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A Source for the Unusual Character of Pedro in Victory.

One of Conrad's strangest characters is Pedro in Victory. This figure, the servant of Mr. Jones, is depicted as an alligator hunter coming from the wilds of Colombia, thus presumably Native American. He is, however, described as semi-bestial, barely able to utilize language, and of simian aspect: "a hairy creature," the lower part of his "physiognomy was over-developed; his narrow and low forehead ... surmounted wildly hirsute cheeks and a flat nose with wide, baboon-like nostrils. There was something equivocal" the narrator adds, "in the appearance of his shaggy, hair smothered humanity" (99). When carrying a tray, he is depicted as doing so "with the clumsiness of a creature caught in the woods and taught to walk on its hind legs" (118). When Mr. Jones first encounters him, Pedro and his brother are said to have grunted "a word or two to each other now and then, hardly human speech at all" (139). None of this sounds like the description of any known Native American society; instead, it seems to be a depiction of some kind of evolutionary missing link between man and the other primates. If anything, his ancestry seems more likely to have derived from H.G. Wells' fictional island of Dr. Moreau (see Krahe) than any area ever populated by actual Arawaks or Guaranis. It is unclear what Conrad is attempting in this characterization if not a gratuitous slander against Native Americans.

Another question that arises is why would Conrad depict him as Colombian? That is very far away from the Dutch East Indies. It would be a needless burden if he is simply some hired muscle brought in by Mr. Jones. Conrad's brief and vague account of the "original" of Pedro in his prefatory note to the volume does not begin to explain his many distinctive traits; it reports the hostility of the man but says nothing about his physiognomy. Surely, Pedro is Conrad's equivalent of Caliban in Victory's reinscription of The Tempest; his Native American origins could be an allusion to the North American origins of The Tempest story which was originally based on events in Bermuda following a shipwreck on its coast in 1610 reported in William Strachey's True Repertory of the Wrack and Sylvester Jourdain's A Discovery of the Barmudas. In addition, Shakespeare drew on Montaigne's essay on Native Americans, "Of the Cannibals," where Caliban's name may have been derived. The question remains, why the interior of Colombia, rather than the Bahamas?

It turns out that a very unusual tribe of South Americans was described at the beginning of the twentieth century by British explorer Percival Fawcett that shares many features with Pedro. Fawcett depicts an especially fierce and unusual group, the Maricoxi, near the Matto Grosso in these terms: "they were large, hairy men, with exceptionally long arms, and with foreheads sloping back from pronounced eye ridges--men of a very primitive kind, in fact, and stark naked" (278). Fawcett uses a series of bestial terms in his depiction of an encounter with one of them the following day:
   I whistled, and an enormous creature, hairy as a dog, leapt to his
   feet in the nearest shelter, fitted an arrow to his bow in a flash,
   and came up dancing from one leg to the other till he was only four
   yards away. Emitting grunts that sounded like 'Eugh! Eugh! Eugh!'
   he remained there dancing, and suddenly the whole forest around us
   was alive with these hideous ape-men, all grunting 'Eugh! Eugh!
   Eugh!' and dancing from leg to leg.... I made friendly overtures
   in Maxubi [the language of a neighboring tribe], but they paid no
   attention. It was as though human speech were beyond their powers
   of comprehension. (278-79)

Fawcett was widely read and discussed in Britain just before Victory was written. At the Royal Geographical Society in early 1911, he was warmly introduced by its president, Leonard Darwin, the son of Charles Darwin. His lecture was well attended: "dozens of scientists and explorers from across Europe crowded into hall to hear the 'Livingstone of the Amazon'" (Grann 122). The account of the expedition he gave there largely inspired his friend, Arthur Conan Doyle, to pen The Lost World (1912). Its protagonist, Professor Challenger, is based in part on Fawcett, and Doyle includes a battle between Native Americans and "ape-men" in his novel. (It should be noted that Fawcett was a surveyor, not an anthropologist, and his descriptions were often contested as exaggerated or fictitious--he claimed to have shot a sixty-two-foot-long anaconda.) It would thus appear that Conrad was very likely drawing from Fawcett's public, if ultimately pseudo-scientific, accounts for his otherwise improbable depiction of Pedro; we can therefore conclude that he was not gratuitously projecting racist characterizations onto Native Americans but reproducing what were, at the time, widely felt to be credible observations of a previously unknown group. In doing so, he also made his Caliban a more apposite parallel to Shakespeare's semi-human figure, whose mother was the witch, Sycorax.

Conrad did read widely from accounts of the remoter parts of South America, in particular, those of R.B. Cunninghame Graham, and utilized some of their descriptions in works like Nostromo. In "A Glance at Two Books," he praised W. H. Hudson's 1904 novel, Green Mansions, a self-described romance set deep in the South American jungle that features the "bird girl," Rima, a rather angelic semi-human figure who can speak with birds. Conrad may have allowed himself a bit of the literary license he admired in Hudson although in a briefer, scientifically sanctioned form.

Finally, it has also been speculated that some aspects of Fawcett's final disappearance into the wilds of South America in 1925 inspired the fate of the character of Tony Last--the Englishman who is left behind in the jungle in Evelyn Waugh's A Handful of Dust--which is a partial rewriting of Heart of Darkness.


Conrad, Joseph. Victory. Doubleday, 1926.

Fawcett, Percival. Exploration Fawcett: Journey to the Lost City of Z. Overlook, 2010.

Grann, David. The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession. Vintage, 2010.

Krahe, Peter, "Conrad and Wells: A Source for Victory?" Neuphilologische Mitteilungen, vol. 86, no. 4, 1985, pp. 534-38.


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Author:Richardson, Brian
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Dec 22, 2015
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