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Novelist Joseph Conrad and how his book “Lord Jim” was inspired by Sarawak

While W. Somerset Maugham drew inspirations from Sri Aman’s famous tidal bore, there was another British novelist whose works were inspired by Sarawak.

Joseph Conrad (1857-1924) was a Polish-British writer whose hero – Lord Jim (1900) – was famously based on the first White Rajah, James Brooke.

Besides Lord Jim, his other notable works are The Nigger of the Narcissus (1897), Heart of Darkness (1899), Typhoon (1902) and The Secret Agent (1907).


Conrad in 1904 by George Charles Beresford. Credits: Public Domain.
Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim and S.S Jeddah

Lord Jim is a novel by Conrad originally published as a serial in Blackwood’s Magazine from October 1899 to November 1900.

Jim is a first mate on an old steamer Patna carrying Muslim pilgrims to Jeddah. When the ship hits something and begins taking on water, Jim and the captain together with two other crewmen jump into a lifeboat to save themselves, leaving the passengers behind.

A few days later, they are rescued by an outbound steamer. When they reach the port, they find out Patna and its passengers are safe. The captain is then put on trial for abandoning his ship and the passengers.

The circumstances in the opening of the book are inspired by an actual event which happened to the crew and passengers of S.S.Jeddah in 1880.

On July 17 of that year, S.S. Jeddah was sailing from Singapore bound for Penang and subsequently Jeddah. When it appeared to sink during a hurricane, the captain and some of the crew abandoned ship, leaving its more than 700 passengers behind. Although, the ship did not sink in the end, a court of inquiry was held for the captain.

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In the first part of the book, the circumstances and actions of Jim’s character was inspired by the scandalous Augustine Podmore Williams. He was the chief mate of S.S. Jeddah who abandoned the vessel together with its captain and other officers leaving more than 700 passengers behind.

Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim and James Brooke

Meanwhile, the second part of the book was inspired by James Brooke’s real life exploits in Borneo. Brooke, who managed to set up an independent state of Sarawak, was fascinating for many people during those times.

In the book, Jim was a trade representative in Patusan, a fictional country on a remote island.


Who grew up reading these Classics Illustrated Comics? Here’s a page from a comic adaptation ofLord Jim by George Evans in the 1950s. (https://cafart.r.worldssl.net/images/Category_3563/subcat_44275/LordJim.jpg#.XKRBOLbJSsw.link)

Away from European civilisation, the place is exactly what Jim needs because he is unable to forgive himself for what happened on the Patna.

On Patusan, Jim earns his respect from the locals by defeating Sherif Ali, a local bandit who extorts fees and steals crops from the locals.

He also protects the people of Patusan from the corrupt local Malay chief, Rajah Tunku Allang. Jim then leads the people of Patusan and they call him “Tuan Jim” or “Lord Jim”.

Sound familiar? In Sarawak, Brooke had assisted Pangeran Muda Hashim in defeating the rebels led by Datu Patinggi Ali. At that time, Sarawak was administered by Pengiran Indera Mahkota who was not a crowd favorite, just like the Conrad’s Rajah Tunku Allang.

Besides Brooke, Conrad also wrote many of his characters based on real people at that time. Stein in Lord Jim, for example, might have been inspired by Alfred Russel Wallace who wrote his hugely influential Sarawak Law paper.

In Lord Jim, Stein learned botany, occasionally sending specimens to his contact in Europe.

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Moreover, Wallace’s book The Malay Archipelago (1869) was Conrad’s favorite bedside companion and used it for information in his book Lord Jim.

Was Joseph Conrad’s Patusan set at Batang Lupar?

A map of the forts and villages of Patusan which appears in Henry Keppel‘s account of The Expedition to Borneo of HMS. Dido for the Suppression of Piracy (1846). Credits: Public Domain.

Conrad described Patusan as a remote backwater in the South Seas, forgotten by the rest of the world. Before Jim arrived to the country, it is ruled by various factions of native Malay people.

The famous theory of what inspired this fictional Patusan is that it might be the actual Patusan. It is a historical Sarawakian fort on the Batang Lupar river where the HMS Dido led by Captain Henry Keppel fought on behalf of Brooke in 1844.

The map of the forts and villages of Patusan was actually featured in Keppel’s account of The Expedition to Borneo of HMS Dido for the Suppression of Piracy (1846).

However, one theory pointed out that Patusan might actually by Berau which is located in East Kalimantan province in Indonesian Borneo.

This was because Conrad actually visited Berau four times during his career as a merchant marine officer.

Other than Borneo, another hypothesis theorised Patusan might be in the island of Sumatra, based on the passage route written in Lord Jim.

Nonetheless, Patrick Tourchon in a study “Joseph Conrad & Sarawak: How if Patusan were in Patusan?” strongly believed that Sarawak alone was on Conrad’s mind when he wrote Lord Jim.

Many disagreed with this theory because first of all, Conrad never actually visited Sarawak.

Tourchon argued, “But this only proves that Conrad’s knowledge about Sarawak came exclusively from books: a point nobody dreams of challenging, and which would rather confirm that Conrad left Patusan where he found it so as not to take any risk.”

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Joseph Conrad and his letter to The Ranee

Scholars could continue to argue if Patusan was really located in Sarawak, but as what Tourchon wrote, they could not argue how the first White Rajah was partly the inspiration behind Lord Jim.

Conrad even gushed about Brooke in a letter to Ranee Margaret on July 15, 1920.

He wrote, “The first Rajah Brooke has been one of my boyish admirations, a feeling I have kept to this day strengthened by the better understanding of the greatness of his character and the unstained rectitude of his purpose. The book which has found of the first Rajah’s enterprise and even by the lecture of his journals as partly reproduced by Captain Mundy and others.”

Conrad also expressed his admiration on the Ranee’s autobiography. He continued, “It was never my good fortune to see Kuching; and indeed my time in the Archipelago was short, though it left most vivid impressions and some highly valued memories.”

“It was a very great pleasure to read “My Life in Sarawak”, recalling so many things (which, I, myself, have only half seen) with so much charm and freshness and a loving understanding of the land and the people. I have looked into that book many times since.”

He even admitted to Margaret that he wrote The Rescue, A Romance of the Shallows (1920) partly inspired by the Ranee’s book.

After all, drawing from inspiration and working on their own experiences is how many writers become great. For Conrad, who never visited Sarawak, he drew his inspiration from his reading experience.

Patricia Hului
Patricia Hului is a Kayan who wants to live in a world where you can eat whatever you want and not gain weight. She grew up in Bintulu, Sarawak and graduated from the University Malaysia Sabah with a degree in Marine Science. She worked for The Borneo Post SEEDS, which is now defunct. When she's not writing, you can find her in a studio taking belly dance classes, hiking up a hill or browsing through Pinterest. Follow her on Instagram at @patriciahului, Facebook at Patricia Hului at Kajomag.com or Twitter at @patriciahului.
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