Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Arte: Joseph Conrad and Me—Sarawak’s French Connection to Lord Jim

Pierre Duyckaerts and Sebastien Bardos

“The mysterious East faced me, perfumed like a flower, silent like death, dark like a grave,” wrote Joseph Conrad, the Polish-born English novelist of Heart of DarknessAlmayer’s Folly, and An Outcast of the Islands.  When French documentary maker Sebastien Bardos of Elephant Doc contacted me in late March about his project “Conrad’s Malay­sia” he asked me a question.  Of course, Conrad had been to Borneo where he had set several of his novels, but the question posed to me, had he ever been to Sarawak?  The short answer is no, but the long answer is, without Sarawak, Lord Jim would never have been written.

Sebastien works with Laure Michel, who came to Sarawak in 2017 for a Somerset Maugham and Sarawak pepper document­aries, which I had blogged about in the five-part series “Somerset Maugham and Me.”  Like Maugham, Conrad will be filmed for the Franco-German Cultural Channel Arte for the program “The Invitation to Travel” or L’Invitation au Voyage to be aired in October 2019.

Sebastien will be working with Karen Shepherd, who had worked with Laure on the pepper docu­mentary and her husband Peter John, featured in the segment “A Personal Invitation”.  On the previous production, Karen and I worked closely with Laure, recom­mend­ing people and sites.  We did the same with Sebastien until he hired fixer Edgar Ong, who for thirty years had worked in the local filming industry including such notable films as Farewell to the King (1989) with Nick Nolte and The Sleeping Dictionary (2003) with Jessica Alba, both set in Sara­wak.

Edgar would partner with Adrian Cornelius who scouts locations and deals with logistics.  Adrian is also involved with the on-again-off-again film The White Rajah, about the life of James Brooke, that dates back eighty years to the mid-1930’s when Errol Flynn was originally scheduled to star, until delays and World War Two came along.  I met Adrian last year with Rob Nevis while discussing taking part in The Road to Nationhood series. Initially I was considered for a non-speaking role of Charles Brooke but ended up play­ing smaller roles, including a man who was beheaded (sadly cut from the documentary) and Captain Henry Keppel—who, as it turned out, gave Joseph Conrad a helping hand in writing Lord Jim.  More about that later.

Edgar had called for a meeting in May to work out some preliminary details and suggestions for locations (I had suggested Fort Margherita for my segment), but the day that we had agreed upon proved problematic for me.  My Bidayuh mother-in-law had passed away and that was the day of her funeral.

Getting reacquainted with Joseph Conrad, I reread Almayer’s Folly and Lord Jim and delved into the thorny issue of his connection to Sara­wak.  Born in 1857 at the height of the British Empire, Joseph Conrad started writing late, in his thirties, after twenty years in the merchant marines, four with the French and sixteen with the Brit­ish.  Conrad always viewed himself as a writer who sailed, rather than a sailor who wrote, and used the pen name Joseph Conrad for his first novel, Almayer’s Folly, set on the coast of Borneo.  Almayer’s Folly, together with its suc­cessor An Outcast of the Islands, laid the foundation for Conrad’s repu­tation as a romantic teller of exotic tales, a label he disliked; he felt it was a misunderstanding of his purpose and it would frustrate him over his career.

Although Conrad had never been to Sarawak, he did have three significant connections to Sarawak that greatly aided his writing of Lord Jim.  Published in 1900, Lord Jim was famously based, at least the second half of the book, on James Brooke, the first White Raja of Sarawak.  An English adventurer, Brooke sailed into Borneo in 1838 and earned the title White Raja after assisting Pangeran Muda Hashim of Brunei in defeating the rebels led by Datu Patinggi Ali.

The first half of Lord Jim, however, deals with the Patna incident, whereby the captain, the first mate (Lord Jim) and two crew members abandoned what they thought was a sinking ship leaving hundreds of passengers to their own fate.  This episode was based on an actual event.  In 1880, the S.S. Jeddah travelled to Singapore to Penang en route to Jeddah and began to take on water during a tropical storm; the captain and some crew abandoned ship with 700 pass­engers aboard.  The ship didn’t sink, so there was a huge outcry and a trial in Singapore over their cow­ard­ly actions.

Coincidently, James Brooke had an Official Inquiry in Singapore over mis­leading the British about killing so-called pirates to collect bounty, when in fact he was fighting natives defend­ing their land.  Like the character Lord Jim, James Brooke had been living under a cloud.

Resisting British imperialism, Brooke founded his own dynasty, the White Rajas that ruled a jungle kingdom larger than England for one hundred years.  James Brooke became a cause celebrity, often written about in Illustrated London News, which was founded in 1842, coin­ciding with the start of Brooke’s ‘war’ against the so-called pirates.  Brooke was mythi­cized as an Imperial Hero, capturing the imagination of would-be romantics and adven­turers.  In addition to being the model for Lord Jim, James Brooke was the inspiration for Rud­yard Kip­ling’s “The Man Who Would Be King”.  Conrad was hailed as ‘the Kipling of the Malay Archipelago’.

On 6 July, I arrived at The Ranee Boutique Suites at the Waterfront where Edgar Ong intro­duced me to Sebastien Bardos and Pierre Duyckaerts, who had flown in from Penang on about two hours sleep.  They found the heat in Penang oppressive and had been sweating nonstop.  I didn’t have the heart to tell them that Kuching might be worse because of the humidity; luckily for them, it was partly cloudy outside.
Sebastien told me that for the Conrad story they had previously inter­viewed Jean-Luc Henriot in Singapore, Serge Jardin in Kuala Lumpur, and in Penang, Gareth Richards, who runs the Gerakbudaya bookstore.  Serge Jardin, who I believe I met in Penang many years ago, lives in Malacca and took part in the Somerset Maugham docu­mentary.  Sebastien informed me that my book Trois autres Malaisie, the French transla­tion of Lovers and Strangers Revisited, was being listed in French travel guide­books to Malay­sia, good news for my French publish­er, Editions GOPE

Over coffee and tea, Edgar ran through the shooting schedule for the next three days.  Before leaving the hotel, Pierre hooked me up with a microphone.  The plan was for Adrian to drive us across the Sarawak River to Fort Margherita, but I suggested it would be better for Sebastien and Pierre to take a tambang across, which I thought would be more interesting and quicker than a roundabout drive and risk getting stuck in traffic.  Adrian could meet us at Fort Margherita.


Sebastien and Pierre were expecting a bigger boat, perhaps like the one the tourists use for the Sarawak River Cruise, so they seemed taken aback when I pointed out the tambang waiting for us.  We ducked our heads and climbed aboard.  I sat up front looking out at the river while Pierre filmed me taking in the view and also the steers­man, while trying to catch the splashing sounds made by the tambang.  Once we reached the other side, they filmed me climbing out onto the small jetty where a few passengers were waiting to board.  Unfor­tun­ate­ly they had to wait a little longer since Pierre wanted to film the steersman in front of the tambang.  The waiting passengers watched with amusement.

After filming the tambang departing the jetty, Pierre filmed another arriving with Kuching as a backdrop.  He took more shots of the Waterfront and then filmed me standing at the edge of the jetty.  I was told to keep my lower body planted (and to avoid falling into the river behind me); however, I could move my upper body as I talked about Joseph Conrad, who died in 1924, on the 3rd of August, which happens to be my birthday.  Sebastien and Pierre wore hats while I melted in the late-morning, partly cloudy sun.  Thankfully, Sebastien had an um­brella, which provided us shade in between shots.

In addition to Conrad and his connection to James Brooke, I was asked to speak a little about Kuching—its history, its reputation as a river city, the Waterfront and the antique galleries at the Main Bazaar, as well as my own impressions when I first visited Kuching twenty years ago.  I purposely did not talk about the ubiquitous cat statues; Kuching means cat in Malay.

We took a short hike up to Fort Margherita and found Adrian who offered us lime-flavored 100Plus isotonic drinks, their first.  Pierre then filmed me with the fort behind me in the dis­tance as we continued with the interview.  Fort Margherita was named after the Second White Raja’s wife, Ranee Mar­garet Brooke, author of My Life in Sarawak.  I pointed out another, though minor Sarawak connection, when Conrad wrote a letter to the Ranee, praising her Uncle, James Brooke.

“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 that has found favour in your eyes has been inspired in a great measure by the history of the first Rajah’s enterprise and even by the lecture of his journals as partly reproduced by Captain Mundy and others.”

Conrad knew the Malay Archipelago as a sailor.  In writing Lord Jim and other Borneo-based novels, he could rely on his own observations for the natural surroundings and the sea.  His landfalls, however, were limited to four stops at Berau in East Kalimantan, which he used as a setting for Almayer’s Folly.  Instead, he relied on read­ing first-hand accounts by others including James Brooke’s journals and those who had written about him, as mentioned in the above letter.  He also relied heavily on a second major connec­tion to Sarawak, Alfred Russel Wallace, of the Wallace Line fame, who was based in Sarawak for fourteen months, collecting birds and beetles and other specimens to ship back to England. 

Wallace travelled extensively throughout the region and wrote about his experience in The Malay Archipelago (1869), highly regarded as a great travel book and the most famous book on the Malay Archi­pelago—the very reason Con­rad kept the book handy at his bedside, which he had used for several novels.  Conrad not only relied on Wallace’s description of the area but also used Wallace himself as a model for the character Stein in Lord Jim.  Stein was the man whom Marlowe had convinced to hire Lord Jim to work for him in some remote, out-of-the-way locale…so he was sent to Patusan, a third connection to Sarawak.

Some experts have argued that Patusan, the setting used in Lord Jim, was based on Berau in East Kalimantan, a place Conrad had visited.  Others suggested that Patusan was located in Java; however, con­vincing arguments have been made that Patusan was in fact based on an actual site on the Batang Lupar river in Sarawak that was called—Patusan.  Although Conrad was never there, he did read about Patusan in a book by Captain Henry Keppel.  A friend of James Brooke, Keppel wrote about their exploits in Borneo in The Expedition to Borneo on HMS Dido for the Suppression of the Pirates—another significant tie to Sarawak.

More importantly, inside of Keppel’s book was an actual map of Patusan, identifying the fort and village that Conrad had put to good use since he had never been there himself.  By look­ing at the map, you could see that Conrad followed it closely in his descriptions of the fort and the village, the river, the tributaries—integral to the ending of Lord Jim.  That map, along with Keppel’s descriptions of Patusan, was perfect for Conrad to use in Lord Jim—in lieu of actually visiting the location—just as Conrad had based the Patna incident on the real S.S. Jeddah and the subsequent trial in Singapore.

Incidentally, although Joseph Conrad never visited Sarawak or Patusan, present day Sri Aman, another famous English writer did—Somer­set Maugham.  Maugham, in fact, nearly died in Patusan in the 1920’s in a tidal bore and wrote a story about the incident, “Yel­low Streak.”

When I finished speaking, we went to another side of Fort Margherita so Pierre could take some more shots.  He then brought out a drone and I couldn’t help but recall what happened to the drone used in other French documentary; it went around a bend and struck an over­hanging branch and was lost in the river.  Pierre used the drone to film me walking alongside Fort Margherita; then walking down some steps and approaching the entrance.

Later, after enough footage had been taken outside of Fort Margherita (after Sebastien and I had finished solving the world’s problems), Pierre packed the drone away and we entered the Fort.  Pressed for time, we had to bypass the nicely done Brooke Gallery@FortMargherita.  They filmed me inside the fort climbing the stairs and making my way along the parapet walk on two sides, past a bolted but unlocked door containing some heads.  I had first seen the human heads about twenty years ago, which they kept in a suspended rattan basket, but now covered with traditional cloth to keep tourists from disturbing them.  Previously I had blogged about seeing heads at a Bidayuh longhouse and being disturbed that evening at my wife’s village by an actual spirit—my first and hopefully my last encounter.  

by Paul Carling
by Paul Carling

I kept asking Sebastien if they wanted me to open the door to have a peek inside but they didn’t seem to understand the significance, so I would glance at the door each time I passed by, only natural since there was a skull painted on the door.  Sebastien did press me about my views of how the Bidayuh revered James Brooke because he had put an end to their seemingly endless slaughter by the Iban head-hunters.  Back in the 1840’s, village after village, including my wife’s village, Quop, had been decimated.

At a lookout tower, they filmed me gazing out at the Sarawak River, slowly turn­ing my head from right to left.  Back on the parapet walk, despite the mid-afternoon sun beating down on me, the clouds having long since departed, we continued with the interview.  I talked about the tragic fates that Conrad gave to the principle characters of his novels and stories.  He often saw the darker side of man whether it was The Heart of Darkness in the Belgian Congo, The Secret Agent, or the elusive anti-hero of Lord Jim, trying to escape the shame of abandoning the Patna, while still remaining noble—not an easy task for any man to do.  This was also the theme of Lord Jim, the restora­tion of a man’s honor and pride.  In many ways the character Lord Jim is one of us…tragic; a part of him would always be kept secret so we would never know like others will never know our own secrets.

view of Old Courthouse with Cat



After wrapping up the filming at Fort Margherita, we dropped off Pierre at the hotel so he could take some shots of the nearby historical building since there was still sun.  Adrian then took Sebastien and me to the Old Courthouse where we met with Karen Shep­herd, who would be talking more in depth about Alfred Russel Wallace, and Peter John, about the local inhabitants.

Edgar Ong joined us.  Sebastien and the others tried to finalize the details and the logistics for the next two days of filming in Kuching.  They had just settled on an itinerary—Santubong for one day and Bau, Siniawan and the river along Suba Buan for the other day—when Sebastien asked about seeing some wildlife, particularly the proboscis monkeys or the orang­utans, to work into the documentary.  Since they couldn’t do both (located in opposite directions) and still complete the other filming in Bau, they settled on Bako National Park where they could see plenty of wildlife in addition to the proboscis monkeys and some jungle shoots for Karen.

Proboscis monkey, Sarawak Tourism

Since my part of the Joseph Conrad filming had come to an end, I called it a day, feeling rather burnt out from way too much sun, yet feeling satisfied in knowing that without Sarawak, Joseph Conrad would never have written Lord Jim.

*Here is the link to the video on Lord Jim.


Somerset Maugham and MePart I-V 

Beheaded on the Road to Nation­hood—Part I 

Beheaded on the Road to Nation­hood—Part II 


Oogamy said...

It was fantastic to have finally met you back here in Kuching, as you reminded me that we had actually met many many moons ago at an event in Singapore. Thanks for this excellent and in depth write up of the French shoot. Bravo!

Oogamy said...

That's me Edgar with my registered Blogger name of Oogamy.

Borneo Expat Writer said...

It was either Singapore or Kuala Lumpur at the same event. I attended one in KL and two more in Singapore.