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, serialised, 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 in Berdychev, Ukraine, then part of the Russian Empire and formerly a town in the Kingdom of Poland.

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. 

The life of Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski reads like an adventure story, an adventure story that could only be written by somebody like Joseph Conrad. The young Conrad dreamed of a life at sea, he eventually became a British merchant seaman and he spent fifteen years sailing on the classic three-masted, square-rigged sailing clippers before they were ultimately replaced by steamships. During this period he worked his way up from apprentice, to third mate, to second mate, to first mate and finally the captain of one of these beautiful ships.

He loved the ‘mysterious East’ and his first books – Almayers Folly, An Outcast of the Islands, Lord Jim and The Rescue were all set in Borneo and based on the people and places he encountered in his own voyages as first mate on a trading vessel based out of Singapore

Conrad once said that everything about his life can be found in his books. Because the material for his first books is mainly autobiographical.

Ian Burnet’s book follows Joseph Conrad from his early life through to his seafaring years and his eventual retirement to England. He takes us through Conrad’s novels, and the various characters that inhabit them, the books ordered according to the sequence of events they depict from the novelist’s life experience, rather than the year each was published. The text is sprinkled with illustrations from the period, which help to establish the context. He has captured something of Conrad’s world and something of his own love of Indonesia and the region in Joseph Conrad’s Eastern Voyages.

Burnet has been able to use a mixture of his own words, together with those of Conrad, to tell this story of Joseph Conrad’s eastern voyages and his tales of Singapore and an East Borneo River.

He 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 his time.

At the end of his book, 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, Almayer and Lord Jim. Burnet demonstrates how the great novelist’s earlier life as a merchant seafarer in South-East-Asia gave him intimate knowledge of its people, customs, tropical lands and seascapes. From this emerges his vivid cast of sultans, warriors, traders, beachcombers and lovers.

He looks deep into the late colonial era through the lens of Joseph Conrad’s novels. This is a clever device, enabling Burnet to celebrate the novelist and his works, while at the same time exploring this remarkable region in its heyday of travel and commerce at the end of the nineteenth century.

It is a universal yet personal tale, told through the intimate stories of individuals, their ambitions and shifting alliances, their loves and hates, and ultimately flawed humanity set against the muddy rivers, the open oceans and the bustling seaports of the time. And all of this resonates with contemporary Southeast Asia. Somehow the characters seem just as real and relevant today as a hundred years ago.

The vibrant bustling jumble of cultures, and the mercantile seafaring world that Conrad conjures up provide a seductive setting for the personal narratives of his novels. In Joseph Conrad’s Eastern Voyages, Tales of Singapore and an East Borneo River, Ian Burnet takes the reader back to that time at the tail end of the 19th Century, when adventurers and opportunists from the various European nations rubbed shoulders, struggling to gain a commercial edge over the Chinese, the Arabs and coastal Malays who traded with the indigenous upriver Dayaks of Borneo.

In books lies the soul of the whole past time – the articulate audible voice of the past – when the body and material substance of it has altogether vanished like a dream.
Thomas Carlyle (1795-1818)

Ian Burnett will be our guest speaker at the City of Canada Bay Museum, 1 Bent Street, Concord on Saturday, 4th March at 2:00 pm.  Our monthly talks, on the first Saturday of every month, are open to everyone.  There is no charge, but donations are always welcome.


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