Academic journal article The Conradian : the Journal of the Joseph Conrad Society (U.K.)

The Tremolino and the Tourmaline: Reflections and Speculations

Academic journal article The Conradian : the Journal of the Joseph Conrad Society (U.K.)

The Tremolino and the Tourmaline: Reflections and Speculations

Article excerpt

Many evening watches we spent on the poop. Ever the great teller of a tale, he had twenty years of tales to tell. Tales of ships and storms, of Polish revolution, of his youthful Carlist gun-running adventure ...

John Galsworthy, recalling Joseph Conrad

Castles in Spain (1927: 74-75)

MY RE-READING of a book by Major A. Gybbon Spilsbury prompted this short piece about Joseph Conrad and gunrunning. As we know, the smuggling of guns or gun-powder is described in a number of Conrad's works: notably in Almayer's Folly, "Karain," Nostromo, The Mirror of the Sea, The Arrow of Gold, and The Rescue. A smuggler is a kind of gambler - a person who ventures money and/or labour in a risky attempt to make a profit. Conrad's temperament was, in part, that of a gambler. Leaving Poland to become an aspiring seafarer, and, later, seeking to earn a living by writing fiction in English: even these career-choices resemble gambles, when the considerable elements of risk are taken into account.

Spilsbury gambled, too. In the 1890s, the Globe Venture Syndicate of London secured a concession to trade with the tribes of the Sus, in Southern Morocco. The concession was illegal, as the Moroccan government had forbidden European traders to enter that region. Nevertheless, in the summer of 1897, Spilsbury set out from England on behalf of the Syndicate, made contact with the tribes, and offered to supply them with arms with which they might rebel against the Sultan. On 3 December 1897, Spilsbury again left England, taking with him on his newly-purchased steam-yacht Tourmaline a cargo of guns and ammunition. Before the cargo could be landed on the south-west coast of Morocco, the Sultan's man-of-war appeared, and the expedition was ambushed and routed. Later, four of the Globe's men were jailed for smuggling, and Spilsbury himself was tried at Gibraltar for illegally importing arms but was acquitted.

Joseph Conrad's friend R. B. Cunninghame Graham, the aristocratic founder of the Labour Party, knew and admired Spilsbury personally, but he disliked his cause and attempted to dissuade him from it (Cunninghame Graham 1898: Appendix C). Spilsbury's first expedition had incidentally helped to bring about Cunninghame Graham's arrest and detention in Morocco. The Sultan, forewarned of the Syndicate's activities, had ordered his subjects to arrest any European in the Sus region. Consequently, when Graham, exploring Morocco in local disguise, tried to reach the city of Tarudant in the autumn of 1897, he was captured, held in captivity, and eventually sent back. Graham's subsequent account of this fiasco provided the basis for Shaw's play about captives in Morocco, Captain Brassbound's Conversion; and Graham also completed a lengthy questionnaire from Shaw to add realistic details to the play. After his return from Morocco, Graham critici2ed the Globe Syndicate in articles for Frank Harris's Saturday Review, and he also discussed the venture in his travel-book, Mogreb-el-Acksa, which so delighted Conrad. (That title, Mogreb-el-Acksa, can be translated as The Far West or, simply, Morocco.)

In two letters to Graham, written in February and March 1898 (Watts, ed. 1969: 74-75, 81), Conrad responds to information from Graham about Spilsbury's expedition, and in the second remarks: "I've done better in my time but then I didn't act for a syndicate." This remark prompted me, in Joseph Conrad's Fetters to R. B. Cunninghame Graham (77), to offer the speculation that Conrad's association of Spilsbury's gun-running with his own may have led Conrad to conceal the name of the vessel on which he had been a gun-runner in the Mediterranean by borrowing the name Tourmaline and simply altering the vowels to make Tremolino. I added: "This would account for the fact that Conrad's biographers have been unable to trace an actual vessel called Tremolino; and there is no record that Conrad used this name before 1898."

The leading Conradian biographer, Jocelyn Baines, in correspondence with me in 1963-64, had already deemed my surmise to be "far from improbable" (Watts 1964: 88); but, at the time, I was not convinced by it; and, these days, about half a century later, it seems to me highly unlikely. …

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