British explorer and scientist Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) proposed a theory of natural selection which encouraged Charles Darwin to publish his Theory of Evolution. His book The Malay Archipelago: The land of the orang-utan, and the bird of paradise. A narrative of travel with sketches of man and nature is drawn from eight years’ exploration of the southern Malay islands.
The Custom House was the place where goods entering and leaving the UK were checked and any necessary tax paid. As the pornography laws on the Continent were more relaxed than in nineteenth century Britain, the photographs and books that Mr Verloc buys in from Paris and Brussels are likely to contravene the censorship laws and, as such, could get him into trouble with the law or cost him a heavy fine if opened by customs officials.
Conrad’s choice of name for the Under-Secretary may be a reference to Ethelred the Unready, an eleventh century English King. His title “Unready” comes from a mistranslation of the Old English word “unraed” (badly advised), a contradiction of the meaning of “Ethlered” (noble advice). Perhaps Conrad is inviting readers to question the sagacity of this much-respected government official?
Crim Tartary, or Chersonesos Taurica as it was known in the ancient world, was the old name for the Crimean peninsula in the Black Sea. Its original inhabitants, the Tauri, were said to be brutal and harsh people who were gradually civilized by the Grecian colonies that settled in the area. This idea was reflected by Euripides in his tragedy Iphigenia in Tauris a bloody play in which savage fierceness is, to some extent, tamed by religion.
Thirty years before the events of The Secret Agent, Britain had allied with the Turks of the Ottoman Empire against Russia in the Crimean War. Nevertheless, the Turks were seen as a barbarous race in the nineteenth century. If they would act better than the anarchists, then the anarchists must be very bad.