Pious Voyage and the Unconscious Pilgrims of an Exacting Belief

“Pious Voyage and the unconscious Pilgrims of an exacting belief,” reviews Joseph Conrad’s 1900 novel, Lord Jim, which depicts some fascinating facts about Muslim pilgrims and their pilgrimage. Conrad introduces Hajj pilgrims and their unshakable trust in God as “Unconscious.” This article probes the cohesion of the “unconscious” with facts and discusses how the pilgrims differ from tourists. Ultimately, the article critically examines the historical narrative at the root of Lord Jim.

Joseph Conrad’s debut novel Lord Jim tells a story of pilgrims and their simple lives. In it, the great modernist describes Hajj pilgrims as “unconscious pilgrims of an exacting belief.” It may be said that “unconscious pilgrims” is an exact account of Hajj pilgrims, especially those who travelled with uncertain facilities years ago.

The following excerpt illustrates Conrad’s portrayal of pilgrims:

They streamed aboard over three gangways, they streamed in urged by faith and the hope of paradise, they streamed in with a continuous tramp and shuffle of bare feet, without a word, a mur-mur, or a look back; and when clear of confining rails spread on all sides over the deck, flowed forward and aft, overflowed down the yawning hatchways, filled the inner recesses of the ship—like water filling a cistern, like water flowing into crevices and crannies, like water rising silently even with the rim. Eight hundred men and women with faith and hopes, with affections and memories, they had collected there, coming from north and south and from the out-skirts of the East, after treading the jungle paths, descending the rivers, coasting in praus along the shallows, crossing in small canoes from island to island, passing through suffering, meeting strange sights, beset by strange fears, upheld by one desire. They came from solitary huts in the wilderness, from populous campongs, from villages by the sea. At the call of an idea they had left their forests, their clearings, the protection of their rulers, their prosperity, their poverty, the surroundings of their youth and the graves of their fathers. They came covered with dust, with sweat, with grime, with rags—the strong men at the head of family parties, the lean old men pressing forward without hope of return; young boys with fearless eyes glancing curiously, shy little girls with tumbled long hair; the timid women muffled up and clasping to their breasts, wrapped in loose ends of soiled head-cloths, their sleeping babies, the unconscious pilgrims of an exacting belief.

The holy Qur’an introduces pilgrims: “And proclaim unto mankind the pilgrimage. They will come unto thee on foot and on every lean camel; they will come from every deep ravine.” [1] Prophecy of Qur’an and the narration of Conrad join here. The Almighty proclaims to prophet Ibrahim (AS) to call the human kind to pilgrimage and they will come every distance. In Lord Jim the South Asian pilgrims stream miles to perform Hajj likely to the God order. In fact, Conrad portrays a dawn of God’s will as in the verse of Qur’an. The pilgrims who streamed to reply to God’s call travel to a distant place.

Hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam, is considered compulsory to perform (at least once in a lifetime) for those who are capable of bearing its entire cost, both economically and physically. Historically, pilgrimage involved no shortage of challenges. When a man embarked on a pilgrimage, his relatives and friends bid him farewell as if he would leave them forever, saying: “Lucky is the person who returns back safe from pilgrimage.” The Almighty offers eternal rewards in the after world as well as spiritual purity for the performers of Hajj. Through Lord Jim, Conrad portrays a submissive narration of pilgrims and their unshakable trust in Almighty. His words open the readers eyes to Hajj, which by all means depicts a picture of solidarity.

We can then turn to examining the distinction between pilgrims and tourists. In his book, Joseph Conrad and Popular Culture, Stephen Donovan analyzes this difference, writing: “Strictly speaking, the ‘unconscious’ pilgrims in Lord Jim are nonetheless tourists. Their journey by chartered steamer has been undertaken for holiday (literally, holy day) purposes and their skipper is little more than an unscrupulous tour operator.”

However, upon examining Conrad’s work we can see how he appeals to the distinction between tourists and pilgrims. Conrad underlined this in the following description of the pilgrims: “They streamed in urged by faith and the hope of paradise.” Thus, faith is the core difference between these two groups. According to these descriptions, we can assume that the purpose of pilgrims was more valuable than that of tourists.

Thematically, Conrad emphasizes remorse in Lord Jim, a common theme in many of his other works as well. Remorse in Lord Jim is the echo of a personal worry, a regret of some secret failing. The most destructive sense of remorse manifests when he deserts the Ship and the safety of 800 pilgrims lay in his hands. He believes and likes others to believe that it was not the action of a conscious man. Throughout the novel we can see that his guilt haunts him even when he is on a far off island normally untouched by people known to him.

Many critics observe that the plot of the novel was inspired by a historical scandal of Hajj pilgrimage which took place in 1880. Donovan states: “For the central episode in Lord Jim, the abandoning of Hajj pilgrims in the Red Sea, Conrad drew on his first-hand experiences of abandoning fire-damaged Palestine in 1882, as well as on his second-hand knowledge of the 1880 scandal of Jeddah, a pilgrim ship which continued to transport Hajjis under another name until 1894 (Sherry, 1971: 41-64). But he also had an indirect and hitherto unknown connection to Hajj tourism.”

Corroborating this account, Sir Frank Swettenham was the first to observe that Conrad’s hero in the book is based on the second officer of the pilgrim ship Jeddah. He wrote: “The master and all the officers except one, I think the second mate, abandoned her in the darkness of the night and left the pilgrims to their fate.”

Norman Sherry in his article, “Conrad’s Source for Lord Jim,” elaborated on this, showing a clear connection between SS Jeddah’s second officer Augustine Podmore Williams and Conrad’s Lord Jim. He discovered the similarities between them using information from Williams’ descendants. Sherry observed that Williams was from a parsonage and one of five sons, quoting the letter from Williams’ daughter Mrs. Norah Thornett of Suseex. This description is similar to Conrad’s introduction of Lord Jim.

SS Jeddah was a steamship built in 1872 in Dumbarton, Great Britain, specifically for the Hajj pilgrimage trade. It was owned by Singapore-based merchant Syed Muhamed Alsaqaff. In 1880, the officers onboard abandoned the ship when it appeared to be sinking, leaving around 800 Hajj pilgrims asleep aboard. Fortunately, a French steamship towed SS Jeddah into Aden and the pilgrims survived despite having been abandoned by those responsible for their protection. An official inquiry into this scandal showed the “exacting belief” of the pilgrims might have prompted the officers to abandon them to fate, because they were capable of facing any situations in their life.

Conrad must have known of the circumstances under which the ship was deserted; he had the SS Patna (Pilgrim Ship in Lord Jim) deserted under totally different circumstances in the novel. Apart from the fact that SS Jeddah was affected by severe damage, while the Patna’s journey was through an untroubled sea.

N. Sherry continues: “It is obvious that Conrad changed the details of the desertion of the Jeddah radically in writing Lord Jim. Jim was not attacked and wounded by the pilgrims nor was he thrown overboard. At the moment of crisis, Jim, though profoundly aware of the helplessness of the 800 sleeping pilgrims on what he believes to be a sinking ship, is completely ineffectual and in fact deliberately isolated from events until he jumps. The jump is clearly an instinctive reaction, after a period of immobility, in response to the calls of the deserters.” But the report of the Master of the Jeddah, Joseph Lucas Clark, was that SS Jeddah’s pilgrims became aggressive and the captain and officers felt that their lives were in danger instead.

It’s indisputable that the pilgrims were unconscious and fully devoted to the unshakable trust in God. They were not like tourists, but as Jim pointed out “they streamed in, urged by faith and the hope of paradise.” Though Conrad may not be familiar with real Hajj pilgrims, his narration was absolutely apt in depicting them.

Works Cited

[1] Surah Hajj, Pickthall

Photo via Katherine McCormack

About the Authour: Muhammed Shabeebudheen is an English Literature graduate, mainly focusing in Muslim culture, Sharia and Quran in Indian and Global literature. He obtained a BA in Islamic Sharia from Jamia Markaz, Kerala, and studied Theology, Hadith and Philosophy from Gousiyya Da’wa College, Kerala. You can find him on twitter here.

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