Admiralty Law and Imaginative Precision in Lord Jim

Author:Hilton Staniland
Position:University of Southampton, Southampton Law School, University of Southampton
Pages:299-316
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Hilton Staniland
1
University of Southampton
Southampton Law School, University of Southampton,
Highfield Campus, Southampton SO17 1BJ, UK
H.Staniland@soton.ac.uk
Abstract: In this paper, it is argued that Lord Jim provides verisimili tude in relation
to the law and practice of contemporary inquiries and investigations into marine casualties;
and that the novel is a case study for acade mic and practising admiralty lawyers: illustrating
the use and abuse of the law and proced ures of Courts of Inquiry; exposing violations o f the
obligations owed b y master and officers to their passengers; questioning notions of fair
punishment; and suggesting drafting options for the enactment of statutes encouraging
cooperation between seafarers and casualty investigators. The interpretation of such
enactments should, it is argued, be adapted to the characteristics of the enactments, their
interpreters, and their i nterpretive community at the International Maritime Organization of
the United Nations.
1. Introduction
Lord Jim fuses imaginat ive and technical la nguage, reflectin g the use and abuse of actual court
procedures, laws and penalties. This legal reading of the great novel, a contribution to the vast body of
multidisciplinary scholarship around the work, argue s for its greater prominence in law and liter ature
2
and
merges the hermeneutics of law and literature, reconciling their often antithetical tendencies. Ca n the
densely adjectival and power ful imaginative language of deliberate ambivalence and so metimes
bewildering complexity
3
in Lord Jim be fused with the concise technical language of precise legal
meaning that awaits identification in the novel? Conrad answers in The Mi rror of the Sea,
1
I am indebted to Dr Stephanie Jones for her comments on an earlier version of this paper and to Sir Anthony Evans,
now retired from the Court of Appeal, for a discussion about the relationship between law and literature. To Karolina
Kodrzycka (a native Polish speaker), who assiduously tracked down elusive documents, I extend my thanks. I would
also like to thank the two anonymous reviewers for their encouragement, criticisms and suggestions. All references to
Lord Jim, the Mirror of the Sea, A Personal Record and Typhoon are based on the Project Gutenberg EBook of Lord
Jim release date: January 9, 2006 [ EBook #5658]; the Project Gutenberg EBook of The Mirror of the Sea, release
date: October, 1997 [EBook #1058]; the Project Gutenberg EBook of A Personal Record, release d ate: January 9,
2006 [EBook #687]; and the AD. Donker publication of Heart of Darkness and Typhoon of 1987.
2
For an excellent account of the current status of law and literature, see Bard, Jennifer; Mayo, Thomas W.; and
Tovino, Stacy A., `Three Ways of Looking at a Health Law and Literature Class` (2009) Scholarly Works, Paper 75
at pp. 512-572.
3
Tadie, Alexis `Perceptions of Language in Lord Jim` (2006) Conradian vol. 31 issue 1 at p. 16. As to Jim’s
`uncertain positioning between language and silence` see Hannah, Daniel `Under a cloud: Silence, Identity, and
Interpretation in Lord Jim` (2008) Conradiana vol. 40 at p. 39. In regard to `the extent to which Conrad is
consciously dramatizing the very inadequacy of language` s ee Ray, Martin `Conrad, Schopenhauer, and le mot juste
(2008) Conradiana vol. 33 at p. 31. As to the much quoted `adjectival insistence` of Conrad’s writing, see Leavis, F.
R. (1948) reprinted 1976 The Great Tradition Pelican Books at pp. 204 –5. With regard to the `bewildering
complexity` of the language, see Miller, J. Hillis `Lord Jim: Repetition as Subversion of Organic Form` reprin ted in
(1996) Joseph Conrad Lord Jim London: W.W. Norton & Company at p. 446. As to the `duplicity of language` in
Lord Jim see, Said, Edward `The Presentation of Narrative in Lord Jim` reprinted in (1996) Joseph Conrad Lord Jim
London: W.W. Norton & Company at p. 454 and words conveying and concealing meaning, see Weinstein , Philip M.
`Nothing Can Touch Me: Lord Jim`` reprinted in (1996) Joseph Conrad Lord Jim London: W.W. Norton & Company
at p. 458-469.
H. Staniland
300
Your journalist whether he takes charge of a ship or a fleet, almost invariably ‘casts’ his
anchor. Now, an anchor is never cast, and to take a liberty with technical language is a
crime against the clearness, precision, and b eauty of perfected speech … technical
language is an instrument wrought into perfectio n … the growth of the cable – [is one
example of] a sailor’s phrase which ha s all the force, precision, and imagery of
technical la nguage … [and a second example] we’ll take that foresail off her and put
her head under her wing for the night … in imaginative precision … i s one of the most
expressive sentences I have ever heard on human lips (pp. 13-14).
This legal reading of the novel begins with the identification of its technical legal language of
imaginative precision. Conrad, it will be shown, had an intimate knowledge of the law and procedure of a
Court of Inquiry, arguably derived from his professional training, general awareness of legal p roceedings,
and especially his own appearances before such courts, o n one occasion narrowly but fairly escaping
cancellation of his certificate of co mpetency. Kieran Dolin’s observation that Jim is ‘not convicted of a
crime in the tech nical sense’ since he appears before a ‘marine co urt’
4
(which presumably means a Court
of Inquiry) is demonstrably correct. Kieran D olin’s persuasive study of Jim’s claim to ‘sympathetic
interest’ depends on the fact that ‘unlike his skipper he did not attempt to evade the justice of the
community.’
5
Jim’s treatment by the Court was however arguabl y irregular and unjust, further enhancing
our sympathy for him. And when Jim’s voluntarily appearance before the Court is contrasted with the
fugitive le gal status of the master and other officers, it will be contended that Lord Jim provides legal
drafters with a case study for the domestic enactment o f international law better calibrated to achieve
cooperation between seafarers and casualty investigators, the prevention of marine casualties, and justice
for seafarers. Finally, it will be arg ued that the interpretation of such enactments requires a special
approach, adapted to the unique characteristics of the enactments, o f the interpreters, and of the
interpretive community.
2. Court of Inquiry in Lord Jim
The word `inquiry,` shorn of dense adjectives, is used 23 times, with consistent clarity throughout the
novel. One reference is to the `Court of Inquiry,` which was an actual and very active court. This court
was established in 1876. It has since decided many thousands of cases,
6
which must have had a profound
effect in saving life and property at sea. The Court is still important for safety of life at sea today. The
word `inquiry,` being e mployed in 20 other instances in the novel, refers consistently to a Court of
Inquiry.
The establishment of the Court of Inquiry can be traced to the resolutions of a Select Committee of
the House of Commons in 1836.
7
The Court was and is unique: it has its own statutorily defined
jurisdiction, procedure and law. It proceeds in open court, employing a combination of inquisitorial and
adversarial proced ures when inquiring into marine casualtie s;
8
although the standard of proof it applies,
either on a balance of probability or beyond a reasonable doubt, is u nclear.
At the time Lord Jim was penned, the Britis h Merchant Shipping Act of 1894 was in forc e. By virtue
of s. 478(1), the Act applied to British possessions. T he legislature of any British possession was
empowered to authorise an y court to `make enquiries as to … charges of incompetency or misconduct …
when the master, mate or engineer of a British ship who is char ged with incompetency or with
misconduct on board that British ship is found in the British po ssession.` Given the great extent of British
4
Kieran Dolin Fiction and the Law Legal Discourse in Victorian and Modernist Literature (1999 Cambridge,
Cambridge University Press) pp. 148-149.
5
Kieran Dolin Fiction and the Law Legal Discourse in Victorian and Modernist Literature (1999 Cambridge,
Cambridge University Press) pp. 148-149.
6
McMillan A.R.G. (1929) Shipping In quiries and Courts as Regulated by the Merchant Shipping Act London:
Stevens and Sons at p. v.
7
Sir Walter Murton (1884) Wreck inq uiries: The Law and Practice Relating to Formal Investigations in the United
Kingdom, British Possessions and Before Naval Courts into Shipping Casualties and the Incompetency and
Misconduct of Ships’ Officers With an Introduction London: Stevens and Sons at p 1.
8
Sir Walter Murton (1884) Wreck inq uiries: The Law and Practice Relating to Formal Investigations in the United
Kingdom, British Possessions and Before Naval Courts into Shipping Casualties and the Incompetency and
Misconduct of Ships’ Officers With an Introduction London: Stevens and Sons at p 5.

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