Oxford in Asia paperbacks

First published in 1930 by Jonathan Cape and reissued by Oxford in Asia in 1982. Painting by Walter Spies, 1939

‘Oxford in Asia’ paperbacks present a wide range of books on South-East Asia. Many of these are reissues which were widely acclaimed when first published, while others were overlooked because of the circumstances of their publication and have long been unavailable.

These works include a rich field of literature on the history and culture of South-East Asia and old books of travels. Many of these works are now out of print and only available with difficulty and at great expense. Because of continuing demand from librarians, scholars, and students for much of this literature, since the 1960’s Oxford University Press has been reissuing the most important works on South-East Asia, with the addition of an Introduction written by a specialist.

‘Images of Asia’ offers a rnge of titles covering aspects of life and culture in South-East Asia. Each book in the series combines an introductory text, written for the non-specialist reader, with extensive illustrations both in colour and black and white. ‘Images of Asia’ therefore provides a means of acquiring a deeper understanding and appreciation of the region in all its diversity.

Between the 1960’s and the mid 1990’s Oxford published more than 80 ‘Oxford in Asia’ titles but the series has now been discontinued. With their white covers and often with a book image on the spine they are easily recognised and I have been collecting them for more than twenty years in second-hand bookshops in Sydney, Melbourne, Perth, Bali, Jakarta, Singapore and Amsterdam. I am sure there are more to be found out there and will continue the search.


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Joseph Conrad’s Eastern Voyages – SIGNALS Book Review

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.

Joseph Conrad

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.

The trading ship Vidar in Macassar

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.


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Asian Review of Books – Joseph Conrad’s EASTERN VOYAGES

Joseph Conrad (1857-1924) is perhaps the most famous example of a multicultural writer in the history of British literature. His novels have been translated, serialized, made into movies, and taught at numerous schools and universities throughout the English-speaking world and beyond. His multicultural credentials are impressive: he was born Józef Teodor Nalęcz (Ian Burnet misses this one in his recent study: it was the name of the Polish noble family to which Conrad belonged) Konrad Korzeniowski in Berdychev, Ukraine, then part of the Russian Empire and formerly a town in the Kingdom of Poland. His father Apollo was a Polish poet, translator of Shakespeare and a dedicated Polish patriot. Conrad’s first language was Polish, of course, and he learned Latin at school, but he added German, French and finally English to the list. He also knew some Russian but avoided using it for patriotic reasons. 

Joseph Conrad by George Charles Beresford
National Portrait Gallery

A good half of Conrad’s published books, including the better-known ones such as Lord Jim (1900) and An Outcast of the Islands (1896) were set in Asian lands, notably in what are now Malaysia and Indonesia, with Heart of Darkness (1899), perhaps his most famous work, being set in the Congo and Nostromo (1904) in South America. His very first novel in English, Almayer’s Folly, appeared in 1895, and is set in Borneo with a Java-born Dutch protagonist. Other places featured in his novels include London, Geneva, Marseilles, and St. Petersburg. Conrad also wrote “Prince Roman”, a story based on Polish history, but Poland itself does not play a part in his novels, which, together with his identification as an “English” writer, caused a certain amount of anxiety amongst his fellow-writers in Poland, who questioned his patriotism. In the end, as he himself put it, Conrad wrote in English because ‘it was I who was adopted by the genius of the language … which made me its own so completely that its very idioms, I truly believe, had a direct action on my temperament’.

Joseph Conrad’s EASTERN VOYAGES (Alfred Street Press, 2021)

Ian Burnet, an Australia-based traveler, writer and historian who is well-acquainted with the former Dutch East Indies, sets out in this handsomely-produced book to show how Conrad “was able to convert actual events of his own experience into enduring fiction,” referring to Conrad’s own statement that he had written his books “in retrospect of what I saw and learnt during the first thirty-five years of my life.” This being said, though, Burnet is aware that not all Conrad’s output is autobiographical, and he finds most of his material in the earlier works like Almayer’s FollyAn Outcast of the IslandsLord Jim and The Rescue (1920, but begun over twenty years earlier). These four novels, all based in Borneo, had characters based on people Conrad had met or known in his eastern voyages; Burnet works backwards with the material, reordering the narrative sequence and focusing on background material to definitively link Conrad’s life with the events of the novels, effectively building on Conrad’s own retrospective memory and quoting liberally from the novels to connect the fictional and non-fictional worlds.

The result is interesting—Burnet is not a literary scholar, but an enthusiastic and intelligent reader of Conrad, which makes this book ideal to read if one is curious about Conrad but not that well-acquainted with his books; it is not much use for scholars of Conrad. He attempts to describe a world with which the creator of the fiction (Conrad) interacts with his own past through his writings, and has unearthed illustrations to enhance his narrative. He traces the ships mentioned by Conrad to their real-world counterparts and gives biographical information on the actual people on whom Conrad modeled his characters.

The trading ship Vidar in Macassar Harbour
J.C.Rappard, Antique Maps of Indonesia

Most of this information may be found elsewhere, but Burnet is quite good at describing people and scenes, especially the latter, as he has been there himself, smelt the air, felt the heat and eaten the food. Prefacing Chapter 7, “East Borneo”, is a quote from Lord Jim in which Conrad writes about the Dutch and English traders’ “passion for pepper”, which “seemed to burn like a flame of love” within them and which made them “defy death in a thousand shapes; the unknown seas, the loathsome and strange diseases; wounds, captivity, hunger, pestilence, and despair.” For Burnet himself as a boy, though, the name Borneo suggested “Malay Sultans, White Rajahs, fierce pirates and beautiful princesses. Wild rivers and steamy jungles filled with tattooed head-hunters armed with poisoned blowpipes” [sic]. Well, Conrad serves up all of these and more, which lets us understand how the adult Burnet became absorbed with his books.

This having been said, there are some things about this book that are problematic. Burnet keeps formal analysis to a minimum, simply matching events and places to the novels and providing background information. He does, however, offer some opinions and quote contemporary reviews. He observes, for example, that Conrad’s protagonist Willems in An Outcast of the Islands is “a victim of his own illusions, of his search for material gratification, and finally his obsession with the beautiful and erotic Aissa.” He suggests that Almayer was “a failure, an anti-hero”, and that “for that time” (1899) Almayer’s Folly “had a very un-English perspective.” For a Conrad scholar or someone who is well-acquainted with the novels, these observations are commonplaces, but it has to be remembered that this isn’t a work of literary criticism, however frustrating it is to readers who want a bit more.

These reservations aside, I would nonetheless recommend this book to readers who are not familiar with Conrad,  but are seeking an informative introduction to this difficult writer’s life and works.

John Butler recently retired as Associate Professor of Humanities at the University College of the North in The Pas, Manitoba, Canada, and has taught at universities in Canada, Nigeria and Japan. He specializes in early modern travel-literature (especially Asian travel) and seventeenth-century intellectual history. His books include an edition of Sir Thomas Herbert’s Travels in Africa, Persia and Asia the Great (2012) and most recently an edition of Sir Paul Rycaut’s Present State of the Ottoman Empire (1667) and a book of essays, Off the Beaten Track: Essays on Unknown Travel Writers.

Please note that EASTERN VOYAGES was not written as an academic text. As stated in the very first sentence of the book ‘The life of Josef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski reads like an adventure story, an adventure story written by somebody like Joseph Conrad’. So perhaps it is best described as an adventure story with a literary twist. For some reason John Butler has mainly chosen to review the book from the point of view of an academic text which is surprising but it goes to prove that at least in this case ‘once an academic then always an academic.’


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Best-Selling Dutch Biography Books


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Indonesian Independence and the Indonesian Flag – Sang Merah Putih

To celebrate August 17th, which is the anniversary of the Indonesian Proclamation of Independence, there will be millions of Indonesian flags flying over the Archipelago.

Almost every house, every street and every building will be flying the flag and continue flying the flag for the next month.

Soekarno together with Rear-Admiral Maeda and  Hatta reads out the Declaration of Independence on the front steps of his house on 17th August 1945
This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is dscn0682-copy.jpg
The Declaration of Independence, 17th August 1945

After announcing the Declaration of Independence the Indonesian flag was raised outside Soekarno’s house. The flag was hand sewn by Soekarno’s wife Fatmawati and after the raising of the Indonesian flag the group sang the Indonesian National Anthem ‘Indonesia Raya’.

Ceremony of raising the Indonesian flag after the Declaration of Independence, 17 August 1945

During the Java war (1825-1830 AD) Prince Diponegoro wore a red and white banner in his struggle against the Dutch. Later, the colors were revived by students and then nationalists in the early 20th century as an expression of nationalism against the Dutch The red and white flag was used for the first time in Java in 1928. Under colonial rule, the flag was banned from use. The flag was officially used as the national flag of Indonesia on August 17,1945 when independence was declared and officially used since then.

Perhaps the most celebrated incident related to the flag occurred one month later in Surabaya on 19 September 1945, when Dutch citizens released from Japanese detention raised the Dutch flag over the former Hotel Oranje which under the Japanese occupation was known as the Hotel Yamato. This incensed the pro-nationalist Indonesian youth who climbed the hotel tower and tore away the lower blue portion of the Dutch flag to change it to the red-and-white Indonesian Flag.

The flag incident at the Yamato Hotel

Historical Plaque from what is now called the Hotel Majapahit


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The Banjarmasin Diamond

The rivers of East Borneo, such as the Kapuas, Seruyan, Barito (Banjar), Mahakam, Berau, Kayan and Sesayap were the geographic highways that provided the only means to transport people and goods through the dense forests and mountains of Borneo and provide a connection between the coastal Malays and the Dyaks of the interior.

This early version of a map of Borneo by Herman Moll from 1732 shows Banjarmasin on the south coast of Borneo, at the mouth of what is here called the Banjar River and surrounded by the Pepper Country.

Map of the East Indies, Herman Moll, 1732, Bienecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library

The Pepper Country which according to Joseph Conrad was where:

The seventeenth-century traders went there for pepper, because the passion
for pepper seemed to burn like a flame of love in the breast of Dutch and
English adventurers about the time of James the First. Where wouldn’t they
go for pepper! For a bag of pepper they would cut each other’s throats without
hesitation … the bizarre obstinacy of that desire made them defy death in
a thousand shapes; the unknown seas, the loathsome and strange diseases;
wounds, captivity, hunger, pestilence and despair.

– Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim

The port of Banjarmasin, Carl Schwaner, 1854, Amsterdam, van Kampen

The Dutch East India Company were mainly interested in the pepper trade but Banjarmasin was also the outlet for all the natural forest products which came down the river as well as gold, tin and diamonds.

In 1837 coal was also discovered in the interior and now the Dutch took an interest in coal mines, thus increasing Banjarmasin’s economic and strategic importance. The Dutch managed to involve themselves in a quarrel over the choice of a new Sultan by providing military support to the candidate of their choice and when he did became Sultan he served as their vassal. The main problem was that, according to traditional law, the new puppet Sultan was never recognised as legitimate. During a people’s revolt in 1859, Dutch troops were required to put down the rebellion and the struggle caused considerable loss of life and immense damage to property in parts of southern Borneo. By 1862 Dutch troops had won the upper hand, the Sultanate was disbanded and the Dutch gained direct control.

As part of their war booty the Dutch seized the Banjarmasin Diamond. Once owned by the Sultan of Banjarmasin, the stone was a state heirlooms and a symbol of the Sultan’s sovereignty. After the Sultanate was abolished the rough diamond was sent to the Netherlands, where it was cut into a multifaceted rectangle of 36 carats and is now displayed in the Rijksmuseum.

Rough, this diamond was assumedly around 70 carats.  When the diamond workers turned the gem into a 36-carat polished stone, it lost almost half its size. They cut the diamond into a rectangular(ish) shape. A cutting loss of almost 50% is a lot, but not unusual for a diamond this shape and size. The Rijksmuseum describes it as: “A white, slightly square cut diamond of thirty-six carats from Banjarmasin.” Other characteristics are:

  • Size: l 2.1 cm × w 1.7 cm × h 1.4 cm
  • Weight: 7.65 gr
The Banjarmasin Diamond, Rijksmuseum

The Rijksmueum Museum caption reads, “This diamond is the spoil of war. This diamond was once owned by Panembahan Adam, Sultan of Banjarmasin (Kalimantan).”

The Banjarmasin Sultanate was restored in 2010 and the Sultan would like the diamond back. Let’s see what happens.

The Sultan of Banjarmasin


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Map History Books of 2020 – The Tasman Map


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Where in East Borneo is the real location of Joseph Conrad’s fictional trading post of ‘Sambir’ and ‘Patusan’?

About half of everything Joseph Conrad ever wrote takes place in South-East Asia, six novels, plus more than a dozen short stories and novellas, which are all evocative of the exotic east. Although his love was for sailing ships and the world’s great oceans, his voyages on the tramp ship Vidar to the Java Sea, the Macassar Strait and the east coast of Borneo, inspired more of Conrad’s fiction than any other period in his life.

His Borneo books – Almayer’s Folly, An Outcast of the Islands, Lord Jim and The Rescue were all based on the places he had visited, the stories he had heard, and the people he had met during his voyages in the Indonesian archipelago. It is his excellent visual memory of people, landscape, estuaries, rivers, climate, jungle foliage, commerce, local politics, religion and dress that bring his fictional world to life.  

In his novel Almayer’s Folly, Joseph Conrad describes the location of the village and trading post he calls Sambir as –

Forty miles up a river on the east coast of Borneo. A river and a settlement which he described as ‘One of the last, forgotten unknown places on earth’.

In his novel Lord Jim, Joseph Conrad describes the location of the village and trading post as –

Patusan is a remote district of a native-ruled State and the chief settlement bears the same name. At a point on the river about forty miles from the sea, where the first houses come into view, there can be seen rising above the level of the forest the summits of two steep hills.

For whatever reason, Joseph Conrad avoided directly naming the real location of this village and trading post so it took some time for determined literary detectives to track down the actual location of the fictional villages of ‘Sambir’ and ‘Patusan’ in remote East Borneo.

The first clue is the Vidar, the trading ship on which Joseph Conrad served as first mate, which he describes as being based in Singapore and having an Arab owner.

She was an Eastern ship, inasmuch as then she belonged to those seas. She traded among dark islands on a blue reef-scarred sea, with the Red Ensign over the taffrail and at her masthead a house-flag, also red, but with a green border and with a white crescent in it. For an Arab owned her, and a Syed at that. Hence the green border on the flag.

                                                                                                    Joseph Conrad, The Shadow-Line

A search of the of the records reveals the following:

Joseph Conrad made four trading voyages to East Borneo on the Vidar from 1887 to 1889. The Singapore shipping records would have shown the destinations of the Vidar, including Tanjung Redeb on the Berau River and its trading voyage would be as shown on the map below:

Map by Ian Burnet

The coast of Patusan is straight and somber, and faces a misty ocean. Red trails are seen like cataracts of rust streaming under the dark-green foliage of bushes and creepers clothing the low cliffs. Swampy plains open out at the mouth of rivers, with a view of jagged blue peaks beyond the vast forests. In the offing a chain of islands, dark, crumbling shapes, stand out in the everlasting sunlit haze like the remains of a wall breached by the sea.

Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim

Map by Ian Burnet

The Berau is the main river up from the coast which Joseph Conrad named the ‘Pantai’ in Almayer’s Folly and An Outcast of the Islands, and the ‘Patusan’ in Lord Jim. The settlement of Tanjung Redeb, forty miles up the river, lies on a promontory at the confluence where the Segai River to the north and the Kelai River to the south join to form the Berau. Opposite on the north bank of the Segai is the settlement of Gunung Tabor and the old Rajah’s palace. Opposite on the east bank of the Kelai is the settlement of Sambaliung, where according to Conrad, the Bugis potentate Lakamba had built his stockade and where Syed Abdulla established his wharf and trading post. Joseph Conrad provides us a description of the settlement through the eyes of Kapar Almayer:

From the low point of land where Almayer stood he could see both branches of the river. The main stream of the Pantai was lost completely in darkness for the fire at the Rajah’s had gone out altogether, but up the Sambir Reach his eye could follow the long line of Malay houses crowding the bank, with here and there a dim light twinkling through bamboo walls, or a smoky torch burning on the platforms built out over the river. Further away, where the island ended in a low cliff, rose a dark mass of buildings towering above the Malay structures.  Founded solidly on a firm ground with plenty of space, starred by many lights burning strong and white, with a suggestion of paraffin and lamp-glasses, stood the house and the godowns of Abdulla bin Selim.

Joseph Conrad, Almayer’s Folly 

Port Scene by Mori Kinsen


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The Book Launch for Eastern Voyages was held in front of the ‘Windjammers Statue’ at the Australian National Maritime Museum with the 1874 barque James Craig in the background. Commodore Christopher Rynd kindly performed the honours and below is the text from his speech:

“I grew up in the Far East and can recall from the early age hearing of Joseph Conrad. Later on, in going to sea and learning my business as a seaman officer in ships of trade I came to appreciate Conrad as the author who wrote with an authenticity that only one who has experience at sea and in command can.

In this book Ian brings his own unique knowledge of the geography and history of the Indonesian archipelago, of Malaya and Singapore, to enrich Conrad’s experiences and stories. Already the author of five books, the result of his own life and travels in this part of the world and the study of its history, Ian Burnet brings to this this book on Conrad and his Eastern Voyages a renewed appreciation of Conrad whose personal history is as fascinating as any character in his stories.

Ian’s book has made me appreciate afresh what an astute  and perceptive observer Conrad was and of his writing style, crafted with the labour that only another author can appreciate. As a naturalised British citizen he wrote from a unique perspective of an outsider and wrote so well, in what was his third language, that his books were considered as English classics within his own lifetime.

As Ian Burnet has written in the first sentence of this book ‘The life of Josef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski reads like an adventure story, an adventure story written by somebody like Joseph Conrad’.

I warmly commend this book to you. And declare it launched”

Photographs are courtesy of Cathy Morrison and John Cardelli


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Alfred Street Press

Alfred Street Press is the publishing arm of Ian Burnet Books and was established to publish the book Joseph Conrad’s EASTERN VOYAGES – Tales of Singapore and an East Borneo River.

This book tells the story of Joseph Conrad’s life at sea on the classic three-masted, square-rigged sailing ships before they were ultimately replaced by steamships. Joseph Conrad’s first books – Almayer’s Folly, An Outcast of the Islands, Lord Jim and The Rescue were all set in East Borneo and this book describes how these first books are related to the people he met and his own experiences as first mate on a trading vessel based out of Singapore.

The book can be purchased as an ebook from the usual online retailers or as a print book through the shop at :


Or if you are a retailer from:



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