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.
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.
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.