admiral Maeda, Soekarno and Hatta at the Proclamation of Independence, August 17, 1945

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Singapore – Saint Joseph’s (The Portuguese Church)

I )used to spend a lot of time doing research in the National Library of Singapore. From the upper levels I would look down on the church across the road without knowing of its significance. However, one day I wandering across to the church and discovered that this was the site for one of the earliest churches in Singapore.

Memorial for the founder of the Church the Reverend Francisco da Silva Pinto e Maia

The history of Saint Joseph’s Church and that of its predecessor, the Church of São José, both built on the same site, is inextricably linked with the Portuguese Mission. Father Francisco da Silva Pinto e Maia of Porto arrived from Goa in 1826 and founded the Mission in Singapore. When he died in 1850, he left his money and some land for the building of a small church. The church, which was called São José, was built by the priest who succeeded him from 1851 to 1853, to mainly serve the Portuguese and Eurasian Catholics in Singapore.

Coat of Arms of the Diocese of Macao

The present Saint Joseph’s Church was completed in 1912 and blessed by the then Bishop of Macau, João Paulino de Azevedo e Castro, who was the impetus behind this project.

Saint Joseph’s church on Victoria Street, Singapore.

The plan of the church was laid in the form of a Latin cross. The interior is a single large space roofed by a wooden barrel-vault instead of a gothic-style ceiling. Neither the nave nor the transepts have aisles. It is currently painted in white, with blue details, like the exterior. The west front has three towers: a central octagonal tower capped by a dome flanked by two smaller towers.

The Altar and the domed ceiling

A significant segment of the Eurasian community in Singapore in the early days were baptised and married here. It was known as the “Eurasian Church”, with successive generations of families such as the de Costas, the d’Cottas, the de Souzas, the de Mellos, the Deskers, the Fernandezes, the Gomeses, the Josephs, the Pereiras, the Pintos, the Tessensohns and many more, among its parishioners.

Looking towards the entrance to the Church.

What I appreciated about the church was the decorative Portuguese terracotta tiles that formed its floor. The church has been closed for five years while it was fully renovated and recently reopened in June 2022. This panoramic image shows the newly restored church and the decorative floor tiles.

To maintain the Portuguese character of the church, the Bishop of Macau continued to post priests to the church until 31 December 1999, when the rector of the church, Father Benito de Sousa, ended his term and the Bishop of Macau had decided to stop sending missionaries to the church. So, the last link between Saint Joseph’s Church and the Portuguese Mission was severed.

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Batavia – Gereja Sion (The Portuguese Church)

Detail from this 1780 map of Batavia shows a Church labelled Jassen Kerk (top left) outside the walls of Batavia.

The Gereja Sion, built around 1693, is the oldest building in Jakarta that is still used for its original purpose and the Church’s massive columns and walls have allowed it to stand for over three hundred years. The site of the original church was built outside the walls of Batavia for the so-called black Portuguese. These Portuguese mestizos who were a class of  prisoners of war and indentured labourers, who also happened to be Catholic, and were captured after the VOC victories at Malacca and Galle then brought to Batavia. Later known as the Mardijkers after they were given their freedom in 1661 and granted land at Kampung Tugu in North Jakarta.

On Christmas Day I decide to attend the morning service at Jakarta’s oldest standing church, the Gereja Sion, which is also known as the ‘Portuguese Church’. Greeting the worshippers at the massive wooden doors are the elders of the church, who call me an Orang Belanda, meaning a Dutchman but now used in Indonesia as a generic term for a white person of any nationality. The worshippers were a mixture of the community but are predominantly Batak Christians from North Sumatra and Chinese Christians from Kota. 

Gereja Sion003
The Portuguese Church, J.W.Heydt, 1739
Gereja Sion over 314 years old

In the Church grounds is a very elaborate bronze grave marker of a former VOC Governor-General, Henrick Zwaardecroon

The gravestone of VOC Governor-General Henrick Zwaardecroon

The arched roof of the church is supported by six huge white columns rising from the basalt floor and surmounted by solid teak beams. Hanging from the ceiling are four huge brass chandeliers adorned with emblems of the Dutch East India Company. Around the walls are numerous Dutch memorial plaques and I quickly realise that it is a Dutch church.

Gereja Sion004
Interior of the ‘Portuguese Church’, J.C.Rappard, 1888
Interior of the Church as it is today
‘Gereja Portugis’ J.C.Rappard 1888

The original Portuguese church burnt down in 1628 and the only reason it is known as the ‘Portuguese Church’ today is because of its location on the former site of a church built outside the main walls of Batavia for the Portuguese community. A wooden plaque in the presbytery describes the foundation of the current church:

The first stone of this Church was laid on 19th October 1693 by the youth Pieter van Hoorn and it has been built at the orders of the Honourable Government of these countries under the rule of the Church-wardens the honourable Joan van Hoorn, Director General and the Honourable Joan Lammertse Radde, Vice President of the aldermen of this town.

Gereja Sion008

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Joseph Conrad, a voyage to Mauritius

In 1888 the barque Otago was commissioned to sail to Mauritius with general cargo and return with a cargo of sugar. As captain of the Otago, Joseph Conrad sought the permission of the owners to take the more difficult, but more direct route to Mauritius by sailing north from Sydney through the Torres Strait, rather than trying to beat west in the southern ocean against the prevailing winds.

The Otago in heavy seas – State Library of Queensland

As he later wrote in Last Essays:

All of a sudden, all the deep-lying historic sense of the exploring ventures in the Pacific surged to the surface of my being. Almost without reflection I sat down and wrote a letter to my owners suggesting that, instead of the usual southern route, I should take the ship to Mauritius by way of the Torres Strait. I ought to have received a severe rap on the knuckles, if only for wasting their time in submitting such an unheard of proposition.

Conrad never expected the owners to agree to his suggestion, but to his great surprise they raised no objection. An additional insurance premium had to be paid for that route but it would also save time at sea. He left Sydney in a terrible south-easterly gale to the great dismay of the pilot and the tug-master who guided the Otago out of the harbour. By choosing to sail through the Torres Strait, Conrad was choosing to sail in the wake of the historic voyages of exploration made by Luis Vaz de Torres in 1606 and Lieutenant James Cook in 1770, as well as the voyage of desperation made by Captain William Bligh after the mutiny on the Bounty in 1789. He recalls the voyage with considerable pride:

It was not without a certain emotion that commanding very likely the first, and certainly the last, merchant ship that carried a cargo that way – from Sydney to Mauritius – I put her head at daybreak for Bligh’s Entrance, and packed on her every bit of canvas she could carry. Windswept, sunlit empty waters were all around me, half-veiled by a brilliant haze.

Conrad carefully navigated the Otago through the reefs, tides, currents and shallows of the Torres Strait before exiting into the Arafura Sea. With favourable south-east trade winds they reached Mauritius in 54 days where he unloaded his cargo. The island, renowned for the scenery of its central mountains and tropical forests, was known as ‘The Pearl of the Ocean’. Port Louis had a lazy, unhurried French colonial charm and was known for its beauty and the ethnic diversity of its Indo-Mauritian and Creole population.

Conrad enjoyed his time in Port Louis and especially the opportunity to mix with a French-speaking society. His excellent French and perfect manners opened all the local salons to him and he became a frequent guest of the Renouf family. He joined them for tea parties, dinners and carriage rides down the palm-lined avenues of the Jardin des Pamplemousses. For Conrad, who had lived for years without family ties, the Renouf residence and the Renouf family would have been like the home he never had.

A Portrait of Maud Coats by John Singer Sargent

He seems to have fallen in love with the charming and beautiful 26 year-old Eugénie Renouf and in his book The Planter of Malanta he writes of a young lady who could possibly be a memory of his lost love, the beautiful Eugénie:

That young lady came and sat down by me.  She said: ‘Are you French, Mr. Renouard?’” He breathed a whiff of perfume of which he said nothing either — of some perfume he did not know.  Her voice was low and distinct.  Her shoulders and her bare arms gleamed with an extraordinary splendor, and when she advanced her head into the light he saw the admirable contour of the face, the straight fine nose with delicate nostrils, the exquisite crimson brushstroke of the lips on this oval without colour. 

The expression of the eyes was lost in a shadowy mysterious play of jet and silver, stirring under the red coppery gold of the hair as though she had been a being made of ivory and precious metals changed into living tissue.

There must have been a mutual feeling between them and before leaving Port Louis a love struck Conrad asked the eldest of the Renouf brothers for the hand in marriage of Eugénie. Obviously the family did not regard a sea-captain as a suitable match and he was told she was already engaged to marry her cousin, a fact which had not been mentioned by Eugénie in their private conversations. Hurt and heartbroken by this rebuff, Conrad did not pay a farewell visit to the family but sent a polite letter to Gabriel Renouf, saying he would never return to Mauritius and adding that on the day of her wedding his thoughts would be with the couple.

The Otago then sailed for Melbourne and Sydney with her cargo of sugar and a few short trips from Sydney to Adelaide to load wheat followed. When the owners requested that Conrad continue in the sugar trade and make a second voyage to Mauritius, he refused to return and signed off from the Otago in March 1889.

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Jan Poortenaar – An Artist in Java

When first we conceived the plan of spending an undefined period in that “Somewhere East of Suez” , where the tropical East stretches an arm of land three thousand miles long towards Australia, we did it with the light-hearted cheerfulness of enthusiasts. We loved travel and here were strange sights and stranger peoples, other skies, other men, other manners; we loved the arts, and here we could practise music and painting and literature, my wife, Geertruida van Vladeracken, giving concerts as we went. I filling sketch-books, and both of us concocting this book of our impressions. We should be brought in touch, moreover, with the surviving native art of these vast islands, and in particular with the exquisite theatre art of the Wayang and of the Court dancing which had already attracted the attention of European theatre lovers by its tradition of exotic beauty. So it was to be an art journey through the Eastern Tropics, a quest of beauty and interest, with some little air of the Troubadour about it; for had we not songs for sale?

Jan Poortenaar – An Artist in Java

This little known book was the outcome of a leisurely journey made by a Dutch artist and his wife through Indonesia – then the Dutch East Indies – in the 1920’s. Jan Poortenaar travelled extensively in Indonesia with his wife Geertruida van Vladeracken who performed as a singer/reciter and was accompanied by Poortenaar on piano.

The Haughty Durmagati (Javanese Actor)

In Solo they were invited to the court of H.R.H. the Soesoekan Pakoe Boewono X, and in Yogya to the court of H.R.H. the Sultan Hamengkoeboewono VIII. There they had the opportunity to see the noble Serimpi dancers and Wayang players, which Poortenaar rendered in colourful oils and watercolours. 

The King of Awangga (Javanese Actor)

They spent most of their time in Java but also visited Madura, Bali, Sulawesi, Kalimantan and Sumatra. Jan Poortenaar was clearly a skilled artist who could provide with pencil and brush, a decorative interpretation of a beautiful country with a rich artistic life such as Indonesia. There are included in the book fifty-five of his sketches and paintings of all parts of Indonesia.

A Javanese Village

The Indonesian landscape inspired Poortenaar to execute a major series of large etchings related to the many places they visited. Poortenaar and his wife recorded their journeys throughout Indonesia in Een kunstreis in de Tropen, later translated as ‘An artist in Java, and other Islands of Indonesia’. His writing was intensely visual in its descriptions, as only an artist would make it; and through his highly placed introductions, he could give a reader glimpses into Javanese life rarely observed by the casual visitor.

Two Javanese

At another level, the book is also interesting because of its observant portrayal of the Dutch social life of the period, with its extremes of formal and informal behaviour. Thus this is an unusual book, which is other than an art book, other than a travel book, and other than a diary.

Portrait of a Javanese Boy

It is notable that they also travelled to the outer islands of Sulawesi, Kalimantan and Sumatra. This was because the Artist’s wife Geertruida van Vladeracken was performing as part of a concert tour, which was the basis of their journey, and she was also part author, part translator, and certainly inspirer of this book.

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Book Review from the Joseph Conrad Society of America

The following is an extract from a book review in Joseph Conrad Today a publication of the Joseph Conrad Society of America.

Ian Burnet’s book, published this year, is a very welcome addition to a complex area of Conrad’s life and writing. It is a curious feature of Conrad studies that few Conrad scholars have been to many of the places in the region that feature in his Malay fiction, and it is refreshing to read a book that contains Burnet’s knowledge of Indonesia and of Singapore. This, and his sensitive response to Conrad himself, make themselves felt throughout the short book, a book that would be justifiably classed as suggested reading for any reader or student of Conrad’s works set in this part of the world

… Burnet’s book is not literary-critical, and it makes no pretence to being so. His confident and wide-ranging contextual account, combined effectively with his relating of the plots and features of the Borneo novels themselves, provides a powerful sense of the lived reality through which Conrad passed and on which he drew. This enables the reader to gain a reliable grasp of the enormous achievement of Conrad’s Malay fiction in its systematic engagement with a culture not his own but of significance to at least “all of Europe”—like Kurtz—for its interpretation of historical roots in a world that colonialism relentlessly and cruelly changed, and for its portrayal of the human condition through the characters that Conrad portrays inhabiting such a world. Burnet quotes the well-known comment by Henry James to Conrad in 1906 that: “No one has known—for intellectual use—the things you know, and you have, as the artist of the whole matter, an authority that no one has approached” . “The whole matter” is a phrase potent in its conciseness and significance, and Burnet’s book skillfully provides an insight into part of the whole matter regarding the Archipelago that often remains obscure.

Andrew Francis

Andrew Francis received his PhD from the University of Cambridge in 2010. He has published in The Conradian and contributed to The New Cambridge Companion to Joseph Conrad. His book entitled Culture and Commerce in Conrad’s Asian Fiction was published in 2015.

To read the full book review on my website then please follow the link below:

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Pulau Kumba is erupting! – Part 2

In 1849 the British naval ship, HMS Maeander, captained by Henry Keppel sailed from Singapore to Batavia (Jakarta) then to Australia, New Zealand and across to the Pacific coast of the United States.

HMS Maeander by Oswald Brierly

Pulau Kumba is located in the Flores Sea of Eastern Indonesia and lies north of the island of Lembata. The island must be sitting over a hot spot in the earth’s mantle as it seems to have been actively erupting over many years. While sailing the Indonesian archipelago HMS Maeander encountered what they called Comba Island and Oswald Brierly produced this dramatic painting.

HMS Maeander at Comba Island,1849, Oswald Brierly
From ‘A visit to the Indian Archipelago’ by Captain Henry Keppel.

The sailing ship Vega stopped at Pulau Kumba in 2015 and its captain Shane Granger took this beautiful photograph of the island, its still active volcano and an unusual smoke ring.

Pulau Kumba an active volcanic island in the Flores Sea
The location of Pulau Kumba

We visited there with the Ombak Putih in 2016 but the eruption was not quite as spectacular.

Pulau Kumba is erupting

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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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