Joseph Conrad’s EASTERN VOYAGES – Tales of Singapore and an East Borneo river

The life of Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski reads like an adventure story, an adventure story written by somebody like Joseph Conrad.

During the twenty years from the time that he left Poland in October 1874 until he signed off his last vessel in January 1894, Konrad had worked in ships. For fifteen of those years he served under the Red Ensign as a British merchant seaman and Konrad describes it as ‘the finest day in his life’ when in 1880 and at the age of twenty-three he received his certificate as a second mate in the British Merchant Navy. Eventually Konrad would make his home in England and apply for British nationality which was granted in 1886.

Konrad’s favoured destination was Asia, the bustling transit port of Singapore, the remote islands and ports of the Dutch East Indies. It was from Singapore that he made four voyages as first mate on the steamship Vidar to a small trading post which was forty miles up a river on the east coast of Borneo. A river and a settlement which he described as ‘One of the last, forgotten, unknown places on earth’ and where he would meet the people, places and events that he describes in his first novels.

Towards the end of his sailing career, at the age of 35, with no ship and no immediate prospect of a command, his days were empty. Idle in London he began to write of his experiences of the people he had met at that isolated trading post on the Berau River in Eastern Borneo. The idea of writing an entire book was then outside his imagination, but the characters he had met in Borneo began to visit him in the front sitting room of his furnished apartment in a Pimlico square.

About half of everything Joseph Conrad ever wrote takes place in South-East Asia, six novels, plus more than a dozen short stories and novellas, which are all evocative of the exotic east. Although his love was for sailing ships and the world’s great oceans, his voyages on the tramp ship Vidar to the Java Sea, the Macassar Strait and the east coast of Borneo, inspired more of Conrad’s fiction than any other period in his life. His Borneo books – Almayer’s Folly, An Outcast of the Islands, Lord Jim and The Rescue were all based the places he had visited, the stories he had heard, and the people he had met during his voyages in the Indonesian archipelago. It is his excellent visual memory of people, landscape, estuaries, rivers, climate, jungle foliage, commerce, local politics, religion and dress that bring his fictional world to life. 

In Almayer’s Folly Conrad introduces us to the anti-hero of his first two novels, who is based on a Dutchman born in Java known as Charles Olmeijer, the resident trader of that small outpost on the Berau River. He left a deep impression on Conrad because of the vastness of his ambitions compared to his derelict appearance and his actual situation. Conrad later wrote that ‘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’.

Almayer’s Folly, was published in 1895 under the anglicised name of Joseph Conrad and he then devoting himself full-time to writing. He wrote slowly, always struggling with deadlines and anxious about money. Although his work was frequently interrupted by agonising periods of writer’s block and persistent illnesses, he went on to write some 20 novels as well as some of the world’s greatest short fiction. His books were a critical success but he only obtained commercial success late in his career after the publication of Chance, one of his few novels that had a happy ending.

Conrad was important because he was an outsider who had not grown up with the popular myths of the glory of the British Empire. He became British but viewed the world from a non-British perspective and was one of the first English writers of the period to pierce the popular assumptions of superiority that had grown up around the British Empire, colonials and colonial life. The place he now occupies in letters is as the English critic Walter Allen wrote – ‘Conrad’s best work represents a body of achievement unequalled in English fiction this century by any writer except Henry James’. While Henry James wrote in a letter to Conrad – ‘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’. Conrad’s greatness lies in his ability to create an absolutely convincing illusion of reality and for Joseph Conrad his greatest honour was to have his novels regarded as English classics in his own lifetime and despite the fact that English was not his native language.

My interest in Conrad began when I arrived in Indonesia from the sea and as a young man around the same age as Joseph Conrad. During my years of residence and my travels throughout the archipelago, I, like Conrad, fell in love with its peoples, its extraordinary mixture of races, religions, languages, cultures and its endlessly fascinating history.

In his writing Conrad was able to convert actual events of his own experience into enduring fiction and he once said that everything about his life can be found in his books. Because the material for his tales of Singapore and a Borneo River are mainly autobiographical, in the following chapters I am able to use a mixture of my words, together with his, to tell this story of Joseph Conrad’s eastern voyages and how he made the connection between his own life experiences and the characters and events in his first novels.

Almayer’s Folly, The Outcast of the Islands and The Rescue are often referred to as the Lingard Trilogy because of the continuing role of Tom Lingard, the ‘Rajah Laut’ or ‘King of the Sea’. It should be noted that the narrative sequence of these novels is in the reverse of the order in which they were written. In the latter part of this book I have taken the liberty to place the parts of these novels into their proper narrative sequence and focus on the back-story of his characters, which will, I hope, make it easier for readers to discover or rediscover Conrad’s genius.

About ianburnet

Author of the book, Spice Islands. Which tells the History, Romance and Adventure of the spice trade from the Moluccas in Eastern Indonesia over a period of 2000 years. Author of the book, East Indies.Which tells the history of the struggle between the Portuguese Crown, the Dutch East India Company and the English East India Company for supremacy in the Eastern Seas. Author of the book 'Archipelago - A Journey Across Indonesia'. Author of the book 'Where Australia Collides with Asia' Author of the book 'The Tasman Map'. Author of the book 'Eastern Voyages'.
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5 Responses to Joseph Conrad’s EASTERN VOYAGES – Tales of Singapore and an East Borneo river

  1. Heath McMichael says:

    Ian, Very glad to see your focus on Conrad and his wonderfully descriptive accounts of life in nineteenth century eastern Indonesia. I enjoyed reading his novel, ‘Victory’ a few years ago. It is set, in part, in Surabaya. Do you discuss that story in your book? Best regards, Heath McMichael, Canberra.

    • ianburnet says:

      Thanks Heath. Victory is a great story but I will have to include it in another book. For EASTERN VOYAGES I have focussed on the Borneo stories, the Berau River and Tom Lingard.

  2. Hilary Da Costa says:

    Wonderful, as a former traveller in remarkable indonesia, to have all those memories awoken. I love reading your blog and hope to read all your books in the near future. I hope they are still all available from the Bookshop of the State Library where I am also a frequent visitor. As an aside, and in a specific instance, when I had the good fortune to visit Samarinda in East Kalimantan in 1993, it was Conrad who was clearly evoked in my responses and then my thoughts were turned to the film of Apocalypse Now! Thank you. Please keep writing! Hilary Da Costa

    • ianburnet says:

      Thanks Hillary. There was meant to be a last chapter in EASTERN VOYAGES where I travelled in a small boat up the Berau River to discover the isolated settlement. Including encountering the estuarine mangroves, nipa palms, jungle forests, river mists and the heavy scents of blossoms and black earth as described by Joseph Conrad. Unfortunately the Covid travel restrictions made that impossible.

    • ianburnet says:

      If you are in the market for books, don’t forget you can buy a signed copy direct from the author.

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