In the late nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth, nothing reshaped the world more than European imperialism. It redrew the map, enriched Europe, and left millions of Africans and Asians dead. For example, in 1870, some 80 percent of Africa south of the Sahara was under the control of indigenous kings, chiefs, or other such rulers. Within 35 years, virtually the entire continent, only a few patches excepted, was made up of European colonies or protectorates. France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Spain, and the United Kingdom had all seized pieces of “this magnificent African cake,” in the words of King Leopold II of Belgium—who took an enormous slice for himself.

In Asia in these same years, the British tightened their grip on the Indian subcontinent, the French on Indochina, and the Dutch on what today is Indonesia. Japan, Russia, and half a dozen European countries, even the tottering Austro-Hungarian Empire, won enclaves or concessions in China. Meanwhile, the United States fought a ruthless war in the Philippines, killing several hundred thousand Filipinos to establish an American colony.

It is startling, however, how seldom such events appear in the work of the era’s European writers. It would be as if almost no major nineteenth-century American novelist dealt with slavery or no major twentieth-century German one wrote about the Holocaust. It’s not that Europeans were unaware. Hundreds of thousands of them had lived or worked in the colonies, and the fruits of empire were everywhere on display: in palatial mansions and grand monuments built with colonial fortunes, in street names such as Rue de Madagascar in Bordeaux and Khartoum Road in London, in shops full of foreign trinkets and spices. In 1897, more than one million visitors came to see a world’s fair on the outskirts of Brussels that featured 267 Congolese men, women, and children, living in huts and paddling canoes around a pond. There were similar human exhibits at fairs in the United States.

Writers, however, were largely silent. Mark Twain was a forthright critic of imperial cruelty in the Philippines and Africa, but only in some shorter pieces in the last decade and a half of his life. George Orwell would be profoundly disillusioned by his years as a police officer in British-ruled Burma, but he did not return from there and begin writing until 1927; Burmese Days, his debut novel, appeared in 1934. If turn-of-the-century writers approached imperialism at all, it was usually to celebrate it, as did John Buchan and Rudyard Kipling in the United Kingdom and similar literary cheerleaders in France and Germany.

The standout exception was Joseph Conrad. In his novel Nostromo, the American mining tycoon Holroyd declares, “We shall run the world’s business whether the world likes it or not.” Conrad’s most searing portrait of such business is Heart of Darkness, published in 1899. No one who reads that book can ever again imagine the colonizers of Africa as they liked to portray themselves: unselfishly spreading Christianity and the benefits of commerce. “To tear treasure out of the bowels of the land was their desire,” says Marlow, Conrad’s narrator and alter ego, “with no more moral purpose at the back of it than there is in burglars breaking into a safe.” The Congo at this time was the privately owned colony of Leopold II, whose ruthless regime conscripted huge numbers of Congolese as forced laborers—to gather ivory, wild rubber, food for the king’s soldiers, firewood for the steamboats that plied the rivers, and much more. But the novelist does not imply that there was anything uniquely Belgian about this burglary, represented by Mr. Kurtz, the rapacious ivory hunter who is the book’s villain. “All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz.”

Conrad lived in a far wider world than even the greatest of his contemporaries, such as Marcel Proust or James Joyce, and this is what animates The Dawn Watch, the gracefully written new book about him by the Harvard historian Maya Jasanoff. Born Jozef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski to Polish parents, he left home at age 16 to sail the world on merchant ships for two decades, then settled in the United Kingdom and became a writer. Although Conrad “wouldn’t have known the word ‘globalization,’” Jasanoff writes, “with his journey from the provinces of imperial Russia across the high seas to the British home counties, he embodied it.” And despite some racial stereotypes in his portrayals of Africans and, to a lesser extent, Asians, he recognized a multiethnic world: half of what he wrote, she points out, is set in Southeast Asia. No other writer of his time was dealing so trenchantly with encounters between Europeans and the non-European world.

Conrad lived in a far wider world than even the greatest of his contemporaries.

Conrad’s involvement with imperialism, political rebels, and the life of the sea just when steam was replacing sail made him attuned to dimensions of the world that remain relevant today. “The heirs of Conrad’s technologically displaced sailors are to be found in industries disrupted by digitization,” Jasanoff writes. “The analogues to his anarchists are to be found in Internet chat rooms or terrorist cells. The material interests he centered in the United States emanate today as much from China.” Conrad was not a theorist of globalization, even under another name, but Jasanoff’s take on him is a bracing reminder that in an age when writers often worked on a geographically limited stage—think of Wessex, for instance, the name Thomas Hardy gave to the part of England where he set nearly all his novels—Conrad’s stage spanned the globe. And there are still very few major novelists about whom one could say that today.


Conrad’s life, so much of it lived in far corners of the world, has kept critics and biographers busy for decades, their task made all the more challenging by the web of evasions he spun in several unreliable memoirs of his own. The Dawn Watch is by no means as comprehensive a biography as others, particularly the masterful Joseph Conrad: A Life by Zdzislaw Najder (2007); in fact, it’s not really a full biography so much as a meditation on the novelist’s life and several of his major works. Still, the book is a great pleasure to read, for Jasanoff is driven to understand the world that shaped a writer she loves. To draw closer to his maritime experience, she traveled by container ship from Hong Kong to England; by a 134-foot, two-masted sailing vessel from Ireland to Brittany; and by riverboat down a thousand miles of the Congo River. Yet she mentions these voyages only modestly, using them not to boast of her enterprise but to evoke Conrad’s life on the water: the remarkable width of the Congo River, for instance, or the rhythm of mariners’ talk when you are out of sight of land for days at a time and your senses focus on the sea, the sunrise, the weather.

Jasanoff has also visited many of the places where Conrad lived, and she sketches them with a novelist’s eye: “Marseille, city of olive oil, orange trees, sweet wine, and sacks of spice, mouth open to the Mediterranean and eye cocked toward the Atlantic, city of Crusaders, revolutionaries, the Count of Monte Cristo.” She brings the same skillful pen to people who shaped the world Conrad lived in, such as King Leopold II, who, she writes, had “a nose like a mountain slope and a beard like a waterfall foaming over his chest.” Her descriptive powers make for a fitting homage to a writer who said that the work of the written word was “to make you hear, to make you feel . . . before all, to make you see.”  

The old port of Marseille, June 2015
The old port of Marseille, June 2015
Pool / Reuters

Exploring Conrad’s world, particularly the changes in ocean commerce that occurred over his lifetime, leads Jasanoff down some fascinating byways. The switch from sail to steam meant fewer jobs: there weren’t all those sails to set and furl, and steamships were larger and could carry much bigger cargoes. Hence it was a tough employment market, and Conrad seems to have spent as much time looking for a berth as actually serving in one. Once he was able to sign on to a British long-haul sailing ship as first or second mate, he was likely to find that more than 40 percent of the crew were foreigners like him: the wages were lower than many British workers earned onshore, but princely to someone from Asia or eastern Europe. (Jasanoff found the same thing to be true today for the Filipino crew of the container ship she traveled on.) And she points out that even during the long twilight of the sailing vessel, the cost of coal meant that transport by sail was still financially competitive on routes of more than 3,500 miles, which was one reason Conrad still often worked on such ships, much to the later benefit of his readers.

Conrad’s involvement with imperialism, political rebels, and the life of the sea just when steam was replacing sail made him attuned to dimensions of the world that remain relevant today.


Nowhere is Conrad’s encounter with the world outside Europe more powerfully rendered than in Heart of Darkness, probably the most widely read, acclaimed, and written about short novel in English. The book gains its power from being closely based on six months Conrad spent in the Congo in 1890. He had signed up for what he expected to be an adventurous post as a steamboat captain, but as he trained for the job, he was horrified by the greed and brutality he saw, fell ill with dysentery and malaria, and cut short his stay to return to Europe. Many of the details in Heart of Darkness—the slave laborers in chains, the rotting bodies of those who had been worked to death—can be found in the diary Conrad kept during the first weeks of his stay.

Villagers traveling by canoe on the Congo River, July 2006
Finbarr O'Reilly / Reuters

What gave him such a rare ability to see the arrogance and theft at the heart of imperialism? And to see that King Leopold’s much-promoted civilizing mission was founded on slave labor? Much of it surely had to do with the fact that he himself, as a Pole, knew what it was like to live in conquered territory. Throughout the nineteenth century, the land that is Poland today was divided among three neighboring empires, Austria-Hungary, Prussia, and Russia. The last, where most of Conrad’s family lived, was the most repressive; when he was three, Cossacks charged into churches to break up memorial services for a Polish nationalist hero. Furthermore, for the first few years of his life, tens of millions of peasants in the Russian empire were the equivalent of slave laborers: serfs.

Conrad’s poet father, Apollo Korzeniowski, was a Polish nationalist and an opponent of serfdom, although both he and his wife came from the class of country gentry that had sometimes owned serfs. For his nationalist activities, Korzeniowski was thrown into a harsh Warsaw prison and then herded into exile in northern Russia by the tsar’s police. His wife and four-year-old son went with him, and their time in the frigid climate exacerbated the tuberculosis that would kill Conrad’s mother when he was only seven. His father died only a few years later, and his funeral procession, in Austrian-occupied Krakow, turned into a huge demonstration of Polish nationalism. Small wonder that this boy who grew up among exiled prison veterans, talk of serfdom, and the news of relatives killed in uprisings was ready to distrust imperial conquerors who claimed they had the right to rule other peoples.

Few Europeans of Conrad’s time were outspokenly hostile to imperialism, and virtually all of them were on the left. Paradoxically, however, in everything else about his politics, Conrad was deeply conservative. He hated labor unions. For all his disgust with Russian and Belgian imperialism, he believed that British imperialism was splendid. Heart of Darkness was enthusiastically welcomed by the largely British “Congo reformers,” who were agitating against King Leopold’s forced-labor regime, but Conrad was wary of identifying himself with their movement, even though one of its key figures was the Irishman Roger Casement, with whom he had bonded when they briefly shared a house in the Congo. Conrad had no use for the socialist idealism in which so many British intellectuals—including several close friends—had great faith. In his two most self-consciously political novels, The Secret Agent, about anarchists in London, and Under Western Eyes, about Russian revolutionaries in St. Petersburg and Geneva, almost all the characters are venal or hopelessly naive. Both groups are infiltrated by police informers. 

In one sense, Conrad’s dour vision served him well. Although Under Western Eyes was published six years before the Russian Revolution, he virtually predicted its fate. The novel’s narrator at one point says: “In a real revolution the best characters do not come to the front. A violent revolution falls into the hands of narrow-minded fanatics. . . . The noble, humane, and devoted . . . the unselfish and the intelligent may begin a movement—but it passes away from them. They are not the leaders of a revolution. They are its victims.”

In Russia, this turned out to be all too true. But this clumsy novel, with its wooden dialogue and stick-figure cast, would have been a far better one had Conrad demonstrated more empathy for such “noble, humane, and devoted” characters, no matter how misled they turn out to be. It is just that more capacious vision that gives greater depth to later novels dealing with the Soviet tragedy, such as Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago and Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate.

Conrad brilliantly saw many of the injustices of the world as it existed. But what gave him such a skeptical view of anyone who aspired to change it? Jasanoff suggests that this came from “the failure of his father’s political objectives,” but there is evidence to suggest otherwise. In Conrad’s A Personal Record, he speaks of his father as “simply a patriot” and not a revolutionary. And Korzeniowski’s political objectives were achieved during his son’s own lifetime, when Poles finally won their own homeland. Such a goal is certainly more benign than the dreams Conrad eviscerates in The Secret Agent and Under Western Eyes: the anarchist vision of the destruction of all governments and the Bolshevik one of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Conrad himself advocated Polish nationhood and honored the memory of his father; on a visit to Korzeniowski’s grave decades after his death, the novelist surprised his family by kneeling in prayer.

Conrad’s sweeping dismissal of all radicals and reformers surely came from elsewhere. In his late teens, when he was living in Marseille, he lost all his money by investing in the running of contraband goods—possibly guns—to Spain. He received a loan from a friend and attempted to recover his losses at the casinos but gambled it all away. Deeply depressed, he fired a pistol into his chest in an attempt at suicide, but, even more humiliating, the bullet missed his heart, and he survived. 

Rushing to Marseille to bail him out of trouble was his uncle, Tadeusz Bobrowski, his mother’s brother, who had acted as a guardian since the death of Conrad’s father. In person and in a long string of letters over the years, Bobrowski sternly disapproved of the young Conrad’s ambitions as impractical and romantic and kept urging his ward to do something sensible, such as returning to Krakow and going into business. Happily, he did not prevail.

Conrad also suffered a later acute embarrassment, which Jasanoff mentions only in passing. In the 1890s, he invested and lost almost all his savings, plus a modest inheritance, in a South African gold mine. Ironically, the South African gold rush was a get-rich-quick bonanza of the type that Conrad had written about so harshly in Nostromo, where the rush was for silver, and Heart of Darkness, where it was for ivory. More awkward still, these losses came just as he was getting married and starting a family. Small wonder that the plot of one of his best novels, Lord Jim, revolves around a man trying to live down an early disgrace. The archconservatism of his political views may well have stemmed from his mortification over these youthful indiscretions and his desire to prove himself sober and responsible in the eyes of his much-loved father figure, Bobrowski. 

In the best of his work, however, Conrad rose above the quirks and torments of his own life. He etched a deeper picture of the connections between the world’s North and South and portrayed the corrosive effect of the lust for riches more powerfully than any other writer of his day—and perhaps of our day as well.

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