On this day in 1886, Joseph Conrad, born Jozef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in Poland, becomes a British citizen.
Conrad’s father had been a Polish poet and patriot. He was arrested in 1861 for his political activism and exiled to northern Russia. His wife and toddler son joined him. He and his wife died of tuberculosis when Joseph was about 12. An uncle raised Joseph, until the boy set out at age 17 for Marseilles, France, where he joined the merchant marines and sailed to the West Indies. Conrad’s many harrowing adventures at sea set the scenes for much of his work.
In 1878, when Conrad was 21, he traveled to England as a deck hand on a British freighter. He learned English during six voyages on a small British trade boat and spent 16 years with the British merchant navy. He had numerous adventures around the world and got his first command in 1888. The following year, he commanded a Congo River steamboat for four months, which set the stage for his well-known story Heart of Darkness (1902).
Conrad began writing in the late 1890s. His first novel, Almayer’s Folly, was published in 1895. The following year, he married an English girl and gave up the sea to write full time. His work progressively grew from hearty sea-adventure tales to sophisticated and pessimistic explorations of morals, personal choices, and character. His best-known works, including Lord Jim, Nostromo, and The Secret Agent, were published between 1900 and 1911, but he did not become financially secure from his fiction until about 1910. He died in 1924.