The last quarter of the nineteenth century was a transitional period marked by an acute crisis in the professional and moral qualifications of the officers and crews of the British Merchant Marine. A great many accidents were caused by errors committed by the officers, often as a result of incompetence.ZDZISLAW NAJDER, Joseph Conrad: A Chronicle
“‘The Secret Sharer’ has been the target of more many-sided interpretations than any other Conrad work.”1 It “has become everybody’s Rorschach test,” the “subject of more fanciful interpretations than any of Conrad’s other stories”2; and thanks to these numerous, often fanciful interpretations, “The Secret Sharer” has become loaded with more meanings than the events in the story would seem to warrant.
What follows will give the narrative more focus and clarity by grounding it in the very real nautical history of the time. Specifically we will show that Captain Archbold is a much more important figure than most recognize. The starting point of the action, and a fundamental issue in the narrative, is incompetence aboard the Sephora that reaches from the commander to at least one ordinary seaman. These failures to carry out the required tasks of seamanship, failures which were prevalent throughout the British Merchant Marine during the time of Conrad’s service, help explain Leggatt’s actions and why the captain-narrator (hereafter identified simply as narrator) unquestioningly accepts Leggatt’s rendition of events and why he is so ready and willing to assist him. It also explains why Capt. Archbold does not want Leggatt brought to justice, since Leggatt shares a secret not only with respect to the captain of the ship to which he escapes, but also with regard to the commander of the vessel on which the killing occurred.
Conrad said he heard tales of the killing aboard the Cutty Sark during his sailing days and read reports of it in the papers.3 If the tales were consistent with what we now know from various sources of the time, the story was as follows: [End Page 51] Aboard the Cutty Sark there was personal animosity between the first mate, John Anderson, and an ordinary seaman, John Francis. They finally had words, fought, and Smith killed Francis by striking him over the head with a capstan bar. The Captain, James Wallace, then helped Anderson escape, but finding himself facing criminal charges, he committed suicide by jumping overboard into shark infested waters (see Lubbock and “Arrest” for contemporary accounts of the incident).4
The reasons why Captain Wallace would have wanted to help his first mate escape prosecution were readily understandable. However, Conrad deployed his material in such a way as to make the relationship between the killer and the narrator more perplexing than that between Anderson and Wallace. By virtue of Leggatt swimming to the narrator’s vessel, where he and Capt. Arch-bold will relate their versions of events, Conrad removed the killing and the issues involved in it into the background; and as we shall see, the narrator never seriously questions either man about the killing. Many have therefore wondered just why the narrator would immediately identify with and unquestioningly assist a stranger who tells a tale the truth of which he is literally in no position to confirm.
However, with the character of Capt. Archbold, the case is quite different. Capt. Wallace was generally known to be “a splendid seaman, a kind and capable shipmaster”5; so with Capt. Archbold, Conrad, for all intents and purposes, created an entirely new character and a novel set of circumstances in which to situate the story of Leggatt and the narrator. Aboard the Cutty Sark, when difficulties arose between Anderson and Francis, “Captain Wallace . . . acted with decision” and not as Archbold, who after the killing “started raving” and was nearly driven “out of his mind.” Moreover, the killing did not occur during “the height of a furious gale” as in Conrad’s story, but at 3 a.m., when the ship was tacking “with a nice wholesail breeze” and Captain Wallace, with no extraordinary problems facing the ship, had retired to...