I'm first time reading a novel by Joseph Conrad; I was inspired and revered him since I saw Apocalypse Now. But as Mr.Joseph is regarded as a very skillful, detailful and prolific writer so I must admit that my knowledge is a little low to fully understand him, therefore confusion arises and I have to come here for clearing up a doubt.

In the first chapter of An Outcast of the Islands, Willems (the novel's main character) is described as very powerful and somewhat as sophomaniac. To quote from the book:

[...] he kept them [the Da Souza tribe] singing his praises in the midst of their laziness, of their dirt, of their immense and hopeless squalor: he was greatly delighted.

They [the Da Souza tribe] lived now by the grace of his will. This was power. Willems loved it.

And he depicts himself as intelligent:

Willems knew all about himself. On the day when, with many misgivings, he ran away from a Dutch East-Indiaman in Samarang roads, he had commenced that study of himself, of his own ways, of his own abilities, of those fate-compelling qualities of which led him toward that lucrative position which he now filled.

So, these remarks suggest that Willems was very powerful and law himself, and more importantly he himself made him. But a little later in the same chapter, when Willems is going home, the narrator writes,

Leaning against one of the brick pillars, Mr. Vinck, the cashier of Hudig & Co., smoked the last cheroot of the evening. Amongst the shadows of the trimmed bushes Mrs. Vinck crunched slowly, with measured steps, the gravel of the circular path before the house. "There's Willems going home on foot- and drunk I fancy," said Mr. Vinck over his shoulder. "I saw him jump and wave his hat".

It's been mentioned in the first chapter that Willems is a clerk for Hudig & co., and at the same time his prowess is talked about. The confusion is that in my society and as far as I have seen, clerks are the ones who give receipts for something, to be a bit direct: they are employees of relatively low power. So, given that Willems is the head of the whole Da Souza tribe and everyone lives by his grace, how come Mr. Vink makes such remarks on him? And how could he be just a clerk of a company when he got such powers (whole army of that tribe) which hardly anyone in that company have?

Kindly explain me the situation of Willems as can be deduced from the first and second chapter of An Outcast of the Islands.

UPDATE: In the third chapter it is written that

He had married her [Joanna] to please Hudig, and the greatness of his sacrifice ought to have made her happy without any further exertion on his part.

I’m lost even more here as to who Hudig was and how marrying Joanna would have pleased him? Hudig & co. can be imagined as a company which transports its products over the whole Europe and these Asian countries like Malaysia, Indonesia. I’m unable to understand how the Da Souza tribe is related to Hudig & co.

1 Answer 1


Willems isn't powerful in the way that a local ruler may be powerful. He works as "confidential clerk" in a company involved in trade. Wiktionary defines "clerk" as "One who occupationally works with records, accounts, letters, etc.; an office worker" but this does not seem an appropriate description of what Willems actually does. For example, the first chapter describes the types of affairs that Hudig entrusts to him:

he reviewed the more important affairs: the quiet deal in opium; the illegal traffic in gunpowder; the great affair of smuggled firearms, the difficult business of the Rajah of Goak. He carried that last through by sheer pluck; he had bearded the savage old ruler in his council room; he had bribed him with a gilt glass coach, which, rumour said, was used as a hencoop now; he had overpersuaded him; he had bested him in every way.

So he essentially trades on behalf of Hudig & Co. instead of being a clerk in the sense known to us.

Willems describes his job as a "lucrative position", i.e. he gains a lot of money. This is why

he could give them [the da Souza family] all they wanted without ruining himself.

And because he has money to distribute to the impoverished descendants of Portuguese conquerors (Da Souza or Sousa or de Souza is a common Portuguese family name),

he had their silent fear, their loquacious love, their noisy veneration.

Unfortunately, his "munificence" appears to make them dependent on his money:

probably his greatest delight lay in the unexpressed but intimate conviction that, should he close his hand, all those admiring human beings would starve. His munificence had demoralised them.

The Da Souza are descendants of Portuguese colonisers or traders; Willems calls them a tribe because he considers them inferior to himself, not because they are a tribe in an anthropological sense:

And he had the worship of the Da Souza tribe.

This is the only occurrence of "tribe" in the entire novel; elsewhere, he refers to them as the Da Souza family. So there is no "Da Souza tribe" with its own army.

Vinck, the cashier, is another employee at Hudig & Co. who is less impressed by Willems' prosperity than the Da Souza family. Willems has no "power" outside that family.

(Willems and Vinck are family names that are most common in Flanders. Hudig is much less common, but, interestingly, there used to be a shipping line named Hudig & Pieters, which may have inspired the name "Hudig & Co" in Conrad's novel.)

  • So, how many members do they have in the Da Souza family? (Just want an estimate), because a tribe means a lot of people while family means at most 10 - 20 members. Commented Aug 2, 2020 at 7:34
  • 1
    The first three chapters mention only Willems' wife Joanna, his brother-in-law Leonard and their mother. He probably uses the term "family" in an extended sense, including all Da Souzas living in that area. Since he uses "tribe" in a derogatory sense, the exact number is unlikely to be important.
    – Tsundoku
    Commented Aug 2, 2020 at 9:58

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