The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’
by Joseph Conrad
It was acclaimed in its day as one of the best novels by one of the greatest prose stylists writing in English. It was the novel that helped decide Joseph Conrad’s future as a writer. It contains some of the most evocative writing about the sea and sailing ships ever written. But oh, my, that title. It’s enough to make you wish Conrad had been satisfied with the title used in his story's first American publication: Children of the Sea: A Tale of the Forecastle.
(Publisher Dodd, Mead and Company insisted on the more innocuous title not because it thought “nigger” was offensive¾ it was the 1890’s, after all¾ but because who would want to buy a book about a black man?)
In fact, it’s less a book about a black man than about the crew he is a part of. “A negro in a British forecastle is a lonely being. He has no chums,” Conrad wrote in the introduction titled “To My Readers in America.” But in his life and death, he becomes “the centre of the ship’s collective psychology and the pivot of the action ¼ mastering our compassion, scornful of our sentimentalism, triumphing over our suspicions.”
As the British merchant ship Narcissus (the name of a vessel Conrad actually served on) prepares to leave Bombay (now Mumbai), it finds itself one man short. “Can’t make out that last name,” the mate, Mr. Baker, complains when the crew is mustered. ¼ ‘Wait!; cried a deep, ringing voice.”
The newcomer is James Wait, a West Indian coming aboard improbably in the East Indies. He is “calm, cool, towering, superb.” But he carries a deadly weakness, at first only hinted at by his metallic cough. He is going home to die, infected with tuberculosis, the disease that took the lives of Conrad’s parents and millions of others.
The ship he works on has a secret, too. Like most sailing merchant ships of the day, the Narcissus is top-heavy with masts and sails, with a shallow draft that makes any shifting of cargo potentially fatal. “She was exacting,” Conrad writes in the “storm” chapter of his book. “She wanted care in loading and handling, and no one knew exactly how much care would be enough ¼ The ship knew, and sometimes would correct the presumptuous human ignorance by the wholesome discipline of fear.”
And fear they will, as Wait’s life and the ship’s hang in the balance rounding the storm-ridden waters around the tip of South Africa as the way back to England.
As Conrad writes, Wait has the attention of the entire crew, but no chums. And I suspect, neither did Conrad. Although he pictures most of the crew as British and English-speaking, he was neither. Like the lone Finn and the Scandinavian brothers Conrad portrays among the Narcissus crew, he would often have been as isolated by language as Wait was b y color. The orphaned son of Polish aristocrats, Conrad joined the French merchant marine service in his teens. When his French service was threatened by Russia (which then claimed most Polish territory), he switched in his twenties to service aboard British ships where his Russian citizenship was not a barrier. It was his first experience with the English language, which he would speak with a strong accent to the end of his life.
It’s easy to imagine that both his initially limited grasp of English and his status as an aristocrat and member of a European intellectual elite would have distanced him from comradeship with most of the crews he worked with. After nearly twenty years of seafaring life, he decided to become a writer, using an anglicized version of his given names, Joseph Conrad, to sail into literary history.
This short novel, only a little more than 50,000 words, with the awkward title is readily available on Amazon. Now out of copyright, it’s also available as a free e-book at Project Gutenberg,
(Next Wednesday, Adventure classics continues an August of adventures at sea with Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island.)