Fact from Fiction – A Review of Conrad’s EASTERN VOYAGES

For many of us, Joseph Conrad is a famous English author known for such books as Lord Jim and Heart of Darkness, on which the films of the same name are based. Those of us who live in Sydney may, on seeing his plaque on Circular Quay’s writers walk, have been surprised that he had visited our shores.

However, Joseph Conrad’s Eastern Voyages, the book under review, has many more surprises for us, and particularly for those with an interest in Indonesia. Far from being an “English author”, he was in fact born in Poland in 1857 and given the name of Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski. His childhood was one of severe deprivation: his father was a Polish patriot and the family was arrested by the Russians and banished to the severe climate of northern Russia. The hardship of his childhood included experiencing the death of his mother, his father’s severe ill health and his own ill health. The rest of his youth was spent in the Russian-held part of Poland and later in France. From an early age, Józef had his heart set on becoming a mariner. His life as a sailor began with four years on French ships before, at age of 21, he arrived in England in 1878 with minimal English and enlisted in the British merchant marine. For the next fifteen years Joseph Conrad, the name he had assumed, worked on a variety of ships as crew member (apprentice, able-bodied seaman), and then as third, second and first mate, until eventually achieving captain’s rank.

Joseph Conrad sailed to Sydney as an ordinary seaman on The Duke of Sutherland in 1879

He spent much of his time as a mariner sailing in Southeast Asia between Singapore and Borneo. From very early on he came to love the sailing boats of the era and, later, captaining clippers between Europe and Australia. Many times, his life led to great adventures such as when he signed on with a Belgian company and travelled far inland into Africa up the Congo River, the experience that provided the basis of his novel Heart of Darkness. His intimate knowledge of the Indonesian archipelago arose from his four voyages as first mate on the steamship Vidar to a small trading post some forty miles up a river on the east coast of Borneo.

The trading ship Vidar docked in Macassar, J.C.Rappard 1883

Burnet’s fascinating study shows how Conrad’s writings drew on his own experience and how the characters he met, particularly in Indonesia, became central to the wonderful novels that gave him such a central place in English literature. It is all the more astounding when one realises that English was in fact Conrad’s fourth language, after Polish, French and Russian. Through historical research and Conrad’s autobiographical writings, particularly A Personal Record, Burnet has managed to document the voyages the author made and the people he met that were later woven into his many novels. Indeed, in a masterful and incisive manner, Burnet analyses events and characters from Conrad’s own life to show how they inspired and indeed are reflected in the events and characters of Conrad’s The Rescue, Almayer’s Folly and An Outcast of the Islands.

Given the length of time Conrad spent in Borneo and in the Indonesian archipelago, it is clear he knew Malay, the lingua franca of the many linguistic communities of the islands, and was aware of colonial events and had met many local characters, including the descendants of James Brooke the Rajah of Sarawak. It is fascinating to see the way that the historical alliances and events of the colonial era are reflected in Conrad’s writing, all the more that he wrote his books from memory after he retired to England in 1893 at age 36. However, his desire to become a writer in later life is reflected in the fact that, during his many years at sea, he carried with him an outline manuscript for his first novel, Almayer’s Folly.

Aided by Conrad’s autobiographical writings, Burnet masterfully manages to blend Conrad’s own life experiences with the plots of his novels so that we have a real sense of daily life and adventure in Southeast Asia, and particularly the Dutch East Indies. The resulting book is highly recommended and will lead many of us to read or re-read Conrad’s books, with new understanding.

This review by Dr. Ron Witton is to be published in Our Indonesia Today.


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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6 Responses to Fact from Fiction – A Review of Conrad’s EASTERN VOYAGES

  1. Denis O'Hara says:

    Looking forward to the book’s release.

  2. ianburnet says:

    Hello Dennis. Good News – the book is now available as a print or ebook.

  3. Randall Rutledge says:

    This is a very nice review Ian. I can’t wait to read the book. I’ll give a copy to my friend the Sultan of Gunung Tabur.

  4. ianburnet says:

    Thanks Randall. There was meant to be a last chapter in the book where I sailed up the Berau River to rediscover the location of the remote trading outpost described by Conrad as ‘One of the last, forgotten, unknown places on earth’. As a result of Covid this was impossible but I still hope to get there and with your help meet the Sultan of Gunung Tabour.

  5. Bettina Orellana says:

    The book does look so interesting, I see you mentioned its available both in print or eBook,
    Who is selling it please
    Also if you do make another adventure towards Ternate or those climes in the future./ I am a definite Starter, as it seems a long while till we see you perhaps in UBUD or at the writers
    festival or other event. Bettina Orellana bettina@bigpond.net.au

    • ianburnet says:

      Hello Bettina and thanks for making contact again. I will be part of the October UWRF but I expect it will be online rather than in Ubud, The ebook is available from the usual online retailers and I have print copies for sale.

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