“Some insignificant boy, from the borderlands, from an out-of-the-way province, from some place called Poland, became a captain in the British Merchant Marine without any backing.” So Joseph Conrad described his own history to a Polish newspaper in 1914. And from that simple sentence flows the plot of The Shadow-Line, his late 1917 novel.
The Shadow-Line‘s subtitle – “A Confession” – is not an offhand flourish. The story closely parallels Conrad’s own beginnings – in fact, he said, it was “not a story really but exact autobiography.” That comment, however, should be taken with a grain of salt.
Three of Conrad’s works – “Falk,” “The End of the Tether,” and The Shadow-Line – have elements of the same plot: a ship in the Bangkok harbor, waiting for a new captain. In “The End of the Tether,” however, the command is offered to Hamilton, a hanger-on at the Sailors’ Home, who refuses it; in The Shadow-Line, the Sailors’ Home manager wants to get rid of the indebted Hamilton, and so manipulates to secure the command for Hamilton rather than the narrator. Conrad scholar Norman Sherry suggests that the first version is essentially correct, but that Conrad was initially refused because of his heavy accent.
Here’s what happened: On January 9, 1888, Conrad was staying at the Officers’ Home in Singapore. The harbor master told him that the captain had died onboard the Otago, and the British Consul in Bangkok was looking for a replacement. Conrad took a steamer to Bangkok that night and reached the city four days later. A little over a year after he had passed his master’s exam, he was now the “master” of a 345-ton iron sailing barque. On January 24, he assumed his first command.
One contemporary described the role of the ship’s master this way: “His word is law, which nobody must dispute, and which permits of no argument. … He stands no watch, comes and goes when he pleases, and is accountable to no one except to his owners. He has entire control of the discipline of the ship; so much so that none of the officers under him have any authority to punish a seaman, or to use any force without the master’s order, except only in cases of urgent necessity that admit of no delay.” The task is a lonely one, and even intimate friendships are of men who were not equals. Nevertheless, Conrad found the role intoxicating: “Command is strong magic,” he writes in The Shadow-Line.
Like the incident onboard the ship Melita in The Shadow-Line, in real-life the former captain of the Otago had sold the ship’s supply of quinine and substituted a worthless powder. The captain, too, had spent most of his time during his last voyage locked in his cabin, playing the violin. And in real-life, the German chief mate had taken the ship to Bangkok rather than Singapore (where there were many qualified masters), expecting to be put in temporary command. Conrad’s arrival aroused his resentment.
Once onboard, Conrad faced a crew that was suffering from tropical fever, dysentery, and cholera. The steward was an opium addict, a gambler, and a thief.
Because of the calms on the Gulf of Siam, the ship took three weeks to travel the 800 nautical miles to Singapore, and he felt the full weight of the loneliness of command.
Conrad compounded the situation with his own questionable calls. After several voyages between Sydney and Melbourne, he was inspired to take a faster but longer and more dangerous route, between New Guinea and the northern tip of Australia. Perhaps he wanted to test his courage in his new command. In his own words, he “insisted on leaving Sydney during a heavy southeast gale. Both the pilot and the tug-master were scandalised by my obstinacy, and they hastened to leave me to my own devices while still inside Sydney Heads. The fierce southeaster caught me up on its wings, and no later than the ninth day I was outside the entrances of Torres Strait.” He saw two vessels that had been wrecked on the reefs, but brought his own ship through the straits safely.
Not quite straight autobiography, as he had claimed – but close enough that it’s the story he had to tell, and retell, and retell again, remembering the harrowing trip, his own failures, and the headiness of first command.