The South Seas, Etc. – Review

Robert Louis Stevenson. The South Seas, Etc. New York: Books Inc., n.d. Print. The World’s Popular Classics.

This was an old edition we happened to pick up because we knew that Stevenson spent his last years in the South Pacific because of health problems.

This book consisted of The South Seas, Letters from Samoa, and “Father Damien,” all relatively short works. This told us a little of Stevenson’s life, but more of his impressions of the South Pacific. While he visited Hawaii, the Marshall Islands, and a few other places, The South Seas focuses on the Marquesas Islands where he lived for some time.

He makes some observations about the Polynesian languages, noting how from New Zealand to Hawaii and the Marshalls they are all related. He notes the consonant changes, that in Tahiti the word tabu (“taboo”) is tapu in the Marquesas and kepu in Hawaii. I recall being told that in the more remote areas of Hawaii (Niihau and maybe Lanai) they retained the t sound over the k sound so even today they speak of Tamehameha rather than Kamehameha. He says the differences are slight and they can all understand one another in spite of the great distances from island group to island group just as a Welshman can communicate clearly enough with a Breton.

Stevenson writes about the relations between the French rulers and native people. There are, of course, some misunderstandings but for the most part they accept each other’s laws and practices. This mutual tolerance and parallel cultures were reminiscent of the relations between the Indians and English settlers in New England prior to King Philip’s War. Some of the young men were eager to be schooled by the French but others merely tolerated it.

Stevenson, a Protestant, was impressed with the artwork that went into the construction of a couple of the Catholic church buildings on the islands. He also was fairly impressed with the dedication of the priests and nuns who ran the churches and schools. Some, he opined, were better teachers than others, but most seemed dedicated to their religion and their calling.

The South Seas
devotes quite a few pages to observations and discussions of cannibalism. Apparently it was still practiced in the Marquesas until the French outlawed it. Even then, Stevenson suspects some may have continued it. He notes that this was not practiced in some of the other Polynesian islands and suspects it was more common in places where the population density was greater.

He also notes the taboos and fears associated with death and ghosts among the people of the Marquesas. He also states that there were only two accurate Western recorders of life in the South Pacific, one being Herman Melville in Typée and Omoo. Stevenson’s experience in the Marquesas is very different from Melville’s, but he can observe some of the same things, though in the fifty year time span, the French had brought more of a Western and Catholic influence.

In comparing the cultures of the Marquesas with Hawaii, he notes that the Marquesas overall were more traditional and less Western. The reason he gives is that in Hawaii shortly before the first missionaries came, King Kamehameha had become skeptical of the Hawaiian gods and religious practices and had abolished most of the traditional practices. When the missionaries arrived a few years later, the Hawaiian were often ready to hear of the true God.

Letters from Samoa are about half a dozen letters describing some aspects of life on Samoa in 1892 and 1893. At the time Samoa was part of the German Empire—it became American Samoa after Germany’s defeat in World War I. What stood out to him was the treatment of workers from Melanesia.

It seems almost as if the German landowners there were imitating the American South before the Civil War. They would go to the Melanesian islands, especially New Caledonia, and hire black natives to work on their fruit plantations. While not enslaved, they were not treated especially well and many died from disease and, according to Stevenson, from homesickness. It was definitely feudal in nature.

The tract on Father Damien of Molokai was written as an open letter in response to a Presbyterian minister who was critical of Father Damien. It is worth reading because Stevenson visited Molokai and did get a chance to see the leprosarium there. (Father Damien himself had died a couple of years before Stevenson arrived.) At best, Stevenson notes that if Father Damien is ever elevated to sainthood (that happened in 2009), that letter written by the Honolulu minister would fit in well with the position of a devil’s advocate.

Stevenson is a good writer. None of these nonfiction pieces are really stories, but they are of some interest historically and linguistically as a discussion of the islands of Polynesia especially the Marquesas and Samoa. As they still do today, they sound like wonderful places to visit and maybe even to call home.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *