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.
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.
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.