Joseph Conrad (1857-1924) was born in Berdichev, in the Ukraine, in a region that had once been a part of Poland but was then under Russian rule. His father Apollo Korzeniowski was an aristocrat without lands, a poet and translator of English and French literature. The family estates had been sequestrated in 1839 following an anti-Russian rebellion. As a boy the young Joseph read Polish and French versions of English novels with his father. When Apollo Korzeniowski became embroiled in political activities, he was sent to exile with his family to Volgoda, northern Russia, in 1861.
By 1869 Conrad's both parents had died of tuberculosis, and he was sent to Switzerland to his maternal uncle Tadeusz Bobrowski, who was to be a continuing influence on his life. Conrad attended schools in Kraków and persuaded his uncle to let him go to the sea. In the mid-1870s he joined the French merchant marine as an apprentice, and made three voyages to the West Indies between 1875 and 1878. During his youth Conrad also was involved in arms smuggling for the Carlist cause in Spain.
After being wounded in a duel or of a self-inflicted gunshot in the chest, Conrad continued his career at the seas for 16 years in the British merchant navy. This was a turning point in his life. Conrad rose through the ranks from common seaman to first mate, and by 1886 he obtained his master mariner's certificate, commanding his own ship, Otago. In the same year he was given British citizenship and he changed officially his name to Joseph Conrad.
In 1890 he sailed in Africa up the Congo River. The journey provided much material for his novel Heart of Darkness. However, the fabled East Indies particularly attracted Conrad and it became the setting of many of his stories. By 1894 Conrad's sea life was over. During the long journeys he had started to write and Conrad decided to devote himself entirely to literature. At the age of 36 Conrad settled down in England.
Although Conrad is known as a novelist, he tried his hand also as a playwright. His first one-act play was not success - the audience rejected it. But after finishing the text he learned the existence of the Censor of the Plays, which inspired his satirical essay about the obscure civil servant. Conrad was an Anglophile who regarded Britain as a land which respected individual liberties. As a writer he accepted the verdict of a free and independent public, but associated this official figure of censorship to the atmosphere of the Far East and the 'mustiness of the Middle Ages', which shouldn't be part of the twentieth-century England.
On my right hand there were lines of fishing stakes resembling a mysterious system of half-submerged bamboo fences, incomprehensible in its division of the domain of tropical fishes, and crazy of aspect as if abandoned forever by some nomad tribe of fishermen now gone to the other end of the ocean; for there was no sign of human habitation as far as the eye could reach. To the left a group of barren islets, suggesting ruins of stone walls, towers, and blockhouses, had its foundations set in a blue sea that itself looked solid, so still and stable did it lie below my feet; even the track of light from the westering sun shone smoothly, without that animated glitter which tells of an imperceptible ripple. And when I turned my head to take a parting glance at the tug which had just left us anchored outside the bar, I saw the straight line of the flat shore joined to the stable sea, edge to edge, with a perfect and unmarked closeness, in one leveled floor half brown, half blue under the enormous dome of the sky. Corresponding in their insignificance to the islets of the sea, two small clumps of trees, one on each side of the only fault in the impeccable joint, marked the mouth of the river Meinam we had just left on the first preparatory stage of our homeward journey; and, far back on the inland level, a larger and loftier mass, the grove surrounding the great Paknam pagoda, was the only thing on which the eye could rest from the vain task of exploring the monotonous sweep of the horizon. Here and there gleams as of a few scattered pieces of silver marked the windings of the great river; and on the nearest of them, just within the bar, the tug steaming right into the land became lost to my sight, hull and funnel and masts, as though the impassive earth had swallowed her up without an effort, without a tremor. My eye followed the light cloud of her smoke, now here, now there, above the plain, according to the devious curves of the stream, but always fainter and farther away, till I lost it at last behind the miter-shaped hill of the great pagoda. And then I was left alone with my ship, anchored at the head of the Gulf of Siam.