South Sea Tales by Robert Louis Stevenson

An Oxford University Press volume which contains the works in Stevenson’s volume, Island Nights Entertainment and a few others, being:

1. The Bottle Imp (1891)

Stevenson planned to write a volume of ghost and supernatural stories which, alas, like so many of his projects, he never got near to completing. This was to be one of the main stories. The Bottle Imp is a short story, loosely based on an 1828 play by Richard Brinsley Peake, but relocated to the South Seas.

A Hawaiian man, Keawe, buys a magic bottle from a friend. The bottle contains an imp or genie which grants wishes. Keawe wishes for – and promptly receives – a big house and lots of money. There is just one catch – if you die in possession of the bottle you spend eternity burning in hell.

Keawe falls in love with a beautiful woman, Kokua, and the genie makes his wishes come true i.e. she returns his love and they get married. All goes well except that, when he is away from her, Keawe slumps and weeps and bewails his fiery fate.

Kokua initially thinks he is having an affair then, observing him weeping, thinks she is a bad wife. But when she finally worms the truth out of Keawe, she arranges for an old man to buy the bottle off him, and then immediately buys it from the old man: thus nobly sacrificing herself for her husband.

But when Keawe learns about her self-sacrifice, he is plunged into a whole new set of misery and despair. He himself commissions a drunken bosun to buy the bottle off his wife, planning to buy it off him – but the bosun, the first white man in the story, selfishly refuses to hand it over – it obeys his drunken wish to put a few more whisky bottles in his pockets and he’s not selling it to anyone!! and staggers off into the night – thus condemning himself – and thus setting Keawe and Kokua free of the curse!

Possibly this fable might amuse children but it contained nothing uncanny or scary for me; there are scores of more intense, atmospheric and eerie scenes in his ‘straight’ novels.

The one ‘issue’ or thought arising is the way the hero and heroine are South Sea islanders but, contrary to the racial stereotypes of the day, behave with tremendous chivalry and love – while the drunken fool who goes off to hell is just one among Stevenson’s larger collection of useless white trash who throng the South Pacific islands.

2. The Beach of Falesá (1892)

A working-class white trader named Wiltshire is dropped on a South Sea island to take up the trading post there which has been left vacant. He is befriended by one Case, a denizen of the island, who gives him dinner the first evening, then arranges a ‘native’ marriage to a local girl, Uma.

But almost immediately the natives start to give Wiltshire and Uma a wide berth, apparently frightened of them. Is he taboo? Has he done something wrong?

Case is all sympathy and takes Wiltshire to a meeting with local chieftains where Case speaks and interprets – Wiltshire not understanding a word. Case tells him there is some unknown reason for the natives’ fear and resentment of him. But Wiltshire has by now spoken to other whites and begun to suspect that it is in fact Case who is putting the bad word around about him.

These include the itinerant missionary Tarleton – indeed, Case is on the beach when Tarleton’s boat puts in and tries to prevent the two meeting but Wiltshire, a big man, knocks him to the ground and carries on. Tarleton confirms what the skipper of the ship which brought Wiltshire to the island hinted, which is that Case is widely suspected of having persecuted, poisoned and possibly murdered all three of Wiltshire’s predecessors (old Adams, Vigours).

His native wife, Uma, tells Wiltshire that Case has cowed the natives because they believe that he communes with a ‘devil’ in the forest. When Wiltshire explores into the tropical forest, he finds gimcrack gadgets designed to scare the credulous natives – including an Aeolian harp which moans in the wind, a building whose wall is topped with weird dolls, and a cave in which Case has painted a monster face in luminous paint, so that when he swings his lantern at it in the night, the vision terrifies the natives he’s brought there.

In the story’s bloody climax, Wiltshire takes dynamite and fuses and returns to Case’s cave-base – himself a little daunted by the noises of the dark forest – with the plan to blow it up and with it, Case’s authority with the natives.

He’s set the charges and barely lit the fuse before Uma turns up, with the news that Case has heard Wiltshire has visited his den and is on his way into the forest after them. He arrives just as the dynamite goes up, destroying the base and littering the forest with burning fragments. By the light of these, Case is able to shoot Wiltshire when he gets up to move away, and then plugs Uma in the shoulder as she runs over to her wounded husband.

The triumphant Case then makes the classic mistake of sauntering over to the injured man, gun at rest, at which point Wiltshire unexpectedly grabs him, twists him to the ground, pulls himself up over his struggling torso and stabs him again and again and again in the chest, feeling his blood spurt over his hand like hot tea.

Realism Stevenson was very aware that this story marked a departure in his fiction from the starry-eyed romance of his adventure yarns towards a new, more brutal, realism. It’s not just the violent ending, but the emphasis all the way through on real islands, people, customs, practices and stories Stevenson had heard, which all combine to give this story an unprecedented sense of reality.

Working class hero In a novel like The Master of Ballantrae, there is a huge amount of psychological tension (and then dread) but very little violence – only the carefully staged and gentlemanly affair of the duel – for the most part it is psychological intimidation. This story reverses that formula, with violent expressions flowing freely in Wiltshire’s mind, and giving rise to a lot of violence in the real world.

Wiltshire’s rough personality comes over in the ease with which he resorts to physical violence, his readiness to knock Case down on the beach, and then his complete lack of scruples about setting off to blow up Case’s den and then – admittedly after Case has shot him and Uma – to relentlessly stab him to death.

But what hasn’t been commented on in any of the criticism I’ve read, is the characterisation of the first-person narrator, Wiltshire, through his language. Wiltshire’s uneducated character is expressed in a steady stream of odd, distinctive and – one assumes – characteristic Victorian working-class phrases and idioms. I found myself entranced and fascinated by the virile, rough locutions of this angry man.

Devil a wink they had in them. [The natives camping round his house don’t move or alter their stares]

… she [Uma] said something in the native with a gasping voice. [This use of ‘the native’ indicates Wiltshire’s uneducated lack of interest in the exact name of the language Uma uses.]

The boys had not yet made their offing, they were still on the full stretch going the one way, when I had already gone about ship and was sheering off the other. [Wiltshire walked out into the crowd surrounding his house and scared off some boys – the other phrases are naval, it was the phrase ‘they were still on the full stretch’ which I found typical of Wiltshire’s expressive use of slang, here, presumably, naval slang.]

‘I’ll make it square with the old lady…’  ‘O no, don’t you misunderstand me Uma’s on the square’ … Case never set up to be soft, only to be square and hearty, and a man all round… ‘… you’re to fire away, and they’ll do the square thing…’ ‘Now, Mr. Wiltshire,’ said he, ‘I’ve put you all square with everybody here.’ [From which we can see that for something or someone to be square, on the square, to be put all square, means to be put to rights, to be honest, open, true-dealing.]

‘O, the rest was sawder and bonjour and that,’ said Case… ‘Well, they don’t get much bonjour out of me,’ said I. [So bonjour (French for ‘good morning’) is apparently used as a generic term for meaningless politenesses and pleasantries.]

The mere idea has always put my monkey up, and I rapped my speech out pretty big. [Meaning rubbed up the wrong way?]

It’s a cruel shame I knew no native, for (as I now believe) they were asking Case about my marriage, and he must have had a tough job of it to clear his feet. [To make a plausible explanation, to get away?]

‘They have a down on you,’ says Case. [Meaning they’ve something against you, this phrase is till sometimes used today?]

‘… she cottoned to the cut of your jib.’ … ‘That’s what I don’t cotton to,’ he said. [Nowadays people would say ‘cotton onto‘, if they say it at all. Apparently because cotton seeds clung easily to clothes. The jib sail on a sailing ship was a different shape depending on the nationality of the ship. Watchers could immediately see which country a ship was from by the cut of its jib, and like or dislike it accordingly.]

I cannot justly say that I ever saw a woman look like that before or after, and it struck me mum. [We use the related phrase, ‘mum’s the word’]

… and pretty soon he began to table his cards and make up to Uma. [We still use ‘put your cards on the table’]

I so wanted, and so feared, to make a clean breast of the sweep that I had been…  I’m what you
call a sinner what I call a sweep… [Referring to the blackness of chimney sweeps, a reference which has completely disappeared.]

I gave him first the one and then the other, so that I could hear his head rattle and crack, and he went down straight. [Wiltshire’s business-like description of punching Case first with one hand, then the other.]

As he came nearer, queering me pretty curious (because of the fight, I suppose), I saw he looked mortal sick… [The missionary has witnessed Wiltshire beating Case to the ground and looks at him pretty peculiarly.]

Since then I’ve found that there’s a kind of cry in the place against this wife of mine, and so long as I keep her I cannot trade. [The way Uma is ignored or scorned by other natives for consorting with Wiltshire, who Case has been briefing all the natives against.]

He stood back with the natives and laughed and did the big don and the funny dog, till I began to get riled. [‘Riled’ we still have as an Americanism: ‘the big don’ means swanking like a VIP and since ‘dog’ just means ‘fellow’ or ‘bloke’ (we still have ‘you lucky dog’) doing the funny dog simply means joking around, playing the fool.]

And then it came in my mind how the master had once flogged that boy, and the surprise we were all in to see the sorcerer catch it and bum like anybody else. [‘Bum’ meaning cry.]

‘I’m not on the shoot to−day,’ said I. [‘On the…’ gives the English user a number of expressive phrases: ‘on the wagon’, ‘on the piss’, ‘on the make’ – ‘on the…’ gives a phrase a kind of rolling energy.]

‘I’ll tell you what’s better still,’ says I, taking a header, ‘ask him if he’s afraid to go up there himself by day.’ [From diving head first into water.]

He had knocked over my girl, I had got to fix him for it; and I lay there and gritted my teeth, and footed up the chances.

… every time I looked over to Case I could have sung and whistled. Talk about meat and drink! To see that man lying there dead as a herring filled me full.

I can see why Henry James genuinely admired Stevenson as a writer because, although his books are mostly written for children, and although lots of them are scrappy, rambling and episodic in structure, Stevenson nonetheless has this key interest in creating a consistent voice for his narrators.

Thus the reader is impressed by the sheer effort it must have taken to write The Black Arrow in a cod-medieval style throughout; or the creation of the personality of Mackellar, the sober, measured family retainer and main narrator of The Master of Ballantrae, through the chasteness of his Scots accent and style.

And, here, in his breakthrough ‘realist’ work, I have given so many examples in order to show the consistency of the voice Stevenson gives to his tough, violent working class trader. A complete departure from the over-educated, self-deprecating irony which dominates The Wrecker, and all the more powerful and convincing because of it.

3. The Isle of Voices (1893)

Bewilderingly different from the rough style of The Beach, this story announces itself as a fable or fairy tale from the start.

Keola was married with Lehua, daughter of Kalamake, the wise man of Molokai, and he kept his dwelling with the father of his wife. There was no man more cunning than that prophet; he read the stars, he could divine by the bodies of the dead, and by the means of evil creatures: he could go alone into the highest parts of the mountain, into the region of the hobgoblins, and there he would lay snares to entrap the spirits of the ancient.

Briefly, Keola is lazy and notices that his father-in-law Kalamake always has money. The latter invites him to learn how. Kalamake gets out a mat and some herbs, burns them, and he and Keola are magically transported to an unknown island.

Here Kalamake tells Keola to gather leaves of a particular tree from the trees at the treeline, then goes scampering along the beach collecting shells. Keola duly collects the leaves, builds a fire and fans it until, as it start to burn low, Kalamake comes running back along the sand and leaps onto the mat just in time for both of them to be transported back to Kalamake’s house – and the pile of shells has turned into a pile of shiny dollars! Why didn’t anyone interfere with their activities, he asks Kalamake? Because on the island they are invisible, just disembodied voices to the scared natives.

Keola, amazed, takes his share and spends it quickly and foolishly and then grumpily starts complaining about his stingy father-in-law. He shares his moaning with his wife, who warns him not to challenge the old warlock – remember: various members of the tribe who crossed him and then disappeared without warning!

But Keola approaches Kalamake and says he needs more money because he wants an accordion to while away the time. (Note, although the most unrestrained fairy tale in content, the text contains unashamed references to the contemporary world and its bric-a-brac: Kalamake’s house has armchairs, a Western-style bookshelf and a family Bible, in among the native possessions.)

Irked at his son-in-law’s laziness, Kalamake invites Keola to come out fishing in Pili’s boat. But once they are out to sea Kalamake does magic and turns into a giant, then into an enormous leviathan, big enough to step into the ocean and only come up to his middle. He rages at Keola’s greed and crushes Pili’s boat like a matchbox just as Keola leaps free and swims for it.

Keola manages to escape his monster father-in-law in the wild and stormy seas and is nearly run down by a white man’s schooner. The sailors grab him aboard and, since they are a crewman short, press gang him to join them. The food is good but the first mate is a sadist who beats the native crew incessantly.

But Keola knew white men are like children and only believe their own stories… The captain also was a good man, and the crew no worse than other whites…

A month later, as the white men’s ship approach a remote island, Keola, at the wheel, takes a chance and steers close to the shore then jumps overboard. The white men shout after him but turn the ship and steer away and back out to sea.

At first Keola is alone on the island and, being a self-sufficient native, builds a hut, catches fish and makes lanterns from coconuts. Venturing to the other side of the island he is surprised (though the reader not so surprised, maybe) to discover it is the very beach where Kalamake’s magic transported them that first time. And sure enough he hears voices – just as Kalamake says the natives do – and sees little fires like the one he built for Kalamake dotted all over the beach. In fact, he hears lots of voices, voices from all around the world, English and French and German and Tamil and Russian and Chinese.

One day six boatloads of natives arrive from another island. To Keola’s surprise they are very gracious to him, build him a proper hut and give him a wife and don’t insist that he works with them. Unusual. When he hears some of the elders describing the place as ‘the isle of voices’, Keola is prompted to explain to them that it is where magicians and warlocks from all round the world come to collect magic shells. The way to stop them and possess the island in peace would be to cut down the tree whose magic leaves Kalamake showed him how to burn to create the fire which magically transports all the warlocks home again. Aha.

One night his new wife tells him the tribe are cannibals; they are fattening him up and plan to kill and eat him. Keola flees to the other side of the island, to the beach of voices, and there finds a great confusion and hustle of invisible spirits. They all seem to be rushing past him and inland. When he follows them he comes across a grove of the magic trees and finds that the tribe are following his advice and chopping down the magic trees – and that is why the spirits are hastening to that spot.

In a hallucinatory scene, Keola watches the tribe coming under attack from invisible spirits, backed up against each other and swinging blindly at invisible enemies with their axes, while he also sees disembodied axes, floating in mid-air, making sudden shrewd strikes at the islanders, who are falling in a welter of screams and blood.

Terrified, Keola runs back to the beach, determined to swim for it when he hears the voice of his first wife, Lehua. She is making a fire from the magic leaves. ‘Come quickly’, she says and he leaps into the circle of the fire and in a flash, they are both back safe in Kalamake’s house.

And the warlock never reappeared, though whether because he was slain in the battle of the spirits, or was marooned by the lack of magic leaves – who can say?

Anti-white Stevenson’s anti-white attitude runs through the story like a thread – whites are stupid, lazy, refuse to believe anything a native tells them (generally to their own loss) and are cruel and sadistic. Any reader of Stevenson’s South Sea stories, let alone the quotes from letters which litter the various introductions and Wikipedia articles, quickly learns that Stevenson took a very dim view of white man in the tropics and the hollowness of their so-called civilisation.

Magical realism It isn’t the correct term but some reference should be made to the way that, although it concerns Arabian Nights-style magic mats and instant travel, the story is nonetheless studded with contemporary references – to the Bible and western books, as mentioned, but also to the trading schooner and its very contemporary manners. And in the final pages Keola ends up telling his story to a local missionary who (typically) dismisses it all as hogwash and then goes and tips off the colonial authorities that Kalamake and his son-in-law are forging money.

This detail a) clinches white men’s stupidity and obtuseness b) but confirms the story’s setting in the bang up-to-date contemporary world.

It creates an odd, anomalous effect.

4. The Ebb-Tide

This OUP volume also very usefully contains the short novel, The Ebb-Tide, but it deserves a separate review.

Related links

A Stevenson bibliography

An Inland Voyage – An immensely entertaining, witty and thoughtful account of Stevenson’s trip by canoe, with a friend, along the canals of Belgium and south into France, observing rural life and types along the way.
Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes – More gritty than the Voyage, the Travels record 12 days walking with a recalcitrant donkey through south-central France in a book which has moments of freewheeling nature worship but comes to be dominated by Stevenson’s interest in the bloody Protestant revolt which took place in the region a century earlier.
Virginibus Puerisque and Other Papers – Essays including: Virginibus Puerisque i-iv including ‘On Falling in Love’, Crabbed Age and Youth, An Apology for Idlers, Ordered South, Aes Triplex, El Dorado, The English Admirals, Some Portraits by Raeburn, Child’s Play, Walking Tours, Pan’s Pipes, A Plea for Gas Lamp.
The Old and New Pacific Capitals – Essays on the climate and history of Monterey and San Francisco.
Familiar Studies of Men and Books – Essays on: Victor Hugo’s Romances, Some Aspects of Robert Burns, The Gospel According to Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau: His Character and Opinions, Yoshida-Torajiro, François Villon, Student, Poet, Housebreaker, Charles of Orleans, Samuel Pepys, John Knox and his Relations to Women.
New Arabian Nights – A sequence of thinly-linked and not too impressive short stories.
Treasure Island – One of the most famous adventure stories of all time. Andrew Lang says it single-handedly established the financial viability of a new type of short, action-packed story and inaugurated a golden age of adventure yarns from the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle and Henry Rider Haggard.
The Silverado Squatters – Another travel book, following immediately after the Atlantic crossing described in An Amateur Emigrant and the trans-America train journey described in The Open Plains, this one describes Stevenson and new wife Fanny’s honeymoon in an abandoned mining camp high on the flanks of Mount St Helena, north of San Francisco.
Prince Otto – An action romance set in the imaginary Germanic state of Grünewald.
More New Arabian Nights: The Dynamiter – co-written with Fanny Van De Grift Stevenson
A Child’s Garden of Verses Classic volume of children’s poetry.
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – One of the most famous fictions of all time about an Edinburgh scientist who devises a potion which releases his unconscious urges, his animal self, an alter ego which threatens to take over his personality.
Kidnapped – Gripping historical novel about young David Balfour plunged into a series of adventures in the aftermath of the Jacobite Rising of 1745.
The Merry Men and Other Tales and Fables – Six short stories: The Merry Men, Will O’ the Mill, Markheim, Thrawn Janet, Olalla, The Treasure of Franchard.
On the Choice of a Profession – An essay.
Underwoods (poetry)
Ticonderoga: A Legend of the West Highlands (poetry)
The Black Arrow: A Tale of the Two Roses – Historical adventure novel set during the Wars of the Roses as young Master Richard Shelton escapes from his wicked ‘uncle’ and rescues the girl he loves, young Joanna Sedley.
The Master of Ballantrae – Two brothers end up on opposite sides of Bonny Prince Charlie’s rebellion of 1745, the Master being the one who goes into exile and adventures in America and India before returning to haunt the stay-at-home brother, until both are driven to a macabre and gruesome fate in the New World.
The Wrong Box – Comic novel mostly written by his step-son Lloyd Osbourne, but revised by Stevenson.
Father Damien: an Open Letter to the Rev. Dr. Hyde of Honolulu Stevenson’s angry defence of Father Damien, Catholic priest to the leper colony on the island of Molokai, against a detractor.
The Bottle Imp – Short story (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) about a magic bottle and the love of two South Sea island natives.
Ballads – poems
The Wrecker (co-written with Lloyd Osbourne) – An immensely long rambling narrative telling the life story of American Loudon Dodds, from his days as a failed art student in Paris, to his business ventures with brash Jim Pinkerton in San Francisco, to the long puzzling case of the shipwrecked Flying Scud whose mystery dominates the second half of the book and, in the final pages, reveals a gruesome and bloody tragedy at sea.
The Beach of Falesá – (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) A powerful short story about a rough white trader and the harsh revenge he takes on the fellow trader who tries to get him expelled from the island.
A Footnote to History, Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa – factual history
Across the Plains – Travelogue following straight on from The Amateur Emigrant (which describes RLS’s 1879 journey by steamship from Glasgow to New York) and describes his ongoing journey by train from New York to California.
The Isle of Voices – Short story (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) about a lazy South Sea islander who falls foul of his father-in-law who is a warlock with magic powers.
Catriona, aka David Balfour – A sequel to Kidnapped.
Island Nights’ Entertainments (aka South Sea Tales) – Contains the three stories referred to above.
The Ebb-Tide – A novella, the third collaboration with Lloyd Osbourne, describing the ill-fated trip of three beach bums at the ends of their tethers, who unexpectedly get the opportunity to crew a schooner, plan to steal and sell it, but then meet their nemesis in the shape of a supernaturally powerful white trader.
—-December 1894 Stevenson dies, aged 44, on the South Sea Island of Vailima—-
Vailima Letters – 44 letters Stevenson wrote to his friend Sidney Colvin, who published them with a preface and epilogue.
The Amateur Emigrant – A short intense account of Stevenson’s journey across the Atlantic in 1879, with descriptions of the squalid conditions of ‘steerage’ class passengers and reflections on the condition and character of the British working classes.
Weir of Hermiston – Unfinished at Stevenson’s death, this fragment of nine chapters describes the childhood and young manhood of Archie Weir, sensitive son of the hanging judge old Adam Weir, how his father removes him from Edinburgh University for his subversive views and exiles him to the country estate of Hermiston where he falls in love with a local beauty, Christina Elliott – at which point a student acquaintance comes to stay, who it is hinted will become Archie’s bitter love rival – and the manuscript breaks off. Contains much mature and insightful portrayal of its characters especially, for the first time in Stevenson’s fiction, of its women characters.
In the South Seas – A collection of articles and essays describing Stevenson’s travels in the Pacific islands.
Songs of Travel and Other Verses – Poetry.
Records of A Family of Engineers – A personal history of his own family of lighthouse-building engineers, unfinished at his death.
St. Ives: being the Adventures of a French Prisoner in England – A long novel which Stevenson had almost completed and was finished after his death by Arthur Quiller-Couch.

Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography by Claire Harman

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