His early life
Joseph Conrad was born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in Berdychiv, now in the Ukraine but then part of the Russian Empire. His father Apollon, a Polish poet and landowner, was arrested in 1862 for his role in a conspiracy against the Russians and was sentenced to exile deep in Russia. By the time Korzeniowski was 12, both his parents had died of tuberculosis.
In the French merchant navy
Korzeniowski always had a yearning for the sea, apparently inspired by reading the works of Victor Hugo as a child. With the help of an allowance from his uncle, he left for Marseille at the age of 16.
In June 1875 he made his first trip as a trainee seamen on a voyage to Haiti. Over the next three years, he travelled to the West Indies and South America, and was even involved in smuggling guns to Spain on the Tremolino.
|Marseille harbour, 1895. © NMM|
His first British ships
In April 1878 he joined the Mavis - his first British ship – as an able bodied seaman. He sailed to Constantinople and the Black Sea before returning to Lowestoft. After trips to and from Newcastle on the Skimmer of the Sea, he joined the Duke of Sutherland in October 1878. He spent the next year sailing to Sydney and back.
|The Duke of Sutherland in April 1888. © NMM|
After trips to the Mediterranean on the steamer Europe, Korzeniowski qualified as Second Mate in the British Merchant Service in June 1880. He then sailed to Sydney on the Loch Etive.
|The Loch Etive in Melbourne in 1888. © NMM|
Over the next few years, he sailed on all the major international trade routes. He went to the Far East on the Palestine. An explosion on board forced the crew to abandon ship. He later went to Madras on the Riversdale, returning home on the Narcissus, and sailed to Calcutta and Singapore on the Tilkhurst.
|The port of Calcutta, c. 1870. © NMM|
Master and Citizen
Throughout this time, Korzeniowski continued to study to improve his prospects. In December 1884 he had passed the exam to become First Mate, and in November 1886 he gained his Master’s Certificate. Two months earlier he had become a naturalized British citizen, as only British citizens could command British vessels.
|Joseph Conrad's Master's Certificate. © NMM|
Master of the Otago
Despite his Master's Certificate, new commands were always in short supply. After spells as Second Mate on the Falconhurst and a trip to the Far East as First Mate on the Highland Forest, Korzeniowski obtained his only sea command in January 1888. This was the Australian-owned vessel Otago. He remained with her for over a year.
|The Otago (1869). © NMM|
Korzeniowski began his first novel around this time, but in 1890 he fulfilled another childhood dream by commanding a river steamer in the Belgian Congo.
He returned to the sea as Chief Officer of the passenger liner Torrens, in which he made two return trips to Adelaide in 1891 and 1892.
|The Torrens (1875). © NMM|
After leaving the Torrens, he served on the Channel steamer Adowa for a few months. When he left her in January 1894, he left the sea for good.