Joseph Conrad and Singapore newspapers

I was pleasantly surprised to see the Straits Times mentioned in Joseph Conrad’s first novel, Almayer’s Folly. It’s at the beginning of Chapter 4:

That year, towards the breaking up of the south-west monsoon, disquieting rumours reached Sambir. Captain Ford, coming up to Almayer’s house for an evening’s chat, brought late numbers of the Straits Times giving the news of Acheen war and of the unsuccessful Dutch expedition.

It’s interesting because Conrad was writing in the late 19th century about a Dutch trader living deep in the jungles of Borneo.

“The Acheen war of the 1870s was the result of a broken agreement made by Holland and Great Britain to respect the integrity of the kingdom of Atjeh in Sumatra,” according to the book, Joseph Conrad: Third World Perspectives, edited by Robert D Hamner. The war dragged on for years. There are Straits Times reports of the continuing conflict as late as 1898.

Almayer was not a fictional character. In A Personal Record, Conrad described how he started writing the novel in London and wrote:

What I am certain of is that I was very far from thinking of writing a story, though it is possible and even likely that I was thinking of the man Almayer.

I had seen him for the first time, some four years before, from the bridge of a steamer moored to a rickety little wharf forty miles up, more or less, a Bornean river.

Almayer cuts a sorry figure in A Personal Record – and suffers misfortune in the novel, too. You could read it on The Literature Network or download it from Project Gutenberg.

I happened to be reading Conrad after The Writer’s Almanac mentioned him on his birthday. He was born on December 3, 1857 and died on August 3, 1924. I picked up Almayer’s Folly because it was his first novel.

What caught my attention was the mention of the Straits Times. Almayer was a Dutchman living in the jungle – and yet there he was, getting news from the Straits Times, brought in by a seaman.

What was the Straits Times like back then? There are digitized copies accessible from Singapore’s National Library Board website. Unlike now, the newspaper faced competition then.

The historian CM Turnbull in Dateline Singapore: 150 Years of the Straits Times, published in 1995, gives a detailed account. The Singapore Free Press, revived in 1884, was a formidable competitor, she writes. And then she adds:

Despite its difficulties, the circulation of the Straits Times jumped from 250 in 1983 to 300.

That seems ridiculously low compared with the 300,000 plus circulation now. But you must bear in mind the Straits Times then was for the European community and, according to Turnbull:

The 1891 census counted a European population of more than 2,500, with a further 1,700 transients.

The newspaper had a limited market.

Conrad must have been familiar with the paper, having visited Singapore off and on as a seaman between 1883 and 1888.

He recalled Singapore fondly in an interview with a Polish journalist in London. “The sea is found only on the way to Singapore and to Australia,” he said. “I would enjoy reliving those moments in Singapore when the command of a ship was turned over to me for the first time as captain.”  He left Singapore in January 1888 to take command of the ship, Otago, waiting in Bangkok, and sail to Australia. It was the only ship he commanded.

Almayer’s Folly was published in 1895. Singapore newspapers followed his career almost from the start. The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser reported in September 1895:

Mr Joseph Conrad, author of Almayer’s Folly, is writing a new romance with the same setting and some of the same characters… The title of the romance … is An Outcast of the Island.

The Straits Times reported in  December 1902:

A book of considerable interest to all Singaporeans will be found in Youth and Two Other Stories by  Joseph Conrad… Youth deals in an interesting manner with the voyage of an ancient baroque carrying coals from Newcastle to Bangkok, the second story, Heart of Darkness, with the Congo ivory trade, whilst the third, The End of the Tether, with the Straits coasting trade of years ago.

The Singapore Free Press was unabashed in its praise of Conrad after a theatrical production of his novel, Victory, in May 1919. It said:

The Malayan Archipelago has provided material for innumerable, and among living novelists who have found in this part of the world a fruitful field of romance the man who stands out head and shoulders above the rest is Joseph Conrad.

Of course, every writer has his critics. The Straits Times reported in October 1924, just two months after Conrad’s death:

Sir Hugh Clifford, who has just been appointed Governor of Ceylon… began his career in the Malay States in 1883, and remained in the East for some 20 years. This it was which enabled him to call on Joseph Conrad, soon after Almayer’s Folly was published, and inform him authoritatively that he knew nothing whatever about Malays. Conrad took the rebuke in good part, for it was combined with much appreciation for which he was grateful, and replied, “If I knew half as much about the Malays as you and Frank Swettenam, I would make everybody sit up.”

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