On 10 June 1878 Konrad Korzeniowski set foot on English soil for the first time, at Lowestoft, having arrived on the small British steamer Mavis, which he had boarded on 24 April 1878 at Marseilles. He had probably joined the ship not as a crew member but as an unofficial apprentice. It is not clear whether he had been on board during the Russian leg of its itinerary, which would have been hazardous for the Tsar's Polish subject. He still planned to return to France and enlist in the French navy. A conflict with Captain Samuel William Pipe prompted Conrad to leave the ship. He departed for London, where he quickly went through half his ready cash. Appealing to his uncle, he received additional funds, along with a long letter exhorting him to "think for yourself and fend for yourself... don't idle; learn, and don't pretend to be a rich young gentleman.... If you have not secured yourself a position by the age of 24, do not count on the allowance... I have no money for drones and I have no intention of working so that someone else may enjoy himself at my expense..."
Conrad returned to Lowestoft and on 11 July 1878 signed on to a coastal coal schooner, the Skimmer of the Sea. He won popularity with the crew by bearing the cost of entertainment and treats, not paid out of his shilling-a-month ordinary seaman's earnings (the lowest permissible) but out of his uncle's allowance, 160 times higher. "In that craft I began to learn English from East Coast chaps, each built as though to last for ever, and coloured like a Christmas card." Having made three voyages to Newcastle upon Tyne and back in the Skimmer, after only 73 days, on 23 September, Conrad left the schooner.
On 15 October 1878, in his first genuine service at sea, Conrad sailed in the clipper ship Duke of Sutherland on his longest voyage till then, around the Cape of Good Hope to Australia, arriving on 31 January 1879 at Sydney Harbour. He gained some knowledge of local conditions and even of the slang, revealed later in his short story "To-morrow". It was then, too, that he became acquainted with Gustave Flaubert, through Salammbô, and plowed laboriously through a one-volume edition of Shakespeare. At Sydney — Bobrowski wrote Buszczyński — Conrad met a captain famous for his knowledge of the Malay Archipelago. The unnamed captain may have become a partial prototype of Tom Lingard in Almayer's Folly, An Outcast of the Islands and The Rescue, whose namesake Conrad never met. The Duke of Sutherland left Sydney on 6 July 1879 on its homeward voyage, and Conrad arrived in London on 19 October.
Having evidently lost desire for long-distance voyages, on 11 December 1879 Conrad enlisted as an able-bodied seaman in the iron steamer Europa. Next day the ship departed for Genoa, Naples, Patras and Palermo, returning to London on 29 January 1880. Soon after, Conrad met George Fountaine Weare Hope, an ex-merchant-service officer, then director of a London commercial firm. This — apparently Conrad's first close contact in England — developed into a long-lasting friendship.
Urged on by his uncle, Conrad applied to take the examination for second mate in the British Merchant Marine. Applicants were required to document at least four years' service at sea. In reality, he had served only seventeen months — less than a year and a half. But, armed with a document from Delestang that amplified his period in French service, and giving augmented figures for his British service, he signed a declaration of his statements and of the enclosed documents, risking indictment in the event that the fraud were discovered. He attended a cram course for the examination and passed it on 28 May 1880, aged 22.
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