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.
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.
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.