Reprint: Joseph Conrad by Barney Reed

His visits to Australia

The writer has in his possession a letter from Joseph Conrad which definitely outlines the visits of the great author to Australia. Those numbered four, but quoting from the letter itself will tell of his visits in his own words: "I was in Sydney," he writes, "for the first time in 1879, then in 1880. I was appointed to the command of the barque Otago, belonging to Messrs Henry Simpson and Sons, by the British Minister in Bangkok, her master having died on her passage out. This was in 1887. I left her in 1889, resigning my command in order to return home by Suez. I visited Australia again in the years 1892-3 as chief mate of the ship Torrens. These are all the details bearing on my relations with Australia."

The letter, which is dated March 26, 1924, is written from Oswalds, Bishopsbourne, Kent, and concludes with a kindly, reference to his association with Australia. "... I met there with nothing but kindness from people in various social spheres, and I have acquired a great affection for that young continent, which will endure as long as my faculty of memory itself endures." Four months later the hand that penned those lines was stilled forever.

It was his connection with the Otago that prompted him to write in a reminiscence:  "It lies in me to confess at last . . . that I have been all my life -- all my two lives -- the spoiled adopted child of Great Britain, and even of the Empire; for it was Australia that gave me my first command."

His first visit, to Australia -- 1879 -- was as an able-bodied seaman on the Duke of Sutherland, sometimes called the Iron Duke, and it was on her docks that he kept watch night after night as she lay in Sydney Harbour. His impressions were mentally stored up, and recorded in "The Mirror of the Seas" many years later. His second visit the following year was on the Loch Etive, of which he was third officer. In his "Last Essays" he relates how, whilst at sea on Christmas Day on the first-mentioned clipper, they prepared a keg to hold some old "Heralds" and other papers for a Yankee whaler they sighted. It was in the Southern Ocean, latitude 51, and the whaler, they learnt, was two years out from New York, and two hundred and fifteen days on the cruising ground. "We passed," he writes, "sailing slowly, within a hundred yards of her; and just as our steward started ringing the breakfast bell, the captain and I held aloft. In good view of the figures watching us over her stern, the keg, properly headed up and containing, besides an enormous bundle of old newspapers, two boxes of figs in honour of the day. We flung it far out over the rail. Instantly our ship, sliding down the slope of a high swell, left it far behind in our wake. On hoard the Alaska a man in a fur cap flourished an arm; another, a much be-whiskered person, ran forward suddenly. I never saw anything so ready and so smart as the way that whaler, rolling desperately all the time, lowered one of her boats. The Southern Ocean went on tossing the two ships like a juggler his gilt balls, and the microscopic white speck of the boat seemed to come into the game instantly, as if shot out from a catapult on the enormous and lonely stage. That Yankee whaler lost not a moment in picking up her Christmas present from the English wool clipper. . . . She dipped her ensign in thanks, and asked to be reported 'All well, with a catch of three fish.'"

Conrad's visit to Australia as chief mate of the Torrens, under Captaln Cope, was not only his last to Australia, but the return voyage marked the end of his sea-faring career. The Torrens, after a chequered life, was broken up at Genoa in 1910.

Meanwhile Conrad worked out his literary career. "Twenty-four Conrads." a friend said to him one day, as he looked at a row of volumes. "I must make it a round twenty five," said Conrad, but the twenty-fifth was, alas, the unfinished "Suspense."

First published in The Sydney Morning Herald, 23 March 1929

[Thanks to the National Library of Australia's newspaper digitisation project for this piece.]

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on April 16, 2010 6:48 AM.

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