While there were many such voyages of British ships loaded with Muslim pilgrims that took place before and roughly around the same period that Conrad began writing Lord Jim, there is little doubt that the events that took place on the S.S. Jeddah served as the primary inspiration for Conrad’s tale.
Conrad, who was well traveled, very likely used his adventures to supply some concepts for main characters and settings in his novels, including Heart of Darkness, and other lesser known works like Outpost of Progress.
As one scholar notes, “The event was fully reported in The Times and Conrad, who was in London at the same time, probably read about the scandal” (Watt 265) and moreoever, the similariities between the real case of the Jeddah and those that take place in Lord Jim are far too similar to discount in any way, even though Conrad would never publicly state that the Jeddah was indeed the inspiration for his tale (Watt 260). However, dispite the irrefutable historical alignment of the two stories, if this was indeed the primary model Conrad used, there are a number of significant alterations Conrad made to the story that not only changed the context of the real event, but for literary purposes, made the focus of such as story completely different. While the inquiry following the true event of the S.S. Jeddah was concerned with a number of complex factors that ultimately influenced the decision of the crew to abandon the ship, including the presence of the captain’s wife on board and the rough weather, to name only a couple, Conrad’s story eliminates these factors entirely. The result of these omissions is that the reader is confronted with a tale not about a decision or an event-based narrative, but rather a complex commentary about human nature or, as one scholar puts it, “the psychology of cowardice” (Greany 79).
As suggested, there are striking similiarities between the acutal events that took place on the S.S. Jeddah in 1880 and the events depicted in the novel. The basic elements of the two stories, true and fictional, are aligned quite perfectly on a surface level. In both accounts, the ship is British manned by a white crew (although there are a few minor exceptions to this) carrying roughly one thousand Muslim passengers to Mecca. In both tales there is a breach in the hull of the ship that threatens the integrity of the ship and sinking is expected. Also, in both accounts there is the similarity in the abandoment of the ship by the white crew and the associated crime of leaving the passengers to die and a subsequent revelation that the ship did not sink, thus revealing the truth about the crews on both ships. However, despite these basic similarities, which are enough to equate the tale of the S.S. Jeddah to the ship in Conrad’s story, the differences that exist in the narratives are quite significant and change the entire focus of the story from a news event with many complex factors influencing the crew’s decision to abandon ship to Conrad’s very singular account of one man’s hasty decision and the aftermath.
Whereas in the actual Jeddah, a number of important factors influenced the course of events, in Conrad’s story, the story is motivated by the perecptions and hasty actions of one man and one singular force; Jim and his quick decision. As Greany suggests (70) “Conrad is careful to eliminate all of the extenuating circumstances that emerged at the official inquiry…. No such shreds of mitigating evidence disguise Jim’s naked culpability, which is exposed with all the ruthless clarity of a laboratory experiment.” Accordingly, in the true account of the Jeddah, there are many reasons cited as the reason for abandonment; the most significant of which were the presence of the captain’s wife on board and concerns about her safety which were cited to be one of the primary causes for the captain’s decision as well as the violent reaction of the passengers, all of whom were well aware of the dangerous possiblity of sinking. The official wreck report states these factors as the reasons for the crew’s abandonment of the ship and the number of factors at play were all very complex. In the true account, the passengers were well aware of the status of the ship, were trying to help bail it out, and more importantly, only got violent when they noticed an abandonment effort taking place which was, according to the captain, simply because he feared for his wife’s life. Again, none of this is at play in Lord Jim and the responsibility is isoltaed to just Jim, for the most part.