Joseph Conrad was an enigmatic man. Born in the landlocked far east of Poland as Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, he became a ship captain, and then one of the most famous names in English literature – even though he only learned the language when he was twenty.
Joseph Conrad never came to Tasmania, but the first ship he captained did. The Otago was skippered by Conrad from Bangkok to Sydney, and later to Mauritius, then back to Adelaide. Afterwards, though, when Conrad had gone back to Europe, it was purchased as a coal-hauling barge on the Derwent River. Its twenty-six year career ended in demolition.
Conrad was regarded as a moody skeptic, melancholy and wary of showing emotion, and his bachelorhood was confirmed by moral judgement. “This is not my marriage story,” writes Conrad in his book The Shadow-Line, its plot centred around his commissioning as captain of the Otago. “It wasn’t so bad as that for me.” And yet suddenly, in 1896, aged 38, Conrad went and married an Englishwoman. Jessie George was a young, plain, peasant girl. But they ended up having a sturdy, happy marriage until Conrad died in the 1920s. So go figure.
The Otago wreck remains on the eastern shore of the Derwent, and is a site of pilgrimage for fans of the taciturn author, who visit the wreck on the date of Conrad’s death, August 3. Common events for Korzeniowski Day, as it is called, involve reciting Polish translations of his work. Nic tak nie nęci, nie rozczarowuje i nie zniewala, jak życie na morzu, they recite from Lord Jim. “There is nothing more enticing, disenchanting, and enslaving than the life at sea.”
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