by Jack Skeffington
“The Black Mate” possesses—possibly—the distinction of being Joseph Conrad’s first piece of fiction. Unfortunately, only two dates are certain regarding this short story: first published in the April, 1908 edition of The London Magazine, “The Black Mate” escaped collection until the posthumous volume Tales of Hearsay in 1925. The title of that collection, according to its publisher, “is one which Mr. Conrad had in his mind for a future volume of short stories,” but it now appears as an unusually prescient moniker for a work whose origins have been obscured by conflicting claims of influence and creation.
Though its delivery to the public in 1908 places the work well into Conrad’s literary career, in 1922 he would privately muddy the waters by writing to James Pinker, his agent, that “I wrote that thing in ’86 for a prize competition, started, I think, by Tit Bits.” He would later claim to have “written [it] sometime in the late eighties and re-touched later.” This conflicts unhappily with his wife Jessie’s account that she, in fact, was the one who gave him the plot of the tale, in which case the earlier dates of composition would be impossible. Conrad’s biographer Zdzislaw Najder covers the debate well, and though he too has an opinion about who to believe, neither party has a particularly stellar record regarding the truth. Unfortunately, unless some lucky soul salvages a lost manuscript from beneath the waves of history, the actual date of composition remains unknowable.
Faced with this dilemma, scholars have tended to align themselves with one date or the other while uniting in their near-universal dismissal of the work. Despite being perhaps Conrad’s first work of fiction, it is almost certainly one of his least read and most poorly-regarded efforts. Conrad himself called it an “extraneous phenomenon” and critics have tended to take him, sometimes verbatim, at his word; the MLA International Bibliography contains only four entries for the title. “The Black Mate” does, however, have a few defenders who tend to rally around the echoes and apparitions of Conrad’s more successful works sprinkled throughout the tale.
The tale itself runs thus: The narrator of the story, a figure seemingly removed from the action like the figures who frame Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim, introduces the reader to a Mr. Bunter, mate of the sailing vessel Sapphire, and the striking black hair that gives him his titular nickname. Bunter ships under command of Captain Johns, a man “well known, without being much respected or liked,” who enforces a mandatory retirement from his crew by any sailor over forty, as well as an intense fascination with spiritualism and ghosts. In the course of the voyage Bunter and Johns clash repeatedly over these ghostly issues, maintaining a tense and hostile relationship throughout the journey.
In familiar Conradian form, the ship encounters a storm, though nothing more dramatic happens than the flooding of Bunter’s cabin. The relationship between Captain and mate shifts after Bunter, in calm seas, inexplicably falls down the poop-ladder to serious injury. After two days without speech, he confesses to Johns that an apparition had suddenly confronted him, startling backwards and over the ladder’s edge. He refuses to discuss the incident in detail, but the Captain becomes his steady companion and caretaker. Shortly thereafter, Bunter’s famously black hair begins to turn white, and by the end of the voyage, though “in the prime of life,” he has a snowy mane which confirms the terror of his ordeal.
The end of the narrative reveals the whole affair, however, as a con. Bunter, being much older than he lets on, had always had white hair; his friend the narrator had supplied him with a chemists’ experimental hair dye, a supply lost in the cabin’s flooding. After slipping down the ladder, Bunter formulated a plan to exploit his captain’s credulity and offered a ghost story as explanation for his inevitable transformation. Meanwhile, his wife happily inherits a large sum of money from an estranged relative and the two of them are happy to escape working life for the French countryside. (One can see why those attempting to recover “The Black Mate” tend to concede the thinly plotted, crude nature of the tale.)
Nevertheless, critics who have looked into the story despite it slightness have noticed a number of similarities to other works. Many note the narrator’s similarities to Marlow (Keith Carabine also compares the narrator of Falk); others compare Bunter to the protagonist of Lord Jim. Mark Wollaeger finds connections to The Shadow-Line and “The Idiots.” Critics also generally accept an intimate connection to Under Western Eyes, which Conrad was working on in 1908. More interesting than the connections themselves, though, is that interest in making these connections seems to have no meaningful relationship to the critic’s accepted date of composition—even when tracing the same figures, those who accept Conrad’s account describe them as anticipating later works, while those who place the work in the twentieth-century contextualize them as returns. Neither group actively considers the other’s position impossible, almost as though the date of composition doesn’t matter.
The flexibility with which scholars have dated of this story suggests that it represents something at the core of Conrad’s artistic concerns. At root, the Black Mate’s problem is a problem of identity, a problem of the gap between the interior and the exterior, of a man seeking to appear as something other than what he is. If Conrad did indeed begin his efforts with this tale, then these are also the problems to which he would return throughout his career. If the later date is accurate, however, it suggests that even after multiple explorations, even after an interrogation as rigorous as that of Lord Jim, the problems of identity and representation remained undiminished.
- ↑ Najder, Zdzislaw, and Halina Najder, Joseph Conrad: A Life. Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2007.
- ↑ Conrad, “The Black Mate,” in Tales of Hearsay (London: T. Fisher Unwin Ltd., 1925), p. 212.
- ↑ Carabine, “‘The Black Mate’: June-July 1886; January 1908,” The Conradian 13.2 (Dec. 1988): 128-148.
- ↑ Wollaeger, Joseph Conrad and the Fictions of Skepticism. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1990.