Joseph Conrad’s Singapore

In Conrad’s time the Post Office, the Harbour office, the offices of the ships chandlers and various shipping agents were situated along the harbourside with a view of the ships lined up in the Straits of Singapore. A rambling two-story building with a colonnaded façade and shuttered windows stood on the point near the Cavanagh Bridge where Flint Street meets Battery Road. It contained the premises of McAlister and Company who were Ships Chandlers, Sailmakers, Ship Brokers and General Merchants. A vast cavern-like space which contained every sundry item that a ship needed to put to sea. In the same building were Emmerson’s Tiffin, Billiard and Reading Rooms which drew sailors, merchants and those from the Harbour Office to its daily lunch menu which was advertised as Tiffin a La Carte and is best described as Mulligatawny soup and a Malay chicken curry and rice. These men liked the noisy camaraderie of Emmerson’s rooms which were filled with tales of ships, sailors, piracy, disasters at sea and the latest rumours circulating the port.

Plaque in honor of Joseph Conrad Koreniowski on the harbourside near the Fullerton Hotel in Singapore.

The location of the current Fullerton Hotel was once the site of the former Post Office and Harbour Office in Conrad’s time. A memorial to Joseph Conrad stands on the seafront of the hotel and dedicated to him as a ‘British Master Mariner and great English writer who made Singapore and the whole of South East Asia better known to the world’.

Keppel Harbour in Singapore

Between 1870 and 1890 the value of exports and imports passing through Singapore nearly tripled and Singapore boomed as a regional entrepot where half of everything that arrived in the city was off-loaded onto different vessels for delivery to ports on the Malay Peninsula, Borneo and the Dutch East Indies. The painting shows this is the beginning of age of steamships as in the background are the masts of the three masted barques as sailed by Joseph Conrad and the smoke from the steamships in the harbour. According to Conrad ‘the sea was now a used-up drudge, wrinkled and defaced by the churned-up wakes of brutal propellers, robbed of the enslaving charm of its vastness, stripped of its beauty, of its mystery and its promise’.

Keppel Harbour showing the pilgrim ship Jeddah

On the left is what I believe to be the 993-ton steamship Jeddah with its Muslim passengers streaming aboard. The Jeddah left Singapore in July 1880 for Penang to pick up additional pilgrims bound for the Holy Land. The ship was owned by Syed Mohsin bin Salleh Al Joffree who was listed in the Singapore Register as a merchant and ship owner of 36 Raffles Place and his son Seyyid Omar was on board. There were seven European officers including Captain Clark and the first mate Austin Williams, who became the Lord Jim of Conrad’s famous story.

Unloading archipelago goods from the Riau Archipelago.

The painting also shows Malay praus at the dock with archipelago traders and Chinese coolies unloading their goods such as fruit, vegetables and native rubber (gutta- percha) from the Riau Archipelago which lies just south of Singapore as can be seen on this painting of Singapore. The beginning of Conrad’s book ‘The End of the Tether’ is set in Singapore where his Captain Whalley is ending his days and Conrad best describes the shipping in the Singapore Strait with these lines:

Some of these avenues ended at the sea. It was a terraced shore; and beyond, upon the level expanse, profound and glistening like the gaze of a dark-blue eye, an oblique band of stippled purple lengthened itself indefinitely through the gap between a couple of verdant twin islets. The masts and spars of a few ships far away, hull down in the outer roads, sprang straight from the water in a fine maze of rosy lines penciled on the clear shadow of the eastern board. Captain Whalley gave them a long glance. The ship, once his own, was anchored out there. It was staggering to think that it was open to him no longer to take a boat at the jetty and get himself pulled off to her when the evening came. To no ship. Perhaps never more’.

View of Singapore and the Singapore Strait with the Riau Islands in the distance.

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 Joseph Conrad’s Singapore

  1. Denis Smith says:

    Hi Ian, great story that i did not know much about. Thanks for sharing it !
    Denis Smith

  2. ianburnet says:

    Thanks Denis and it must be time to visit Singapore again

  3. Russell Ogden says:

    Thanks Ian. Who would have thought that so much history, and such a ‘feeling’ for those times can be gleaned from the Keppel Harbour painting? Harbours remain fascinating places which reflect culture and current events. I visited the local harbour at Makkasar on my most recent trip to Sulawesi. It was so interesting to hear about where the various vessels had arrived from, or were bound for, and the goods and passengers being transferred. Including a recently deceased man being returned to his home island. I agree with your sentiment about returning to Singapore!

    • ianburnet says:

      Thanks Russell. I have been fascinated by this painting for a long time (probably 15 years since a first saw it) as it provides so much detail about Singapore and the period.

  4. markheyward says:

    Nice one, Ian. I’m back in Jakarta and will be visiting Singapore sometime this month. I always touch base in the area you describe so eloquently. Usually a cup of tea or a beer on the balcony at the Asian Civilizations Museum and a pint and makan at the Penny Black pub over the bridge. Cheers!

    • ianburnet says:

      Thanks Mark. I hope to visit Singapore this year and I will follow your suggestions for a drink and a meal. A Malay Chicken Curry and Rice, followed by Sago Malacca and Tea Tarik would be perfect.

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