Conrad First The Joseph Conrad Periodical Archive
Extract (Geography and Some Explorers)

Interesting Bulletins of World Scenes

in The Evening Tribune (Providence, RI, USA)

Available at Google News Archive. Click here.

Article reads:

"What geography and exploration, and the sea meant for him, the late Joseph Conrad told recently in some personal memoirs which he wrote for the National Geographic Magazine.

'Of all the sciences,' he wrote, 'geography finds its origin in action, and, what is more in adventurous action, of the kind that appeals to sedentary people, who like to dream of arduous adventure in the manner of prisoners dreaming behind their bars of all the hardships and hazards of liberty, dear to the heart of man.

'Descriptive geography, like any other kind of science, has been built on the experience of certain phenomena and on experiments prompted by that unappeasable curiosity of men which their intelligence has elevated into a quiet respectable passion for acquiring knowledge. Like other sciences, it has fought its way to truth through a long series of errors. It has fought its way to truth through a long series of errors (sic). It has suffered from the love of the marvelous, from our unwarrantable assumptions, from the play of unbridled fancy.'

Speaking of a book detailing the tragic fate of Sir John Franklin, lost in the Arctic in the early part of the nineteenth century, he said, 'The great spirit of my inner self, to the discovery of the taste for poring over land and sea maps, revealed to me the existence of a latent devotion to geography which interfered with my devotion (such as it was) to my other school work.

'Unfortunately, the marks awarded for that subject were almost as few as the hours apportioned to it in the school curriculum by persons of no romantic sense for the real, ignorant of the great possibilities of active life, with no desire for struggle, no notion of the wide spaces of the world--mere bored professors, in fact, who were not only middle-aged, but looked to me as if they had never been young.

'And their geography was very much like themselves, a bloodless thing, with a dry skin covering a repulsive armature of uninteresting bones.

'The geography which I had discovered for myself was the geography of open spaces and wide horizons, built up on men's devoted work in the open air, but already conscious of its approaching end with the death of the last great explorer. The antagonism was real.

'Thus it happened that I got no marks at all for my first and only paper on Arctic geography, which I wrote at the tender age of thirteen. I still think that for my tender years it was an erudite performance.

'I have no doubt that star-gazing is a fine occupation, for it leads you within the borders of the unattainable. But map-gazing, to which I became addicted to early, brings the problems of the great spaces of the earth into stimulting and directive contact with sane curiosity and gives an honest precision to one's imaginative faculty.

'And the honest maps of the nineteenth century nourished in me a passionate interest in the truth of geographical facts and a desire for precise knowledge which was extended later to other subjects.

'For a change had come over the spirit of cartographers. From the middle of the eighteenth century on, the business of map-making had been growing into an honest occupation, registering the hard-won knowledge, but also, in a scientific spirit, recording the geographical ignorance of its time.

'And it was in Africa, the continent out of which the Romans used to say some new things (sic) was always coming, that got cleared of the dull imaginary wonders of the Dark Ages, which were replaced by exciting spaces of white paper. Regions unknown! My Imagination could depict to itself there worthy, adventurous, and devoted men nibbling at the edges, attacking from north and south and east and west, conquering a bit of truth here and a bit of truth there, and sometimes swallowed up by the mystery their hearts were so persistently set on unveiling.

'I stand here confessed as a contemporary of the Great Lakes of Africa. Yes, I could have heard of their discovery in my cradle, and it was only right that, grown to a boy's estate, I should have in the later sixties done my first bit of map-drawing and paid my first homage to the prestige of their first explorers. It consisted in entering laboriously in pencil the outline of Tanganyika on my beloved old atlast, which, having been published in 1852, knew nothing of the Great Lakes. The heart of Africa was white and big.

'Surely it could have been nothing but a romantic impulse which prompted the idea of bringing it up to date with all the accuracy of which I was capable. Thus I could imagine myself stepping in the very footprints of geographical discovery.

'Not the least interesting part in the study of geographical discovery lies in the insight it gives one into the characters of that special kind of men who devoted the best part of their lives to the exploration of land and sea.

'In the world of mentality and imagination which I was entering, it was they, and not the characters of famous fiction, who were my first friends. Of some of them I had soon formed for myself an image indissolubly connected with certain parts of the world.

'I have smoked a pipe of peace at midnight in the very heart of the African continent, and felt very lonely there. But never so at sea. There I never felt lonely, because there I never lacked company--the company of great navigators, the first grown-up friends of my early boyhood. The unchangeable sea preserves for one the sense of its past, the memory of things accomplished by wisdom and daring among its restless waves.

'It was these things that command my profoundest loyalty and perhaps it is by the professional favor of the great navigators, ever present to my memory that, neither explorer nor scientific navigator, I have been permitted to sail through the very heart of the old Pacific mystery; a region which even in my time remained very imperfectly charted and still remote from the knowledge of men.

'Thus the sea has been for me a hallowed ground, thanks to those books of travel and discovery which had peopled it for me with unforgettable shades of the masters in the calling which in a humble way was to be mine, too--men great in their endeavor and in hard-won successes of militant geography; men who went forth, each according to his lights and with varied motives, laudable or sinful, but each bearing in his breast a spark of the sacred fire.'"