The Black Mate

tutorial, critical comment, plot, and study resources

The Black Mate was written, according to Conrad’s own reckoning, in 1886. This would make it his earliest tale or short story (though it is not so short). But it was not published until 1908, and was then republished posthumously as part of the collection Tales of Hearsay in 1925. The other stories in the collection were The Warrior’s Soul, Prince Roman, and The Tale.

The Black Mate

The Black Mate – critical commentary


The tale starts in first person narrative mode. The un-named narrator is a friend of the mate of the Sapphire Winston Bunter, and he is present in the restaurant conversation where the story begins. In fact Conrad rather coyly signals his presence in his own account of events.

There was also a very young shipmaster, with a little fair moustache and serious eyes, who said nothing, and only smiled faintly from time to time.

But on Bunter’s voyage aboard the Sapphire to Calcutta and back, events are presented in third person omniscient narrative mode, with the thoughts and feelings of the secondary and tertiary characters fully expressed.

Then when Bunter nears home and his wife inherits the money, the narrator suddenly reappears to present the conclusion to the story as a first person narrative again.

Conrad offers no explanation of how the information in the central part of the story reaches us, nor any persuasive logical reason why there should be two narrative modes at work in the one tale.

None of this would be terribly important were it not for the fact that Conrad has become celebrated for his inventive use of narrators and the complex structure of his tales and novels. But the fact is that he often makes mistakes in the logic and the narrative paths by which information reaches the reader – and this is an early example of that weakness, which is worth noting.

He also sometimes plays fast and lose with the conventions of tale-telling – as he does here. The narrator knows perfectly well at the outset of the tale why Bunter’s hair is so black, yet he conceals the fact from the reader with teasing hints that Bunter has a secret (without revealing what it is). In fact it is the narrator who advises Bunter to dye his hair in the first place. This device reduces the story to not much more than an elaborate and delayed joke.

The Black Mate – study resources

The Black Mate The Black Mate – CreateSpace editions – Amazon UK

The Black Mate The Black Mate – CreateSpace editions – Amazon US

The Black Mate The Complete Works of Joseph Conrad – Kindle eBook

The Black Mate The Black Mate – eBook versions at Project Gutenberg

The Black Mate Joseph Conrad: A Biography – Amazon UK

Red button The Cambridge Companion to Joseph Conrad – Amazon UK

Red button Routledge Guide to Joseph Conrad – Amazon UK

Red button Oxford Reader’s Companion to Conrad – Amazon UK

The Black Mate Notes on Life and Letters – Amazon UK

The Black Mate Joseph Conrad – biographical notes

The Black Mate – plot summary

A number of sea captains meet at a restaurant in the Port of London. They tease Captain Johns, who thinks that only young seamen should be on ships. Then they discuss ghosts and comment on Bunter, the mate of the Sapphire who once lost a ship in the Indian Ocean and who has strikingly black hair.

Bunter complains to the narrator that Captain Johns has been treating him suspiciously, and has been trying to persuade him to share his belief in ghosts and spiritualism. He has also been oppressed by a berthing master who recognises him from somewhere. It seems that Bunter has some sort of secret, as well as the bad luck that has dogged him ever since the loss of his ship. He has been a captain, but is now forced to accept the position of mate.

The Sapphire sets off bound for Calcutta, and encounters rough seas in the Southern Ocean, which results in breakages of some of Bunter’s personal belongings. Captain Johns continues to harass Bunter with his belief in spiritualism and he regards any signs of scepticism as a personal insult. Then one night Bunter suddenly falls down a ladder and injures his head. There is a general mystery regarding the reason for this accident. When he recovers he tells Captain Johns that he was startled by an apparition and fell backwards in terror.

Bunter continues to be ill, and he is converted to a belief in spiritualism. Then he reveals that the fright has turned his hair white.

Meanwhile, back in London Mrs Bunter inherits money from a distant relative but cannot pass the good news on to her husband because the Sapphire is en route back from Calcutta. She goes to meet the ship at Dunkirk, along with the narrator.

In Dunkirk, Bunter reveals to the narrator that he merely slipped on some brass plates at the top of the ladder, and his hair turned white because he ran out of the hair dye he had been using to make himself look younger. The ghostly apparition was an invention to placate Captain Johns. Bunter leaves the Sapphire and goes off with his wife.

Joseph Conrad – video biography

Principal characters
I the un-named narrator, a friend of Bunter
Winston Bunter a former captain, now a mate
Mrs Bunter his wife
Captain Johns commander of the Sapphire

The Black Mate

The Black Mate

first edition 1925 Fisher Unwin

The Cambridge Companion to Joseph ConradThe Cambridge Companion to Joseph Conrad offers a series of essays by leading Conrad scholars aimed at both students and the general reader. There’s a chronology and overview of Conrad’s life, then chapters that explore significant issues in his major writings, and deal in depth with individual works. These are followed by discussions of the special nature of Conrad’s narrative techniques, his complex relationships with late-Victorian imperialism and with literary Modernism, and his influence on other writers and artists. Each essay provides guidance to further reading, and a concluding chapter surveys the body of Conrad criticism.
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Joseph Conrad - writing table

Joseph Conrad’s writing table

Further reading

Red button Amar Acheraiou Joseph Conrad and the Reader, London: Macmillan, 2009.

Red button Jacques Berthoud, Joseph Conrad: The Major Phase, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978.

Red button Muriel Bradbrook, Joseph Conrad: Poland’s English Genius, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1941

Red button Harold Bloom (ed), Joseph Conrad (Bloom’s Modern Critical Views, New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 2010

Red button Hillel M. Daleski , Joseph Conrad: The Way of Dispossession, London: Faber, 1977

Red button Daphna Erdinast-Vulcan, Joseph Conrad and the Modern Temper, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Red button Aaron Fogel, Coercion to Speak: Conrad’s Poetics of Dialogue, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1985

Red button John Dozier Gordon, Joseph Conrad: The Making of a Novelist, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1940

Red button Albert J. Guerard, Conrad the Novelist, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1958

Red button Robert Hampson, Joseph Conrad: Betrayal and Identity, Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1992

Red button Jeremy Hawthorn, Joseph Conrad: Language and Fictional Self-Consciousness, London: Edward Arnold, 1979

Red button Jeremy Hawthorn, Joseph Conrad: Narrative Technique and Ideological Commitment, London: Edward Arnold, 1990

Red button Jeremy Hawthorn, Sexuality and the Erotic in the Fiction of Joseph Conrad, London: Continuum, 2007.

Red button Owen Knowles, The Oxford Reader’s Companion to Conrad, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990

Red button Jakob Lothe, Joseph Conrad: Voice, Sequence, History, Genre, Ohio State University Press, 2008

Red button Gustav Morf, The Polish Shades and Ghosts of Joseph Conrad, New York: Astra, 1976

Red button Ross Murfin, Conrad Revisited: Essays for the Eighties, Tuscaloosa, Ala: University of Alabama Press, 1985

Red button Jeffery Myers, Joseph Conrad: A Biography, Cooper Square Publishers, 2001.

Red button Zdzislaw Najder, Joseph Conrad: A Life, Camden House, 2007.

Red button George A. Panichas, Joseph Conrad: His Moral Vision, Mercer University Press, 2005.

Red button John G. Peters, The Cambridge Introduction to Joseph Conrad, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Red button James Phelan, Joseph Conrad: Voice, Sequence, History, Genre, Ohio State University Press, 2008.

Red button Edward Said, Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography, Cambridge Mass: Harvard University Press, 1966

Red button Allan H. Simmons, Joseph Conrad: (Critical Issues), London: Macmillan, 2006.

Red button J.H. Stape, The Cambridge Companion to Joseph Conrad, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996

Red button John Stape, The Several Lives of Joseph Conrad, Arrow Books, 2008.

Red button Peter Villiers, Joseph Conrad: Master Mariner, Seafarer Books, 2006.

Red button Ian Watt, Conrad in the Nineteenth Century, London: Chatto and Windus, 1980

Red button Cedric Watts, Joseph Conrad: (Writers and their Work), London: Northcote House, 1994.

Other writing by Joseph Conrad

Joseph Conrad Lord JimLord Jim (1900) is the earliest of Conrad’s big and serious novels, and it explores one of his favourite subjects – cowardice and moral redemption. Jim is a ship’s captain who in youthful ignorance commits the worst offence – abandoning his ship. He spends the remainder of his adult life in shameful obscurity in the South Seas, trying to re-build his confidence and his character. What makes the novel fascinating is not only the tragic but redemptive outcome, but the manner in which it is told. The narrator Marlowe recounts the events in a time scheme which shifts between past and present in an amazingly complex manner. This is one of the features which makes Conrad (born in the nineteenth century) considered one of the fathers of twentieth century modernism.
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Joseph Conrad Heart of DarknessHeart of Darkness (1902) is a tightly controlled novella which has assumed classic status as an account of the process of Imperialism. It documents the search for a mysterious Kurtz, who has ‘gone too far’ in his exploitation of Africans in the ivory trade. The reader is plunged deeper and deeper into the ‘horrors’ of what happened when Europeans invaded the continent. This might well go down in literary history as Conrad’s finest and most insightful achievement, and it is based on his own experiences as a sea captain. This volume also contains ‘An Outpost of Progress’ – the magnificent study in shabby cowardice which prefigures ‘Heart of Darkness’.
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© Roy Johnson 2013

Joseph Conrad links

Joseph Conrad - tutorials Joseph Conrad at Mantex
Biography, tutorials, book reviews, study guides, videos, web links.

Red button Joseph Conrad – his greatest novels and novellas
Brief notes introducing his major works in recommended editions.

Joseph Conrad - eBooks Joseph Conrad at Project Gutenberg
A major collection of free eTexts in a variety of formats.

Joseph Conrad - further reading Joseph Conrad at Wikipedia
Biography, major works, literary career, style, politics, and further reading.

Joseph Conrad - adaptations Joseph Conrad at the Internet Movie Database
Adaptations for the cinema and television – in various languages. Full details of directors and actors, production notes, box office, trivia, and quizzes.

Joseph Conrad - etexts Works by Joseph Conrad
Large online database of free HTML texts, digital scans, and eText versions of novels, stories, and occasional writings.

Joseph Conrad - journal The Joseph Conrad Society (UK)
Conradian journal, reviews. and scholarly resources.

Conrad US journal The Joseph Conrad Society of America
American-based – recent publications, journal, awards, conferences.

Joseph Conrad - concordance Hyper-Concordance of Conrad’s works
Locate a word or phrase – in the context of the novel or story.

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