Conrad and the Mariner’s Craft: Sea Stories for Real Sailors (part 1)

joseph-conrad-at-sea
Drawing of Joseph Conrad by Catherine Anyango for the graphic novel adaptation of Heart Of Darkness.

By Colin Dewey,

The maritime industry, perhaps more than any other industrial profession, respects tradition.  Sometimes though, seafarers seem to revere tradition to the point of rejecting useful innovation.  Worse, we have even used the rubric “tradition” to resist social and cultural changes necessary to bring our profession into line with the modern world in which we operate, and from among whose young “best and brightest” we hope to encourage new recruits.  Yet there is no discounting the importance of preserving and transmitting the knowledge – and more than knowledge – that we have developed over centuries of practice.

Sailors don’t work in theoretical research laboratories, and the best of what we know about what we do has come to us through long, hard, real-world experience.  Many of us will recognize the grain of truth in the seaman’s prejudice against “book-learning” and have also felt the sting of being misunderstood by landsmen who try to describe our culture.  “You had to be there,” any of us might say, “to know what it was like.”  

Typhoon and Other Stories book cover
Related Book: Typhoon and Other Stories by Joseph Conrad

Usually, even given this forbidding caveat, a sea story or “yarn” will follow, explaining in some detail what “it was like” and perhaps the innovative (or entertaining) method the storyteller used to come out on top.  This scene has been part of maritime culture, it seems, since the beginning.  The traditional way to communicate professional knowledge has been through this kind of oral seaman’s lore, apprenticeship, and what we now call mentoring.  Eventually, as word-of-mouth became written record, a complex professional literature grew out of voyage narratives, “how-to” manuals, and often highly embellished sailing directions.  Maritime fiction, the best built on real seagoing experience, learned from and often borrows from the traditions of that practical literature.  The printing press and the ocean-going vessel developed simultaneously in the West.

Dr. Margaret Cohen is a professor of comparative literature at Stanford University who has spent years studying voyage narratives and seamanship treatises of the 16th-19th centuries as well as the fiction of the same period. In her 2010 book The Novel and the Sea (University of Princeton Press, 2010), she develops a remarkably accurate composite picture of “the compleat mariner.” Cohen uses this archaic term to describe the combination of vast skill and experience necessary to navigate through hostile and largely unknown seas.  The “compleat or perfect mariner,” she writes, “was an icon of effective practice and human ingenuity, able to beat brutal high-risk conditions against all odds, while pushing knowledge to the frontier and beyond.”  

Cohen borrows a second term to name the special capacity to instinctively combine traditional knowledge and improvisational skill possessed by the “compleat mariner” from a former shipmaster named Józef Korzeniowski.  Korzeniowski, better known to us as the author Joseph Conrad, called this elusive quality the mariners’ craft.  Conrad’s work meditates deeply on the contours of craft and the consequences of failure.  Though not the primary aim of her book, reading Conrad’s novels and stories with Cohen’s work in mind helps focus questions of tradition, professional practice, and training – and may, in an increasingly technological age, help define the essential human qualities worth preserving and encouraging in the maritime profession.

Joseph Conrad was born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in 1857 in Russian-controlled Ukraine.  Orphaned at 11, Conrad made his way to the French port of Marseilles, on the Mediterranean Sea.  First as a passenger and then as a seventeen-year-old apprentice (ordinary) seaman, in 1874-75 he explored the sailors’ life in small French barques trading between Mediterranean ports and the islands of the Caribbean.  By late 1877, the political situation in Europe meant that Conrad, as a Russian subject, could not sail in French vessels without the permission of the Russian consulate: permission that would have been dangerous for him to try to obtain since he was liable for compulsory military service in the Tsar’s army.  In June 1878, as “Konrad Korzeniowski,” Conrad landed in England and shortly after signed aboard a coastal collier, the schooner Skimmer of the Sea.  Later that year he shipped in the clipper Duke of Sutherland for Sydney, Australia.  Returning to England in late 1879, Conrad shipped as AB in the steamer Europa, trading between ports in Britain and Italy.

Conrad’s biographer Zdzislaw Najder (Joseph Conrad, A Life, Camden House, NY, 2007) suggests that Conrad’s uncle, Tadeusz Bobrowski, whose allowance had enabled his young nephew’s rather carefree and sometimes dissolute life as an able-bodied seaman, pressured him to sit for second mate in 1880.  There is also evidence that Conrad “augmented” his sea time in both French and British vessels in order to make up the required four-year’s service.  Nevertheless, after attending an English “license prep” school, he sat – and passed – his mate’s exam on 28 May 1880.  He was 22 years old.

During his nearly 19-year career, Conrad worked as apprentice, AB, steward, 3rd, 2nd, and chief mate, and master.  He sailed British coastwise and short European routes, trans-Atlantic, and around the Cape of Good Hope to Australia and South East Asia.  He spent time in barques, schooners, clipper ships, and steamers, carrying everything from coal to cattle to passengers.  

One of his most detested, but most significant, periods of employment came during the summer of 1890, in the Congo River steamer Roi des Belges.  The two months he spent aboard that ship, witnessing the ravages of Belgian colonial rule on the people and lands along the river, inspired one of Conrad’s most haunting and controversial works, The Heart of Darkness (1899)Following two voyages between London and Australia as mate in the clipper Torrens, Conrad, who in 1893 signed his name “J. Conrad Korzemowin” ended his deep-sea career.  On 10 January the next year, “J. Conrad” paid off of the steamer Adowa in London, for the last time.

Upon his uncle’s death in 1894, Conrad received a modest inheritance that helped him to make the transition to a literary career ashore. Although he had started writing his first novel, Almayer’s Folly (1895), as early as 1889, he only began seriously developing his meditative and philosophical style of sea-fiction in the years following his retirement from the maritime profession.

Why is my call to attend to an eighteenth-century ethos in nineteenth-century fiction not simply an exercise in historical nostalgia?  Because recognizing the “complete mariner” and the craft: to preserve and uphold which was a moral duty to Captain Joseph Conrad, helps fill in the technical and STCW-competency-based outline of the complete OOW in the twenty-first-century.  Conrad himself recognized the difficulty of teaching the situation-specific creative and ethical judgment and intelligence of craft in his novel Lord Jim and novella Typhoon.  In the second part, I’ll look at those fictional works with these questions in mind: what quality is most important in a seagoing officer? How can we recognize it, and even develop it?  In future installments, I’ll examine other maritime literature seeking answers to similar questions: look for pieces on Eugene O’Neill, Herman Melville, Malcolm Lowry, Jan de Hartog, Joshua Slocum, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

UPDATE: Click HERE to Read Part 2 of this article.