Collecting histories: Solomon Islands @ the British Museum

The Asahi Shimbun displays

As you walk up the stairs and into the main entrance of the British Museum it’s easy to miss the room immediately on your right, hidden behind the tide of visitors pouring in and out.

Officially room number three, since 2005 this smallish room has been devoted to displays sponsored by the Japanese newspaper, Asahi Shimbun.

The idea is to showcase single or small groups of objects from the Museum’s vast collections, focusing right in on a particular object or set of objects or region or era. It’s a kind of lucky dip into the Museum’s bottomless store of treasures and wonders. Since 2005 the room has hosted more than 40 displays. My favourite was the mummified crocodile from ancient Egypt, which was displayed along with a fascinating explanation of the place of crocodiles in Egyptian mythology.

The Solomon Islands

The current Asahi Shimbun Display focuses on the Solomon Islands. There’s a map showing you their location in the Pacific, and wall labels describing their history before Europeans arrived, the story of their conquest and colonial administration, and then events since independence from Britain in 1978.

We learn that the Solomon Islands is an independent country of six large and many small islands, home to about 80 ethnic groups whose distinctive cultures are represented in many colonial collections around the world.

I was surprised to learn that, although the islands became steadily more enmeshed in patterns of global trade during the 19th century, it was only in 1890 that they became a British Protectorate. After 90-odd years of British governance, Christian missions and colonial plantations, the Solomon Islands became independent in 1978.

Many people these days have moved from the remote islands to the capital Honiara on Guadalcanal Island to take advantage of its jobs and facilities. Most Solomon Islanders are now Christians, children and grand-children of pagans successfully converted by European missionaries – but still very close to their tribal histories and traditions.

It’s because of this British imperial connection that the British Museum has such an important collection of native objects and historic photos from the Solomon Islands.

Objects from the Solomon Islands

The maps of the islands are good, the old photos are sort of interesting, but it is the half dozen or so native objects which fire the imagination. These include:

A bird net float The Lau people, living on islands in the coastal lagoons, used consecrate bird floats on special nets to catch fish for festivals celebrating the ancestors. After use these powerful and dangerous objects were hung up in the priest’s house. Priest Kailafa of Ferasubua Island gave this bird float to Anglican missionary Arthur Hopkins in 1903, who later sold it to a collector, who then bequeathed it the museum.

Bird net float from the Solomon Islands, late 19th century

A large carved ‘figure of an ancestor’ This image of an ancestor belonged to a shrine at Munda in the New Georgia group of western Solomon Islands. People prayed to these ancestors for spiritual support and protection, so their memorials were sacred and precious. This figure was among artefacts taken from homes and shrines by the crew of HMS Royalist in 1891. The captain later sold it to the British Museum.

Figure of an ancestor, 1890s

Carved wooden canoe figurehead During the colonial period the islands continued to export its a fairly narrow range of raw materials including plantation crops, timber and fish. But it was interesting to learn that before, during and after the British Protectorate, the islanders also made a healthy living selling visitors their hand-carved and decorated artefacts.

Trade boomed after the Second World War which saw the rise and rise of speciality tourism and then mass tourism. The islanders responded by producing increasing numbers of masks and sculptures carved in the traditional way and inlaid with pearl shell, to create striking designs such as this canoe figure-head. This example, made by the craftsman named Bala of Butana, was bought by a British Museum curator in an art shop in 2004.

Canoe figure-head (nguzunguzu) of wood with pearl shell inlay, 2004

This, in a way, was the most interesting learning. We all know that a lot of the artefacts in the British Museum were looted, stolen or swindled off the original owners. It’s a surprise, and goes against that whole narrative of colonial guilt and imperial injustice which is now received opinion, to learn that some of them were just — bought at gift shops 🙂

Summary

The display is not really worth a trip in and of itself. But if you’re passing nearby, or certainly if you’re visiting one of the museum’s big exhibitions, it’s always worth taking a moment to pop into Room 3 to find out what random objects and subjects the Asahi Shimbun display has pulled out of the British Museum’s bottomless trove of treasures.


Related links

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

Oceania @ The Royal Academy

How to say Oceania

First the pronunciation. All the curators and scholars on the audio-guide (£2.50 and well worth it) pronounced it: O-SHE-EH-KNEE-ER. They are mostly Oceanians (Auusies and Kiwis) themselves. Whereas Tim Marlow, RA artistic director, pronounces it: O-SHE-ARE-KNEE-ER. Maybe that’s the British pronunciation.

The map

Second, the map. Oceania is immense, covering – at its widest extent, about a third of the earth’s surface. Yet it is almost all water. Apart from the continent of Australia, the big islands of New Guinea and New Zealand, it mainly comprises hundreds of small to tiny islands or atolls, scattered over the immensity of the Pacific Ocean.

Map of Oceania

Map of Oceania

It was only later that European geographers divided the vast area into Polynesia (Greek for ‘many islands’), Melanesia (meaning ‘islands of black people’) and Micronesia (‘small islands’).

The people

It took a vast period of time for them to be settled. Indigenous Australians migrated from Africa to Asia around 70,000 years ago, and arrived in Australia around 50,000 years ago. Papua New Guinea was first colonised 30,000 years ago.

But most of the islands of Oceania were populated a lot later (or more recently), starting maybe around 3,000-3,500 BC on Fiji, 1400 BC in the Bismarck Archipelago, 1000 BC on Tonga, 300-400 AD for Easter Island and Hawaii, New Zealand between 800 and 1200 AD.

So the problem any exhibition of ‘Oceania’ faces is this extraordinary diversity of histories, cultures, languages and religions to be found over this vast extent.

The timeline

It can be simplified as:

  1. Tribal peoples travel across the islands, settling them over a huge time span from 50,000 BC to 400 AD.
  2. European discovery: various Pacific islands were ‘discovered’ from the 16th century onwards by European explorers from Portugal, Spain and Holland (e.g. the Dutchman Abel Tasman who gave his name to Tasmania in 1642). But Anglocentric narratives tend to focus on the four voyages of Captain James Cook, the first of which arrived at Tahiti in 1769 with Cook going on to map the islands of the Pacific more extensively than any man before or since.
  3. Colonisation: during the 19th century one by one the islands fell under the control of European powers, namely Britain and France and Holland, with Germany arriving late in the 19th century and then America seizing various islands at the turn of the 20th century. Everywhere Europeans tried to impose European law, brought missionaries who tried to stamp out tribal customs, sometimes used the people as forced labour, and everywhere brought diseases like smallpox which devastated native populations.
  4. Political awakening: during my lifetime i.e. the last 30 or 40 years, the voices of native peoples in all the islands have been increasingly heard, fighting for political independence, demanding reparations for colonial-era injustices, a great resurgence of cultural and artistic activity by native peoples determined to have their own stories heard, and a great wind of change through western institutions and audiences now made to feel guilty about their colonial legacy, and invited to ask questions about whether we should return all the objects in our museums to their original owners.
  5. Global warming: unfortunately, at the same time as this great artistic and political awakening has taken place, we have learned that humanity is heating up the world, sea-levels will rise and that a lot of Oceania’s sacred places, historic sites and even entire islands are almost certainly going to be submerged and lost.

The peg for the exhibition

250 years ago, in August  1768, the Royal Academy was founded by George III. Four months earlier, Captain James Cook had set off on his epoch-making expedition to the Pacific. This exhibition celebrates this thought-provoking junction of events.

The exhibition itself

I love tribal art, native art, primitive art, whatever the correct terminology is. Some of my favourite art anywhere is the Benin Bronzes now in the British Museum (and other European collections), so I should have loved this exhibition. There are well over a hundred carved canoes, masks, statues, spears and paddles, totems, roof beams, and other ‘native’ or ‘tribal’ objects which emanate tremendous artistic power and integrity.

Tene Waitere, Tā Moko panel (1896-99) Te Papa © Image courtesy of The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

Tene Waitere, Tā Moko panel (1896-99) Te Papa © Image courtesy of The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

I think one of the problems is that I found it, in fact, too immense. Overwhelmed by wall after wall of extraordinary masks and carvings I found the narrative or explanations behind the objects difficult to follow. It is the challenge of ‘Oceania’ as a subject that it is so huge and so diverse. Every single island had its own peoples, with their own myths, legends, traditions and ways. It wasn’t like reading about the ancient Greeks or Egyptians which are reasonably uniform and stable entities – it was like reading about a thousand types of ancient Greek or Egyptians.

The exhibition attempts to create order from this profusion by allotting objects to themed rooms, thus:

1. Introduction

A huge map of Oceania takes up one wall of the central octagonal room, whose other dominating feature is a vast cascading blue curtain, a work of art invoking the enormous Pacific made by the Mata Aho Collective of four Māori women. And on another wall, a video of Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner from the Marshall Islands reciting one of her poems in a strong American accent.

2. Voyaging and navigation

This room contains some breath-takingly beautiful carved wooden canoes, paddles, prows, fierce wooden headposts, ornate carvings and painted figureheads. In the background, on the left, you can see a display case which contains several of the ‘stick charts’ which native peoples used as navigational aids.

Installation view of canoes at Oceania, the Royal Academy

Installation view of canoes at Oceania at the Royal Academy

Tupai, a native from Tahiti, who I learned about when I read the biography of Captain Cook, was a native who joined Cook’s crew and became extremely useful as an interpreter with tribes on the islands he visited. Tupai made a number of drawings of natives and Europeans and these and a number of other drawings are scattered throughout the show. interesting, but dwarfed by the visual and imaginative impact of the enormous canoes and masks and statues.

3. Expanding horizons

Spears, head dresses, statues, ceremonial clubs and dance shields.

The commentary makes the point that a lot of the artefacts now on display in Western museums were not stolen and looted. Most Oceanic cultures placed importance on gift-giving for cementing alliances, mediating power, exchanging brides and grooms, and so on. Hence a lot of the stuff on show here was given freely by native peoples keen to establish their idea of good relationships with the newcomers by exchanging. And of course, the European ships exchanged or ‘sold’ to the natives all sorts of European goods, from trashy gewgaws, to useful tools and equipment.

4. Place a community

A room about buildings showing how native peoples decorated their buildings with paintings or carvings depicting myths, legends, important ancestors, and how the architecture not only mediated space, but also, in some sense, controlled time. For example as you entered a chamber decorated with carvings of your ancestors, you were literally going back to their time.

This room included one of the highlights, an enormous long, carved, wooden roofbeam from the Solomon Islands which featured some exquisitely carved figures of seagulls, pinned tail up to the side of the wall, as if diving down to catch the wooden fish depicted swimming along beneath them.

Also included were some fairly explicit images of the sexes, a number of men with penis sheathes and the goddess Dikulai carved with her legs wide apart and, apparently, pulling apart her labia.

Carved wooden pole for a ceremonial house, Magura village, Solomon Islands, 17th century

Carved wooden pole for a ceremonial house, Magura village, Solomon Islands, 17th century

5. Gods and ancestors

This is another room full of enormous carved wooden and stone statues, for example of the two-headed figure of Ti’i from Tahiti, or the immense stone Maori figure of Hava Rapi Nui. There’s a wooden depiction of Lono, the Hawaiian god who was to be Captain Cook’s nemesis.

Installation view of canoes at Oceania at the Royal Academy

Installation view of canoes at Oceania at the Royal Academy

6. The spirit of the gift

Examples of the gifts whose exchange was such an important part of the culture of many of the islands: necklaces made of teeth or shells, armshells, half a dozen enormous decorated barkcloths the size of Persian carpets, cloaks made of feathers or flax, and a couple of three-foot-tall, feathered godheads.

7. Performance and memory

Most of these artefacts were not ‘art’ in our sense, objects to be kept hanging on a wall or in sterile conditions in galleries. Most of them were made to be used – to be worn, moved or swung, in an atmosphere of incense and music and celebration, or commemoration or ritual.

Objects like a lifesize costume for a ‘chief mourner’, or the huge display of fans, figures, masks, a dance paddle, a head crest, carved wooden shields, a war club, a ceremonial adze, a crocodile mask. Things that were meant to come alive in the hands of experienced users.

8. Encounter and empire

Here come the horrible Europeans bringing their Christianity, their ‘rule of law’ and their ideas of ‘private property’ which could be bought and sold at a profit, instead of freely exchanged as gifts.

That said, the exhibition emphasises how native peoples used all the new objects and materials which Europeans exchanged with them to produce new hybrid forms of art, incorporating European materials and motifs, precursors, in some ways, to tourist souvenirs.

In the enormous display case which took up one entire wall and housed some 15 stunning carved objects, pride of place went to another long slender carving, this time of a feast trough carved in the shape of a crocodile, from Kalikongu, a village in the West Solomon Islands.

19th-century feast bowl from the Solomon Islands, nearly 7 metres long. Photograph: Trustees of the British Museum

19th-century feast bowl from the Solomon Islands, nearly 7 metres long. Photograph: Trustees of the British Museum

9. In pursuit of Venus (infected)

The exhibition completely changes tone as you round the corner and come across the longest continuous video projection I’ve ever seen. Onto the wall of the longest room in the Royal Academy is projected this 21st century live-action animated art work by Lisa Reihana, a 26-metre wide, 32-minute long installation.

To quote from Reihana’s website:

In 1804, Joseph Dufour created Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique, a sophisticated 20-panel scenic wallpaper whose exotic subject matter referenced popular illustrations of the times and mirrored a widespread fascination with Captain Cook and de la Perouse Pacific voyages. Two hundred years later Lisa Reihana reanimates this popular wallpaper as a panoramic video spanning a width of 26 metres.

While Dufour’s work models Enlightenment beliefs of harmony amidst mankind, Reihana’s version includes encounters between Polynesians and Europeans which acknowledge the nuances and complexities of cultural identities and colonisation. Stereotypes about other cultures and representation that developed during those times and since are challenged, and the gaze of imperialism is returned with a speculative twist that disrupts notions of beauty, authenticity, history and myth.

If you’re puzzled by the title, it is explained by the fact that Captain Cook’s 1768 voyage to the Pacific was commissioned by the Royal Society to record the transit of Venus, a phenomenon it was hoped would help improve navigation, and which astronomers knew would be better observed from the South Pacific than from Britain.

The subtitle, ‘infected’, rather brutally reminds us of the immense devastation wrought on native populations by the disease-bringing Europeans (whose diseases had earlier ravaged the populations of the Caribbean, north and central America).

Here’s a clip from In pursuit of Venus (infected):

The film presents a panorama of all kinds of social interactions from the colonising period including, inevitably, scenes of brutality and killing.

For me this completely changed the tone of the exhibition. Up till then I had been admiring Oceanic culture from the past: from this point onwards, for the last two rooms, the exhibition transitions to being about contemporary art by contemporary artists from the Oceanic region, a different thing entirely.

A completely different thing because these artists, without exception, being 21st century artists, employ what is now the universal, global language of contemporary art. They may have been born in New Zealand or the Marshall Islands, but they have been educated into the international visual language of contemporary art from New York to Beijing.

Thus a lot of their visual and artistic distinctiveness was lost.

10. Memory

These last two rooms mix a handful of awesome traditional masks or wood carvings with bang up-to-date contemporary works of art.

For example, The Pressure of Sunlight Falling by Fiona Partington (b.1961 New Zealand) consists of five enormous digital photographs of casts made of the heads of Pacific people. The work is based on the fact that, on the Pacific voyage of French explorer Dumont d’Urville, from 1837 to 1840, the eminent phrenologist, Pierre-Marie Dumoutier, took life casts of natives that the expedition encountered. Centuries later, Pardington heard about this, and dug around in the archives to discover some of the original casts. In the words of the catalogue, she:

reinvests their mana by highlighting their neoclassical dignity and beauty through immaculate lighting and composition.

This is all well and good and interesting. And the photos are stunning.

Some photos from The Pressure of Sunlight Falling by Fiona Pardington

Some photos from The Pressure of Sunlight Falling by Fiona Pardington

But for me they come from the world of contemporary art, they could be hanging in the Serpentine or Whitechapel or ABP gallery – all of which are worlds away from the anthropological imagination required to imagine yourself into a Maori canoe or a Solomon Island hut filled with wood carvings of the ancestors.

11. Memory and commemoration

The final room contains a couple of ‘tribal’ works, but the balance has now shifted decisively towards very contemporary Oceanic art.

These include Blood Generation (2009), a collaboration between artist Taloi Havini and photographer Stuart Miller. Between 1988 and 1998 there was a brutal civil war between Papua New Guinea and the people of Bougainville, triggered by external interests in mining. The young people who grew up during this era are known locally as the ‘blood generation’. The art work consists of a series of brooding, mostly black and white, photos of young people from the blood generation and the mine-scarred landscape they grew up in.

Still from Blood Generation by Taloi Havini and Stuart Miller (2009)

Photo from Blood Generation by Taloi Havini and Stuart Miller (2009)

One whole wall of this last room is devoted to an enormous painting on canvas, Kehe tau hauaga foou (To all new arrivals) by John Pule (2007).

Installation view of Kehe tau hauaga foou (To all new arrivals) by John Pule (2009)

Installation view of Kehe tau hauaga foou (To all new arrivals) by John Pule (2009)

And a video, Siva in motion, in which video artist Yuki Kihara is dressed in a black Victorian dress, and then slowly performs dance movements traditionally ascribed to the Hindu god Siva. The work is in memory of the 159 victims of the 2009 tsunami, which is why it is in the room devoted to ‘Memory and commemoration’.

I hope you can see why, by the end of these eleven rooms packed with geography, history, new peoples and languages and gods and customs and traditions, I felt that these final, absolutely contemporary art works, though they may well bring an exhibition of Oceanic art right up to date, also threw me.

They had the regrettable effect of overwriting much of the visual impact of the native objects I’d seen earlier in the exhibition. Photography and video are so powerful that they tend to blot out everything else.

I wish I’d stopped at room eight, among the amazing carved head and feathered masks and strange threatening statues, and kept the strange, powerful, haunting lost world of Oceania with me for the rest of the day.

Video

The RA did a live broadcast from the opening of the exhibition, featuring Tim Marlow, RA artistic director and scholars discussing artefacts, and also including a live performance.


Related links

  • Oceania continues at the Royal Academy until 10 December 2018

Related reviews

Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

Captain James Cook: A Biography by Richard Hough (1994)

A grave, steady man (Boswell, quoted page 342)

I’ve covered a lot of the detail of the three epic voyages of discovery carried out by Captain James Cook in my review of the current exhibition about them being held at the British Library in London.

That review includes detail of the routes, the places ‘discovered’ and first mapped by Europeans (Tahiti, New Zealand, Hawaii, among many others) and the baleful impact which First Contact with white men had on the native peoples of those places.

Having put all that factual information, and discussion of the attendant cultural controversy, down in another place, this in a sense frees me up to enjoy Hough’s rather old-fashioned biography as a straightforward narrative of derring-do and adventure.

Space and detail

Hough (pronounced How) takes us deep into the day-to-day experience of being an officer or ordinary sailor or one of the scientific passengers, on these extraordinarily bold and dangerous voyages – cooped up in a ship 100 foot long by 28 feet wide for months on end in often terrible weather, with food and water which, after about a month, had become inedible and foul. It is no surprise to learn that drunkenness and fighting among the crew were a permanent problem, with some of the crew being drunk from morning to night, and one man on the first voyage drinking himself to death.

During his career Hough wrote a variety of historical books, but was mostly a specialist in maritime history. He was born in 1922, which means this biography of Cook was published when he was 72 years old. No surprise, then, that it is rather old-fashioned in tone and approach.

Hough gives space at the appropriate points to the scientific motives of the voyages, to the behind-the-scenes politicking at the Royal Society and the Royal Navy which provide the context for the voyages, to the way Cook’s discoveries were appropriated by others (the self-promoting naturalist Joseph Banks being the glaring example), were frequently sensationalised and misreported in the press, and so on.

He deals extensively with Cook’s encounters with the native peoples of the places he ‘discovered’, and gives a better sense of their interactions than the exhibition does. The exhibition is at pains to emphasise the baleful consequences of Cook opening up these places and peoples to colonial exploitation, whereas Hough has the space in his 450-page-long book to go into great detail about the complex mutuality of many of these encounters and their diversity: some natives were friendly and welcoming, some were fierce and antagonistic; some lived in sophisticated cultures with complex religions, others lived stark naked to the elements, with no clothes, or homes or tools of any kind; some, like Queen Obadia and King Tiarreboo of Tahiti, become good friends of Cook and his officers through repeated visits.

But at its core – and what makes his book, I think, so enjoyable – is Hough’s own deep feeling for the perils and pleasures of sailing the seven seas. Although he nowhere explicitly states it, it is quite clear that Hough was an experienced sailor himself, and had visited at least some of the exotic and distant locations he is writing about, by boat.

Anyone who has sailed these waters off present-day Christchurch will appreciate how easy it was for Cook to misidentify Banks Peninsula for an island. (p.158)

This writer, arriving at Easter Island by sea and at early dawn, can attest to the discouragement to landing the fierce visages and giant size of these statues engender. (p.289)

Thus his book contains numerous moments of insight into the precise mechanical workings of an 18th century sailing ship, of the weather and sea conditions to be found on the seas which Cook sailed, and goes into fascinating detail about the great range of jobs and tasks required to keep a ship afloat and sailing.

Hough places you right there, hearing the creak of the rigging, feeling the salt spray in your face, sharing the excitement of the crew when land is sighted after weeks of being cooped up in the stinking, bickering environment of the ship.

It is, for example, typical that before each of the three voyages, Hough not only takes you through the extensive repairs and refurbishments made to each of the ships Cook sailed in, but goes to great pains to name and describe every member of the crew – their names, where they were from, their sailing experience and personalities, with indications of how they bore up during their three-year-long ordeals, right down to the 12-year-old cabin boy.

Map of James Cook's three voyages

Map of James Cook’s three voyages

Mingled in among the narrative events are moments of pure lyricism with which Hough explains the lure of the sea, and the excitement of discovery.

On the ill-fated third voyage Cook took along two junior officers, William Bligh, a young arrogant but competent map-maker whose harshness, 12 years later, was to cause the infamous ‘Mutiny on the Bounty‘ – and young George Vancouver, who joined Cook’s second expedition at the age of 15.  At the moments when they hove into view of new islands, or set out to explore new coastlines, discovering new sounds, bays and inlets, we share with them the raw thrill of discovery which drove Europeans all around the world, on the most cockamamie expeditions.

The audience of political correctness

I’ve watched and read over the past 40 or so years as history writing has become more ‘diverse’ and ‘inclusive’. In practice this hasn’t meant many more black or non-white people writing history, it has meant that the same type of white, upper middle class, private-school-educated academics, writing on the pretty much the same old subjects, but now going out of their way to comment on 1. the presence or absence of women, and 2. the oppression of non-white peoples.

Fine. Some of this approach sheds drastically new light on old subjects, like Alan Taylor’s mind-expanding history of the colonisation of America, American Colonies, which begins 30,000 years ago with the arrival of the first humans in Alaska, and goes on to explain the staggeringly diverse range of ‘races’, nations and cultures which, right from the beginning, made up America’s multi-racial societies. A book like that completely changes your view of the subject.

But in other writers’ hands – and especially in (by necessity) the restricted space of exhibition guides and wall labels – it can sound like tokenism and box-ticking.

An aspect of the rise of identity politics and political correctness in history writing is that it can result in text which is surprisingly simple-minded, almost childish. In the several exhibitions about queer art which I’ve visited over the past few years, the curators take it upon themselves to explain that ‘same sex desire’ was once forbidden and even punished by western societies. Golly.

Reading something like this makes me wonder what age group the curators are targeting. Most of the people I see at art galleries and exhibitions are quite clearly retired, educated middle-class people in their 60s and 70s. Do you really need to explain to the average, educated, middle-class exhibition-goer that homosexuality used to be illegal? Do you think they didn’t know that?

Similarly, at the British Library exhibition about Cook’s voyages, I was struck by the naivety of some of the wall labels, like the one which pointed out that:

Violence is part of the story of James Cook’s voyages, as it is of other European expeditions of this era.

What age group would you say that is aimed at? 11 year-olds? 8 year-olds? Surely not the grey-haired old retirees I was surrounded by.

And in case you didn’t know what ‘violence’ means, the display the label refers to contains a musket which, it explains, is a kind of old-fashioned gun. And a ‘gun’ is a ‘weapon’. And ‘weapons’ are often used in ‘violence’. Get it now?

Next to a map which Cook created of Tahiti is another wall label:

Claiming of already populated lands was a common feature of European exploration.

How old do the curators think we are? 11?

This is what I mean when I say that modern, politically correct identity politics/feminism/post-colonial theory can sometimes end up treating its audience like small children, as if they have to explain every aspect of human nature from scratch, as if we’d never heard of same-sex desire, or violence, or colonialism, or slavery before.

Hough assumes we are adults

This is what makes Hough so enjoyable: he treats his readers as adults who know about the world. Thus he takes it for granted that the main entertainment of the tough, illiterate ship’s crew was getting drunk and fighting – which we know about because of the litany of disciplinary measures Cook recorded in his logs.

Prostitutes And Hough expects you to understand that it was standard practice for the 80 or so crew members, whenever they hit land, to go looking women. In Westernised ports like Cape Town or Batavia, this meant prostitutes. In the islands of the Pacific, it meant native women. But this is where the voyages were so memorable for the men because there were well-established traditions of native women happily giving themselves to visiting men – with the full approval of their own menfolk. Which obviously made a big impression on British sailors brought up in our sexually repressed culture.

Tahitian women Thus every landfall in most of the Pacific islands was accompanied by an impressive amount of sexual activity, sometimes in the open, in full view of passersby. Hough, it seems to me, treats us adults who expect rough sailors to behave this way, and so are not as shocked as feminist art curators. Taking the human nature of humans for granted allows Hough to move on to the more interesting aspects and consequences of these cultural encounters, for example the way that many of the English men and native women formed real attachments, which led the women, for example, to follow the ships in canoes when they set sail, and to greet some of the same sailors when they returned three years later, with genuine joy.

A Young Woman of Otaheite bringing a Present. Print of a drawing by expedition artist John Webber (1777)

A Young Woman of Otaheite bringing a Present. Print of a drawing by expedition artist John Webber (1777)

STDs But it also led to the spread of venereal disease and Hough shows how Cook repeatedly tried to establish the origin of these diseases and tried to enforce bans on his own crew when they arrived at new tropical island (like Hawaii, discovered only on the third voyage) to prevent the natives being infected. The failure of Cook’s strict bans, despite being enforced with flogging the sailors, tells us more about the indefatigableness of human nature than all the exhibition wall labels in the world.

Buggery Hough makes only a passing mention of the fact that ‘buggery’ was rife below decks. He takes it for granted that 70 or 80 rough, physically fit men, cooped up in a very small space for long periods, will indulge in sodomy, even though it was forbidden and punishable by lashes of the whip. A very different world from the ‘same sex desires’ of the kind of Bloomsbury ladies depicted in Tate’s Queer British Art but one any man who went to a boys’ school will know about.

The lash Hough assumes that we understand that maintaining discipline among drunk, potentially violent men, required severe physical punishment, namely tying wrong-doers to a wooden frame and whipping their bare backs till they bled. If the member of crew tasked with doing the whipping refused, he too was whipped. Unbelievably harsh to modern thinking, but Hough expects us to have an adult appreciation that most lives, for most of the past, have been bloody and brutal.

Crossing the line I’d forgotten the tradition that when the ship crossed the equator, every crewman and passenger who hadn’t done it before, was locked inside a kind of wooden cage, suspended by rope from a yardarm, and then dropped several times its own height into the speeding waves, so that the man trapped inside was totally submerged, three times. One of the several officers who kept diaries of the voyage remarks how some of the men revelled in demonstrating their toughness, while others were visibly distressed after just the first drop and wept after the second. The tradition continues to this day, though nowadays is an excuse for a party. bring back the dunking cage, I say 🙂

The purpose of history

For me history has at least three purposes.

1. One is as pure entertainment. I bet most people read history books as they read thrillers or rom-coms, for the entertainment, for the characters, for the amazing things people got up to / endured / achieved and so on. There’s as much sex, intrigue and violence in the Tudors as in a Hollywood blockbuster, which is why books and TV shows about Henry VIII never go out of fashion.

2. A second, more straitlaced motive is to understand how we got here today by reading about our forebears in Britain, Europe, America or wherever, to better understand what happened and why it’s led us to the current situation. The ‘those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it’ school of thought. Winston Churchill said that, by the way.

3. But for me there’s also a psychological-cum-moral purpose — which is to expand the reader’s mind and broaden his or her sympathies.

Reading about the past not only often amazes us at how people lived then, what they had to endure, what they achieved despite it all – but also transports us into the minds of people with completely different expectations and values from us. The more effort we make to think ourselves into others’ places, hundreds of years ago, thousands of miles away, the more we exercise our minds and extend our sympathies.

Instead of rushing to judge people of the past according to the values of today, I think it is more profitable to make the imaginative effort of really immersing ourselves in their world and values, the better to understand:

  1. what they believed and why they did what they did
  2. the vastly different technological, economic, social and cultural conditions they lived under
  3. and so to better understand at least part of the tortuous, labyrinthine, and often unexpected ways in which the past has led up to the present

This, in a nutshell, is behind all the different ways I’m opposed to what I’ve, rather simplistically, called political correctness, in history and historical exhibitions. Political correctness rushes to judge people in the past. I think we should be patient and try to understand them on their own terms.

The livestock

I didn’t realise 18th century sailors took so much livestock with them. Many of the sailors had dogs, and Joseph Banks was notorious for his attachment to his two prize greyhounds. But they also took sheep and pigs and goats, partly to butcher and eat, partly to be gifts to native peoples on the other side of the planet, as well as coops of hens to provide fresh eggs. This meant that wherever they stopped to gather wood and water, they also had to cut grass, a lot of grass, solely as provender for the livestock. And imagine clearing up the piles of poo every day!

By the time of the third voyage, King George III, the official sponsor of all of the voyages, had seen and learned about conditions among the native peoples which his expeditions had claimed for the British Crown. Not least because the second voyage brought home Omai, a Pacific Islander Cook had met in Tahiti, and who became the sensation of fashionable London during his two-year stay in Britain (1774-76).

As a result ‘farmer’ George, as he was nicknamed for his interest in improving agriculture in Britain, decided to send the poor benighted Pacific Islanders a suite of farm animals which they could breed up, encouraging them to convert their primitive agriculture into modern, mixed British farming best practice.

Thus Cook found himself lumbered with direct orders from the king to transport a number of sheep, rabbits, a mare, a stallion, a large number of sows and several hogs, two cows with their calves and a bull, to the other side of the world and given as gifts to the king of Tahiti. Plus a peacock and a peahen, special gifts of Baron Ponsonby of Sysonby.

All on a boat little more than 100 foot long!

For the entire three-year duration of the first voyage, the officers’ tea was provided with milk by a goat, who never failed to deliver, day after day, for a thousand days. It survived all the way back to Britain where Joseph Banks bought her a collar to celebrate her achievement, and commissioned a Latin tag to go on the collar from no less a luminary than Dr Johnson, who obliged with:

Perpetua ambita bis terra preamia lactis
Haec habet altrici Capra secunda Jovis

Which roughly translates as:

In fame scarce second to the nurse of Jove
This goat, who twice the world had traversed round,
Deserving both her master’s care and love,
Ease and perpetual pasture now has found.

Death and Captain Cook

Most accounts of Cook’s voyages focus on their scientific achievement, their mapping and charting, their discoveries of ‘new’ lands (new to Europeans), and the first interactions of Westerners with native peoples in a variety of locations, some peaceful, some violent, all of which – in the long run – would disrupt and decimate their societies.

But one way in which a past as remote as 250 years ago is distant from us is in its attitude towards death. The politically correct tend to think that any deaths, indeed any violence carried out by people and regimes from the past, should be judged against the highest standards of modern, peaceable Western society and held to account as in a courtroom.

But it’s not defending the behaviour of anyone in the past to point out that, 250 years ago, death from all sorts of causes was much more common than it is now. The ubiquity of death – the deaths of his own family, of soldiers and sailors he served with, of crewmates and colleagues – all help to explain the sometimes apparently ‘casual’ way Cook and colleagues responded to the deaths of the native peoples they encountered.

So in among the amazing stories, the colourful characters and the breath-taking scenery, I became interested in Hough’s relating of the many deaths which surrounded Cook all his life, and therefore the presence of death as a theme in Captain Cook’s biography.

In fact there are so many deaths sprinkled throughout the book, that I’ve restricted this selection of examples to just the First Voyage.

Death in Cook’s family

  • Cook’s parents, James senior and Grace, had eight children. Four died in childhood, one as he turned 20, leaving only James and two sisters to survive into adult life.
  • Cook had six children with his wife, Elizabeth who lived to the following ages: James 31 (drowned at sea), Nathaniel 16 (lost at sea), Elizabeth 4, Joseph died at 2 weeks, George died at 3 months, Hugh died at 16 of scarlet fever. None of his children lived long enough to have children of their own.

Death in war with France

  • Off Plymouth in 1757 Cook was crew aboard the Eagle which was in a fight with the 50-gun French ship Duc d’Aquitaine, the Eagle‘s cannon killing 50 Frenchmen, their cannon killing 10 of Cook’s shipmates, wounding 80! Imagine the sound and the sights and all the blood and body parts.
  • As warrant officer on the HMS Pembroke Cook observed no fewer than 26 of the crew dying of scurvy with many more ill or permanently incapacitated – as on more or less every European ship sailing any distance during this era.
  • Cook’s ship took part in the siege of Louisbourg, the French fort at the mouth of the St Laurence Waterway in Canada.
  • Cook took part in General Wolfe’s campaign to capture Quebec and therefore Canada and therefore for the British Empire. During the campaign the Pembroke‘s captain died of an unspecified illness, Cook was involved in trying to repel fireships from the British fleet and, in another incident, was laying buoys from a small boat which was ambushed by canoes manned by French soldiers and native Americans fierce for scalps. Cook’s boat only just made it to land ahead of the canoes, where British soldiers scared the French off. During an abortive amphibian landing Cook’s ship was one of several laying down suppressing fire, but when the landing failed had to receive back on board many wounded and dying soldiers.

Death voyage one (1768-71)

  • ‘Peter Flower seaman fell overboard and before any assistance could be given him was drowned’ in Rio da Janeiro harbour (p.84)
  • 16 January 1769 Banks leads a disastrous expedition into the interior of Tierra del Fuego, setting off in fine weather, but getting lost in a maze of small trees as the temperature plummeted, it started to snow, and the beleaguered troop of ten men struggled to stay alive through the night. Artist Alex Buchan had an epileptic fit, but it was Banks’s two black servants, Richmond and Dorlton, who had filched a bottle of brandy, drunk it all and died of exposure. (p.95)
  • After being caught stealing some sealskin his comrades were going to divide up and make into tobacco pouches, quiet 21-year-old marine, William Greenslade killed himself by throwing himself overboard. (p.102)
  • On 15 April 1769 in Matavai Bay on Tahiti, after a couple of days of happy interaction with the local inhabitants, one of them makes a lunge for one of the marine’s muskets and, as he runs off, is hit and killed by a fusillade from the other soldiers. (p.114)
  • In the same day, back on the Endeavour, the artist Alex Buchan has a severe epileptic fit and dies. (p.114 )
  • On 26 June 1769 Cook and senior officers were welcomed by King Tiarreboo who proudly displayed his collection of human jawbones, and they learned that the previous year the King’s army had invaded  the territory of neighbouring Queen Obadia, killing a large number of her subjects, burning down their huts and stealing their livestock. This explained the desolate landscape and piles of bones which Cook and Banks had observed. (p.130)
  • Back at sea, on 27 August, the boatswain’s mate, John Reading of Kinsale, County Cork, drank three half pints of raw rum and died as a result.
  • On 9 October 1769 they landed at a wide bay of what they came to realise was New Zealand. When three Maori warriors approached the landing party and one came forward threatening with his spear, the cox in charge of the boat ordered soldiers to fire over their heads and, when he came very close, at him. Te Maro was the first Maori killed by the British.
  • Next day a Maori whipped the curved sword from the waist of astronomer Green, and the Brits initially fired birdshot which peppered him but, as he ran off, Surgeon Monkhouse fired his musket and killed him.
  • Later the same day, on the way back to the ship, they encountered two rafts paddled by Maoris and tried to corner one in order to take the natives aboard the Endeavour, show them trinkets and prove how friendly we are. But the Maoris put up a stiff resistance, throwing rocks and anything they could reach so that the Brits eventually fired muskets into the canoe, killing four Maoris.
  • 9 November 1769,  in a different bay, while Cook was exploring the man in charge of the landing party, John Gore was trading with natives. When one of them stole a roll of cloth and ran away, Gore levelled his musket and shot him dead. (p.147)
  • 30 April 1770, in Botany Bay Australia, seaman Forby Sutherland died of pneumonia contracted on Tierra del Fuego, the first Briton to die in Australia.

Death in Batavia

In November 1770 the Endeavour reached Batavia, main city of the Dutch East Indies (now Jakarta). They were relieved to see white men and have access to all the joys of civilisation again, after more than a year either at sea or among native peoples, and also relieved to be able to make repairs to the Endeavour which was in poor shape after enduring such a long voyage, and a number of fierce storms.

But it proved to be a fatal stay. Batavia had been laid out in a grid of canals by the Dutch East India Company but these had silted up and become reservoirs for mosquitoes as well as a host of other tropical diseases.

  • ship’s surgeon Bill Monkhouse 5 November died of malaria
  • 11 November the Tahitian native they’d brought along to act as interpreter, Tupia, died, as did his servant, Taita
  • seamen John Reynolds, Irishman Tim Rearden, John Woodman, marines corporal John Truslove, Sydney Parkinson the wonderful artist and illustrator, the Finnish naturalist and artist Spöring, who had been recommended by Linnaeus, John Ravenshill the ship drunk
  • 31 January 1771 ship’s cook John Thompson, carpenter’s mate Benjamin Jordan, and seamen James Nicholson and Archibald Wolfe
  • February 1771 – midshipman John Bootie, gunner’s servant Daniel Roberts, the surgeon’s brother Jonathan Monkhouse, boatswain John Gathrey, marine John Preston, carpenter John Satterly

In all some 34 of the crew died soon, or from lingering effects of disease caught in Batavia on the journey back across the Indian Ocean and up the Atlantic coast of Africa. Both Cook and Banks were laid low for a while with fevers, but recovered. For a man as proud of caring for his men’s health as Cook, it was a devastating blow.

Death and cannibalism

  • 16 January 1770, in a cove on the New Zealand coast, Cook and his translator Tupia are invited to dinner by a Maori family who explain that they are cannibals. A group of enemies had attacked this tribe, seven had been killed and then – eaten. Some of the sailors saw a native eating the meat off a human arm bone. 20 January some Maori canoes come alongside, sporting dried human heads as decoration.

On the second voyage there were two ships, Resolution captained by Cook, and Adventure, captained by Tobias Furneaux. On 17 December 1773 Furneaux sent a cutter with ten men, commanded by midshipman Rowe, to collect wild greens for the crew. It never returned and next day another cutter went in search and, at a beach they’d named Grass Cove, found hundreds of Maoris and the body parts of their colleagues.

Dogs were chewing at the discarded entrails of four or five men, and they found the eyes, hearts, lungs, livers and heads of their comrades … various feet and Rowe’s left hand (identified by its scarred forefinger) roasting on fires or scattered on the ground.

Over the next few years all visits to New Zealand confirmed that the Maori were cannibals who cooked and ate the bodies of the enemies they defeated in battle. Possibly the white men had got angry, maybe fired a few shots, then were lynched. Possibly they interrupted a native religious ceremony, and sparked the wrath of the celebrants. No one will ever know for sure.

The head of a New Zealander by Sydney Parkinson (1773)

The head of a New Zealander by Sydney Parkinson (1773)

But one of the notable aspects of this clash of cultures was the relative restraint the white commanders showed: his men wanted Furneaux to launch a massive bombardment with all the ships canon to devastate the area, but he resisted. Three years later, when Cook returned to the same area on his third expedition, the men again urged their captain to take devastating retaliation but Cook resisted. He even hosted the king of the tribe associated with the murders, Kahura, in his cabin.

Cook’s sense of guilt

This brings out a central thread of the book, which is Cook’s consistent concern to be fair to the natives, to be considerate and courteous, to pay for everything the crews bought, and to submit to quite a few (to him) incomprehensible religious and civic ceremonies. When he discovered crew members ill-treating natives, or when his subordinates were found guilty of shooting natives, Cook was always incensed, and quite a few were punished with floggings.

And yet the book also lists a steady litany of misunderstandings on both sides, and a steady pile of native corpses which builds up. The white men had cannon and muskets. With every misunderstanding which degenerated into violence, the white men (usually) triumphed. And every incident was a nail hammered into Cook’s agonised awareness that although he was carrying out his Majesty’s instructions to the letter, although he conducted his scientific enquiries, collected biological specimens and made endless maps as ordered – that despite all his good intentions, Western contact with First Peoples was fated to be disastrous.

At Ship Cove in New Zealand, in June 1773, Cook wrote in his Journal of the native Maori:

To our shame as civilized Christians, we debauch their morals already too prone to vice, and we introduce among them wants and perhaps disease which they never before knew and which serve only to disturb that happy tranquility which they and their forefathers enjoyed. If anyone denies the truth of this assertion, let him tell me what the natives of the whole extent of America have gained by the commerce they have had with Europeans. (quoted p.264)

And it was, of course, disastrous for Cook himself, who was cut down in Kealakekua Bay, on Hawai’i island, as a result of a series of cultural misunderstandings with the islanders, which escalated into a bloodbath, described in harrowing detail by Hough on pages 412 to 427.

Cook’s brutal murder stands to this day as a symbol of the tragic ease with which minor cultural confusions can escalate into mass murder, and a gory prophecy of all the massacres which were to follow.

The death of Captain James Cook, 14 February 1779 by Johann Zoffany

The death of Captain James Cook, 14 February 1779 by Johann Zoffany

Cook is cooked

After the fight ashore in which Cook and four marines were stabbed and hacked to death, one of the two boats bombarded the shore while Captain Clerke, taking command, evacuated the remaining men ashore. Some of the chiefs, forlorn at Cook’s murder, promised to reclaim his body for the white men. But next day all they were able to offer was some cooked flesh from Cook’s body and some bones.

This gave rise to the enduring myth that Cook was eaten by cannibals.

No – the Hawaiian Islanders who killed Captain Cook were not cannibals. They believed that the power of a man was in his bones, so they cooked part of Cook’s body to enable the bones to be easily removed. It was the cooking of his body which gave rise to the rumour of cannibalism.

A week after his death, what remains of Cook had been recovered (being the captain’s hands, the scalp, the skull, the leg bones, lower jaw and feet, p.433) were buried at sea in Kealakekua Bay, Hawaii, Captain Clerke assumed command but soon died of tuberculosis and the expedition was commanded for another fourteen months by the American John Gore, and navigated by 28-year-old martinet and expert chart-maker, William Bligh. They sailed north to chart the Sandwich Islands in greater detail, and then all the way north to Alaska to have another – futile – attempt to find the mythical North-West passage.

Elizabeth Cook

His wife, Elizabeth Cook, survived not only her husband by 56 years (he died in 1779, she died in 1835) but all of their children who died young, the three eldest sons aged 31, 16 and 16. On four days a year, the deathdays of her husband and three boys, she fasted and spent the day reading the Bible, and, according to the memoirs of her second cousin:

like many widows of sailors, she could never sleep in high wind for thinking of the men at sea. (p.444)

This may be an old-fashioned book, but partly for that reason, it is sympathetic and moving.


Related links

Nemesis by Max Hastings (2007)

This massive slab of a book (674 pages) is a long and thorough account of the final year of the war against Japan. The book contains thousands of facts, quotes, interviews, interpretations and assessments. Some of the ones which stood out for me were:

  • Hastings points out that Russia, China and Japan simply do not have the same tradition of scholarly, objective history as we in the Anglosphere (p.xxiv). Even quite famous historians from those countries tend to parrot party lines and patriotic rhetoric. Hastings says Japanese historians are rarely quoted in Western accounts because of ‘the lack of intellectual rigour which characterises even most modern Japanese accounts’ (p.xxiii).
  • Western liberals often berate European empires for their racism – but all that pales into significance compared to the inflexible Japanese belief in their innate racial superiority, which led them to treat their ‘fellow Asians’ appallingly, particularly after the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931 (p.4). As many as 15 million Asians died in Japan’s so-called ‘Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere’, including up to ten million Chinese (Hastings says 15 million in the period 1931-45, p.12, and Chinese historians claim up to 50 million), as well as 2 million Koreans (several times Hastings makes the chastening point that all large numbers to do with the Second World War are to be treated with caution).
  • At least a million Vietnamese died in the great famine of 1944-45 caused by the Japanese overlords’ insistence that rice paddies be switched to fibre crops (p.13). Over 2 million Filipinos died in the appalling massacres during the battles to liberate the Philippines. And so on.
  • Wherever the Japanese went they enslaved large numbers of local women as sex slaves.
    • Wikipedia quotes a typical Japanese soldier saying the women ‘cried out, but it didn’t matter to us whether the women lived or died. We were the emperor’s soldiers. Whether in military brothels or in the villages, we raped without reluctance.’ (Wikipedia)
  • Marriage with inhabitants of any of the colonised countries – China, Korea, Burma – was forbidden, to prevent dilution of the superior Yamato race (p.38).
  • 103,000 Americans died in the war against Japan out of a total one and a quarter million who served there (p.9). The US pro rata casualty rate in the Pacific was three and a half times that in Europe, not least because of Japan’s rejection of the Geneva Convention whereby a beleaguered force could surrender. The Japanese fought to the last man again and again, forcing the Allies to suffer disproportionately large casualties.
    • ‘Until morale cracks it must be accepted that the capture of a Japanese position is not ended until the last Jap in it (generally several feet underground) is killed. Even in the most desperate circumstances, 99 per cent of the Japs prefer death or suicide to capture.’ (Major-General Douglas Gracey, quoted on page 11.)
  • Hastings says the idea that the Japanese were on the verge of surrendering when America dropped the atom bombs in August 1945 is a ‘myth’ which has been ‘comprehensively discredited’. If the war had continued for even a few weeks longer more people would have died in the intense aerial bombing and fighting, than died at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
  • The great missed opportunity of the war was that Japan could/should have invaded Russia from the East to co-ordinate with Hitler’s invasion from the West in June 1941. There was a real chance that by dividing Stalin’s armies the two fascist countries could have brought Russia to its knees, forced a change of government, and begun exploiting Russia’s raw materials to fuel their war machines. But Stalin’s certainty that Japan would not invade at this crucial juncture (provided by the spy Richard Sorge), allowed him to move his Eastern divisions back to the heartland where they were crucial in stopping the German advance at Moscow, and then slowly throwing the Germans back.
  • The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941 was a catastrophic mistake. If the Japanese had restricted themselves to invading the European colonies in Asia largely abandoned by embattled France, Holland and Britain i.e. Burma, Malaysia etc, then President Roosevelt would have found it difficult if not impossible to persuade Congress and the American people to go to war, to sacrifice American boys, to save old European empires. Some kind of modus vivendi between Japan and America could have been possible. But the attack on Pearl Harbour, the ‘Day of Infamy’, handed the case for war to Roosevelt on a plate, effectively dooming Japan’s military government and empire. ‘By choosing to participate in a total war, [Japan] exposed itself to total defeat’. (p.5)

The ineffectiveness of militarism

History is a playground of ironies. It is difficult to know where to start in this particular theatre of ironic reversals.

Both of these two militaristic states – Japan and Germany – fetishised war and the soldier, seeing the highest role the individual could play to be a latter-day Aryan ubermensch or samurai and the state as the embodiment of the militarised will of the people. In their speeches and propaganda, Japan’s leaders dripped contempt for the liberal capitalist democracies of the degenerate West. And yet it turned out to be those degenerate democracies which mobilised most effectively for war, and indeed won.

And Hastings points out that this was due to identifiable shortcomings not only in Japan’s economy, state organisation and military infrastructure – of which there were ample – but in its culture, traditions and even language.

  • Respect for superiors meant Japanese officers never questioned orders. Never. Whereas pluralistic meritocratic free-speech democracies discovered that a certain amount of critical thought and questioning helps an army or navy function better.
  • Rather than criticise or even question orders, Japanese prefer silence. ‘Faced with embarrassment, Japanese often resort to silence – mokusatsu‘ (p.42). The opposite of freedom of thought and enquiry.
  • Because the Japanese were convinced of their racial, moral and spiritual superiority to all other nations and races, they made no attempt to understand other cultures. A contributory factor was the self-imposed isolation of the country for centuries. The Japanese had little or none of the ‘intelligence’ operations which were so important in the West, which helped us to plan logistics and strategy, and this absence severely undermined planning and strategy. All they had was the samurai will to fight which turned out not to be enough.
  • The Western democracies, being less hamstrung by traditions of obedience and respect and the military spirit and Emperor-worship, were more flexible. Concrete examples the way that in the West civilian experts were pressed into work on a) building the atom bomb and b) decrypting German and Japanese signal codes. Both these stunning successes were achieved by eccentric civilians, tweed-jacketed, pipe-smoking academics. Compare & contrast the Japanese army and navy which had absolutely no place for anyone who hadn’t been through their rigorous military training or shared their glorious samurai code. ‘It is hard to overstate the extent to which Anglo-American wartime achievements were made possible by the talents of amateurs in uniform’ (p.50).

Thus the Japanese mindset militated against inquiry, analysis, adaptability and free expression.

Japanese atrocities

While the Japanese army and navy bickered, while the government failed to create a coherent industrial strategy for war, while their planners completely underestimated American resources and resilience, the one thing the Japanese, like all weak and inferior armies, excelled at was brutality and atrocity, especially against unarmed civilians, especially against unarmed women.

  • The book includes quite a few personal stories from some of the 200,000 plus sex slaves abducted into ‘comfort centres’ everywhere the Japanese army went, China, Korea, the Philippines, Burma etc. Organised and state-sanctioned gang rape.
  • ‘During Japan’s war in China, the practices of conducting bayonet training on live prisoners, and of beheading them, became institutionalised.’ (p.53) The book has quite a few photos including one of a Japanese officer swinging his sword to behead a blindfolded Australian prisoner. Nowadays we are appalled to watch videos of Western hostages being beheaded by Islamic fanatics. The Japanese did the same on an industrial scale.
  • Discipline in army and navy were severe, with routine heavy beatings of new recruits and officers allowed to kick, punch and abuse any men under their command. The culture of brutality went all down the line. When a destroyer’s cutter, rescuing survivors from a sunk battleship, threatened to be overwhelmed, those in the boat drew their swords and hacked off the hands of their fellow Japanese (p.54).
  • Colonel Masanobu Tsuji was responsible for brutalities and atrocities wherever he served. The most notorious anecdote is when, in northern Burma, he dined off the liver of a captured Allied airman (p.56).
  • The Japanese launched the ‘Three Alls’ policy in China, in 1941, a scorched earth strategy designed to break the spirit of the native inhabitants and bring the occupied country under complete control. The three alls were ‘kill all, burn all, loot all’. The operation targeted for destruction ‘all males between the ages of fifteen and sixty whom we suspect to be enemies’ and led to the deaths of over 2.7 million Chinese civilians.
  • Unit 731 was an experimental biological and chemical warfare research division, set up in occupied Manchuria which conducted experiments of unspeakable bestiality on Chinese victims. To quote Wikipedia,
    • ‘Thousands of men, women and children interred at prisoner of war camps were subjected to vivisection, often without anaesthesia and usually ending with the death of the victim. Vivisections were performed on prisoners after infecting them with various diseases. Researchers performed invasive surgery on prisoners, removing organs to study the effects of disease on the human body. These were conducted while the patients were alive because it was feared that the decomposition process would affect the results. The infected and vivisected prisoners included men, women, children, and infants.’ (Wikipedia)
  • Allied Prisoners of War. Large numbers of memoirs, histories and movies have familiarised us with the Japanese’ merciless treatment of Allied prisoners of war.
    • a) Appalling though they obviously were, they pale in contrast to the appalling treatment Japanese meted out to their fellow Asian civilians.
    • b) Not having to prove so much on this well-discussed issue, Hastings is freed up to include stories of the small minority of Japanese who actually treated prisoners decently – though it’s noticeable that these were mostly civilians or unwilling recruits.
  • Cannibalism. On page 464 Hastings gives specific instances of Japanese cannibalism, including soldiers eating downed Allied air crew and murdered civilians. They preferred thigh meat.
    • ‘Portions of beheaded US carrier flier Marve Mershon were served to senior Japanese officers on Chichi Jima in February 1945, not because they needed the food, but to promote their own honour.’ (p.464)

The war in China

Eventually it becomes physically hard to read any more about the war in China. Japan invaded the north-east province of Manchuria in 1931, establishing their custom of mass murder and rape, associated most with the so-called ‘rape’ of Nanjing, where up to 300,000 Chinese were massacred in six weeks of mayhem.

In 1937 the Japanese launched a further invasion of the entire coast of China. Mass murder, gang rape, forced labour, mass executions and germ warfare experiments on prisoners followed in their wake. Wherever they went, villages were looted, burned down, all the women gang raped, then cut open with bayonets or burned to death. Again and again and again. As throughout the book, Hastings quotes from eyewitness accounts and the stories of numerous survivors, who watched their families be bayoneted to death, heads cut off, forced into rooms into which the Japanese threw hand grenades, everywhere all the women were taken off to be gang raped, again and again, before being themselves executed.

The horror is difficult to imagine and becomes hard to read about.

More bearable, less drenched in blood, is Hasting’s fascinating high-level account of the political situation in China. After the overthrow of the last Qing emperor in 1911, China fell apart into regions controlled by warlords. The most effective of these was Chiang Kai-shek who emerged as the leader of the Kuomintang (KMT), the Chinese Nationalist Party, in the late 1920s, just before the Japanese took advantage of the chaos to invade Manchuria.

Chiang and his people were overt fascists, who despised the softness of liberal capitalist countries like the US and Britain. I didn’t know that the Americans poured an amazing amount of material aid, food and ammunition into Nationalist areas, hoping Chiang would create a force capable of stopping and then throwing the Japanese out. But Hastings shows how it was a stupendous waste of money due to the chronic corruption and ineffectiveness of the Chinese. It took American leaders at all levels four years to realise that the Nationalists were useless, their armed forces badly organised, barely trained, barely equipped and consistently refusing to fight the Japanese. Only slowly did fears begin to grow that the Kuomintang’s bottomless corruption and brutality were in fact paving the way for a Communist victory (which was to come in 1949).

The Philippines

More horror, compounded by American stupidity. US Generalissimo in the South West Pacific, General Douglas MacArthur, had lived in the Philippines before the war. US forces were driven out in 1942, after holding out in the Bataan Peninsula opposite Manila. Hence, once the tide of war turned and his forces had recaptured Papua New Guinea, MacArthur had a very personal ambition to recapture the archipelago.

Hastings is extremely critical of MacArthur’s publicity-seeking egotism, his refusal to listen to intelligence which contradicted his opinion, and above all his insistence on recapturing every single island in the Philippines, which led to thousands of unnecessary American deaths, when he could have bypassed, surrounded and starved them out with far fewer casualties.

Above all this obsession led him to fight for the capital Manila, instead of surrounding it and starving the occupying Japanese out. His predictions that it would be a pushover were proved disastrously wrong as the Japanese converted the battle for Manila into bitter, brutal street fighting comparable to Stalingrad or Berlin – with the extra twist that Japanese officers promised their troops they could enjoy their last days on earth by systematically gang raping as many Filipino women as they could get their hands on, and ordering them to massacre all civilians.

Hastings gives pages and pages of first-hand accounts of Japanese rape, butchery, beheadings, bayonetings, executions, murders and more rapes. It is quite sickening. Thus the ‘liberation’ of Manila (3 February to 3 March) resulted in the deaths of some 100,000 Filipino civilians and the almost complete destruction of the historic city.

Summary

Having struggled through the descriptions of the war in China (pp.207-240) and the Battle of Manila (pp.241-266) the reader turns to the next chapter — to find it is an unforgivingly detailed account of the brutal battle for the tiny Pacific island of Iwo Jima…. This book really is a relentlessly grim and depressing chronicle of man’s most bestial, inhuman, grotesquely violent savage behaviour to his fellow man, and especially to vulnerable women.

Nemesis is a comprehensive, unblinking overview of the war in the Pacific, and includes revelatory chapters on often-neglected areas like Burma and the Chinese mainland. It is so long because at every point Hastings includes lots of eyewitness accounts, recorded in letters, diaries, autobiographies, official reports and so on, to give a strong feeling all the way through of individual experiences and how it seemed and felt to people at the time.

And he goes out of his way to include all nations, so there are plenty of accounts by Japanese and Chinese soldiers and civilians, as well as the expected Allies. It is the civilians’ memoirs which are most harrowing, the Chinese and Filipino women’s accounts of the mass rapes of their families, villages and communities being particularly hard to read.

And the battle chapters chronicle the relentless Allied casualties which the well dug-in Japanese caused on every single island and hill and redoubt, on Guam, Iwo Jima, Okinawa and all the poxy little Pacific islands the Americans had to capture on their long odyssey towards the Japanese mainland. These chapters, with their grinding destruction of human beings, builds up the sense of tension, stress and horror experienced by all the soldiers. It is a nerve-wracking book to read.

Subsequent chapters describe in harrowing detail:

  • The bloody campaign to retake Burma.
  • The genesis of the horrific American firebombing of Japanese cities. (The 9 March firebombing of Tokyo killed around 100,000 people, destroyed over 10,000 acres of buildings – a quarter of the city was razed – rendering a million people homeless amid the smoking ruins. It is difficult to read the eyewitness accounts without weeping or throwing up.)
  • The battle of Okinawa – which involved the largest amphibious landing in history, after D-Day – and where the Americans encountered Japanese dug into another almost indestructible network of caves and bunkers.
  • The genesis, rise, effectiveness and then falling-off of the kamikaze suicide-pilot movement (with its less well-known cousin, the suicide boat and torpedo squads).
  • The rise of Mao’s communists. Hastings fleshes out the idea that, although they both received massive amounts of aid from the Americans, flown in from India and Burma, neither Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist army nor Mao’s Communist army was much interested in actually fighting the Japanese: neither of them had many guns, much ammunition, little or no military discipline or strategy. Both were focused on positioning themselves for the Chinese civil war they could see coming once the Americans had won. Everywhere the corruption and incompetence of the Nationalists alienated the population, whereas the communists were very careful to recruit and train the best peasants, and leave a good impression on villages they passed through. It took a long time for their American sponsors to realise that the Kuomintang was going to lose. Amusingly, American officials at the time and ever since have played down their support for Mao’s communists.
  • The Americans were really vehemently anti the European empires. Churchill fondly imagined he’d be able to restore the British Empire to the status quo ante the war, but the Americans did everything they could to spurn and undermine British efforts. Apparently, in the later part of the Pacific war a poisonous atmosphere existed between the American and British administrations in the region, as the British tried to squeeze in a contribution to the war, in order to justify their return to colonial mastery of Burma, Malaysia, Singapore etc, while the Americans did everything they could to keep them out. And not just the British. A short but riveting section explains how the Americans systematically undermined the French government’s attempts to retake control of Indochina i.e. Vietnam. The Americans supported the leader of the Vietnamese nationalists, Ho Chi Minh, giving him time to establish his Viet Minh organisation and recruit widespread support for anti-colonial forces. This set off a train of events which would come back to bite America hard twenty years later, as it found itself dragged into the effort to stop Vietnam falling to communism during the 1960s – the Vietnam War – which did so much to fracture and polarise American society (and whose repercussions are still felt to this day).

One of Hasting’s most interesting points is the idea that the single most effective weapon against Japan was the naval blockade and in particular the heroic efforts of American submarines in smashing the Japanese merchant marine. Japan is made up of islands which have few natural resources; everything has to be imported; American submarines were bringing Japan to its knees, bringing war production to a grinding halt and starving its population well before the firebombing campaign began.

But wartime leaders need dramatic results, and also the air force was jockeying for position and influence against its rivals, the army and navy, and so the firebombing continued – with an undoubtedly devastating effect on the civilian population but a less decisive impact on Japan’s commitment to the war.

The atom bomb

And this accumulated sense of endless nightmare provides the full depth and horror, the correct historical context, for the American decision to drop the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which I read about recently in Jim Baggott’s excellent history of the atom bomb, Atomic.

You and I may reel with horror at the effect of the atom bombs but both these books make clear that millions of American soldiers, their families, the wider nation, the Allies generally, not to mention the scores of thousands of Allied and Asian prisoners of war, and all the peoples in the occupied zones of China – all felt nothing but relief and gratitude that the seemingly unending slaughter and raping and burning and torture had finally come to an end.

Hastings goes into considerable detail on the military, strategic, political and diplomatic background to the dropping of the bombs.

  • In his account, the idea that the bombs prevented the need to invade Japan in which scores of thousands of American troops would have died, is downplayed. In Hasting’s opinion, Japan was already on its knees and had been brought there by the effectiveness of the naval blockade. Its people were starving, its war industries grinding to a halt.
  • For the American military leadership the bomb didn’t (at first) represent a significantly new departure, but just a continuation of the firebombing of Japanese cities which had killed at least 200,000 people by this stage, and which was set to continue indefinitely. (It is grimly, darkly humorous to learn that Hiroshima was chosen as the first bomb site precisely because it had been left untouched by the firebombing campaign, and so would provide perfect experimental conditions to assess the impact of the new weapon. Similarly, it is all-too-human to learn that the general in charge of the firebombing, Curtis LeMay, was angered that the atom bombs robbed him of being able to claim that his firebombing campaign alone had won the war against Japan. Such is human nature.)
  • The second bomb was dropped because the Japanese hesitated and prevaricated even after Hiroshima, and this was due to at least two fundamental flaws in its leadership and culture:
    • Everyone was scared of the military. By now the Prime Minister and other ministers, backed up by information from the Japanese ambassador in Moscow, realised they had to surrender. But the cabinet of the ‘Big Six’ included the heads of the army and navy who refused. They insisted that Japan would rise up as one man and fight to the death. In their vision, all Japanese, the entire nation, should be ready to die honourably instead of surrender. And Japan had existed in a climate of fascist fear for over a decade. Anybody who spoke out against the military leadership tended to be assassinated. They all claimed to worship Emperor Hirohito as a living god but Hirohito was incapable, partly from temperament, partly from his position, to make a decision. He, like his civilian politicians and a lot of the population, obviously realised the game was up and wanted to end the war – they just didn’t want to end it by giving up their army or navy or colonies in Asia or existing political system or bringing war criminals to trial. They wanted to surrender without actually having to surrender. Thus hopelessly conflicted, Japan’s leadership was effectively paralysed. Instead of making a swift appeal to surrender to the Americans, they carried on pettifogging about the use of the phrase ‘unconditional surrender’, and so the second bomb was dropped, on Nagasaki. These sections are peppered with phrases like ‘delusional’, ‘in denial’, ‘gross miscalculation’
    • (As in the Jim Baggott book, Hastings reports the simple and devastating fact that the intended target, Kokura, happened to be covered in cloud when the B-29 carrying the bomb approached, so the flight crew switched to the secondary target, Nagasaki, where conditions were clear. Lucky weather for Kokura. Unlucky weather for Nagasaki. Thus the autterly random contingencies which determined life and death in the terrible twentieth century.)
  • The biggest revelation for me was the role of Russia. Russia remained neutral in the war against Japan until the last day. This allowed Japanese diplomats and politicians to pin their hopes on the Russians somehow being able to negotiate a peace with their American allies, whereby Japan could surrender and not surrender. Right up to the last minute they thought this was an option, not knowing that Stalin had asked Roosevelt if he could join the war against Japan once the war in Europe was finished and that Roosevelt had agreed (before dying in April 1945 and being succeeded by Harry Truman). Hastings chronicles the intense diplomatic manoeuvring which took place in July and early August, the Japanese with their futilely wishful thinking, Stalin calculating how much of Asia he could grab from the obviously defeated Japs, and the Americans becoming increasingly concerned that Stalin would award himself huge areas after having made next to no contribution to the war.
  • So, if you remove the motivation that dropping the bombs would save the lives of potentially 100,000 young American men who could be expected to be lost in a fiercely contested invasion of Japan’s home islands – then you are led to the conclusion that at least as important was the message they sent to the USSR: ‘America decisively won this war. To the victor the spoils. Don’t mess with us.’ The dropping of the A-bombs becomes the last act of the Second World War and simultaneously the first act of the Cold War which gripped the world for the next 44 years.

Soviet invasion of Manchuria

I didn’t realise that on the same day that America dropped the Nagasaki bomb, the Russian army attacked the Japanese across a massive front into Manchuria and the Sakhalin peninsula, with over a million men. Although the Japanese had feared a Russian invasion for years and knew about the massed build-up on the borders, once again ‘evasion of unpalatable reality prevailed over rational analysis of probabilities’ (p.534). And so, on 9 August 1945, the Red Army invaded Manchuria along a massive front, taking just seven days to shatter Japan’s Kwantung Army, achieving total victory in the Far East in less than 3 weeks. They killed or wounded 674,000 Japanese troops, losing 12,031 killed and 24,425 wounded themselves (p.582).

During the defeat Japanese colonists were ordered to resist and die. This especially applied to mothers, who were expected to kill their children and then themselves. They were often helped out by obliging Japanese soldiers. The Russians were held up in some spots by the same fanatical resistance and suicide squads which made Iwo Jima and Okinawa such bloodbaths, except this was a huge area of open territory, rather than a tiny island, and the Japs had run out of arms and ammunition – and so could be easily outflanked and outgunned.

As usual with Russian soldiers, there soon emerged widespread rumours of indiscriminate rape of all surviving Japanese women and random Chinese women – ‘wholesale rape’ as Hastings puts it (p.571) – though this has been fiercely contested by Russian historians. The very last battle of the Second World War was the Russian storming of a vast network of bunkers and artillery placements at Houtou. The Japanese resisted to the last until around 2,000 defenders were dead, including women and scores of Japanese children. The Soviet soldiers addressed the local Chinese peasants telling them they had been liberated by the Red Army and then set about looting everything which could be moved, including the entire local railway line, and ‘women were raped in the usual fashion’ (p.578).

This storming campaign showed that Russia’s victories in Europe were no fluke. The Russians now had an enormous and effective war machine, the most experienced in the world, given that it had been fighting vast land battles for three years, unlike the other Allies.

Up until this moment the Japanese had been hoping against hope that Russia would somehow intervene with America to manage a conditional surrender. Now they finally lost that hope and Japan’s leaders were forced towards the unconditional surrender, which they finally signed on 2 September 1945.

The Soviet occupation of Manchuria, along with the northern portions of the Korean peninsula, allowed them to transfer these areas to communist-backed regimes. This helped the rise of communist China and communist North Korea, laying the seeds for the Korean War (1950-53) and the ongoing nuclear threat from contemporary North Korea. Thus do geopolitical acts live on long, long past the lifetimes of their protagonists.

***

When I bought the book I thought the title, Nemesis, was a bit melodramatic. Having read it, I realise now that no words can convey the intensity, the duration and the bestiality of such horror. I am ashamed to have lived in the 20th century. At times, reading this book, I was ashamed to be a human being.

Nagasaki, after the Fat Boy atom bomb was dropped on 9 August 1945

Nagasaki after the Fat Boy atom bomb was dropped on 9 August 1945


Credit

Nemesis: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45 by Max Hastings was published in 2007 by HarperPress. All quotes and references are to the 2016 William Collins paperback edition.

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The Ebb-Tide by Robert Louis Stevenson (1894)

This is a blisteringly fierce novel, an intensely bitter and realistic depiction of the low-life criminality, desperate psychology and violence of white trash in the South Seas of the 1890s, which is also charged with a peculiarly epic and symbolic feel.

A relatively short novel in just 12 chapters, The Ebb-Tide is the third of Stevenson’s collaborations with his step-son, Lloyd Osbourne – although in a letter Stevenson made clear that everything after the champagne-tasting scene about a third through was entirely his. (This sheds light on The Wrecker, their previous collaboration, which is immensely long, wordy and slow. The Ebb-Tide starts in rather the same way before gathering real pace and intensity – from which we can deduce that Osbourne was Mr Slow and Wordy and Stevenson Mr Fast and Intense.)

The Ebb-Tide represents a departure from the romance and adolescent adventure of Stevenson’s previous books, towards a new anti-romantic bluntness and harshness, a tone which is established in the first sentence.

Throughout the island world of the Pacific, scattered men of many European races and from almost every grade of society carry activity and disseminate disease.

And although the style still has vestiges of the wit and irony which characterised The Wrecker, the actual subject matter is grim and despairing, with suicide a repeated theme of a story which ends in a grotesquely sadistic death and an even weirder religious transformation.

Three beach bums

The first couple of chapters introduce us to three white men who have sunk to the very lowest level of South Sea society:

  • Herrick, a well-educated well-meaning Englishman whose incompetence at everythijng he’s turned his hand to has reduced him to poverty and thoughts of suicide
  • Davis, an American sea captain who was disgraced when his drunkenness while in charge of a ship led directly to the deaths of six crew
  • Huish, a lazy dishonest Cockney with a vivid turn of phrase

They are ‘on the beach’ i.e. stranded without work or food, with no support or resources, almost like characters from a Beckett play, whining about being hungry and thirsty, at Papeete, the capital of French Polynesia on the island of Tahiti.

Their impoverishment is rammed home in a series of dispiriting scenes. Tramping the island’s paths, they are caught in a torrential downpour. They come across a schooner anchored near a waterside path, with a gangplank up to it and some natives having a fry-up on board. In a desperate attempt to curry favour the middle-aged captain Davis dances a jig, and on this humiliating basis the three losers are invited aboard and given the islanders’ leftovers.

Herrick, the most honest and educated of the trio, who carries a copy of Virgil with him everywhere, is in a state of permanent despair, with thoughts of suicide never far away.

The whole set-up is dark and grim and lacking any of the vim and playfulness of earlier Stevenson.

A ship

A day later, Captain Davis bursts into the disused prison, or ‘calaboose’, where the trio have been squatting, and announces that he’s been given captaincy of a vessel, the schooner Farallon. Apparently, the former captain, mate and able seaman who were crewing it all died of the smallpox on the journey from San Francisco, the ship being brought into harbour by its native deckhands.

The consul has offered the role to every other captain in Papeete and they’ve all turned it down. So it’s fallen to Captain Davis – who promptly suggested that Herrick be taken on as first mate (despite having no experience whatsoever) and Huish as able seaman (ditto).

But Davis then spoils the upbeat effect of this news by telling Herrick he has no intention of fulfilling the contract i.e. to sail the schooner with its cargo of champagne on to Sydney. Instead he plans to sail in the other direction, dock in Peru, sell off the cargo and the boat itself, take the cash as a stake and head off to the silver mines to try his luck. Honest Herrick is appalled.

‘Captain,’ said Herrick, with a quailing voice, ‘don’t do it!’
‘I’m desperate,’ returned Davis. ‘I’ve got a chance; I may never get another. Herrick, say the word; back me up; I think we’ve starved together long enough for that.’
‘I can’t do it. I’m sorry. I can’t do it. I’ve not fallen as low as that,’ said Herrick, deadly pale.

It’s a measure of the despair of the characters that Herrick doesn’t just try to talk the captain out of committing a risky crime – he tries to persuade him to come and drown himself along with Herrick in the bay. What stays the captain is that he has three children, living with his mother, he hasn’t seen them for years but still feels a responsibility to earn what he can and remit it to them.

My folks are hard up, I belong to them, I’ll get them bread, or, by God! I’ll get them wealth, if I have to burn down London for it.

Reluctantly, Herrick throws in his lot with the captain’s plan and then they present it to ‘the bummer’ Huish, who, having no scruples, leaps at the chance. The trio are officially signed up and rowed out to the schooner next day, where the captain introduces himself to the native crew and they set sail. There is immediately trouble. While exiting the harbour one of the natives leaps overboard and swims to shore, leaving them short-handed. Herrick is fraught with anxiety at having to behave like a mate when he hasn’t got a clue how to address the native crew.

Drunks

But worst of all, at the first mealtime (prepared by the native cook) Huish comes into the cabin armed with some bottles of champagne, having rifled the precious cargo. Even Davis, who’s planning to steal the boat, is shocked at this breach of discipline – the champagne is the cargo they’re planning to sell; it is their investment – but then weakly gives in to Huish’s wheedling.

The Rubicon was crossed without another struggle. The captain filled a mug and drank.

This idea of crossing a line, a moral line, without even realising it, is very reminiscent of the flawed protagonists of Joseph Conrad’s early, tropical novels.

Watching all this, Herrick is plunged even deeper into despair. He realises ‘he is a thief among thieves’ and, with characteristic fatalism, fantasises about throwing himself overboard. And it turns out to be a real Rubicon because they hadn’t quite appreciated just how much of a hopeless alcoholic Captain Davis turns out to be – that one drink tips him over the edge and into a bottomless pit. Once re-acquainted with booze, and free booze at that, Davis from now on is rarely sober, and as soon as the sun sets, is drunk or unconscious till dawn.

The days pass as the schooner sails East over the empty ocean with little or no serious work required, and Herrick discovers himself to be conscientious and good at sailing, while the captain lies rolling drunk in the scuppers. And Herrick also discovers he’s won the respect of the native crew by  his conscientiousness – when the captain is so drunk he can’t take his watch and Herrick says he’ll pull a double watch to cover, the islanders leap to his defence and volunteer to do it for him. He is touched.

It’s in this mood of camaraderie that one of the islanders tells Herrick that this was exactly the fate of the previous crew: the captain, mate and seaman were drunk all the time with only the islanders steering the ship. In this state it came by accident to a remote island which the white men rowed ashore to, ignoring the sound of keening and wailing coming from it. And it was there, drunkenly ’embracing’ the local girls, that the stupid white men contracted the virulent chicken pox which killed all three.

Barely has Herrick processed this revelation than an almighty storm strikes the schooner and captain Davis’s drunken incompetence almost sinks it. Herrick takes decisive action (bringing in the rigging to stop the ship being blown right over) and a now-sobered-up Davis swears never to touch another drop. Having weathered the storm, there’s a touching / scary moment when Davis finally admits to Herrick that the little daughter who he has made the pretext for their criminal scheme – is in fact dead and buried in Portland, Maine, of a bowel complaint. He had bought her a dolly on his last trip which he was going to give her and now keeps the dolly with him wherever he goes.

Very much as with Conrad, Stevenson is determined to take us to the lowest pitch of human degradation.

The fake champagne

But barely has the storm been weathered and the crew recovered from the near wreck – before Huish strolls in with yet another bottle of champagne, cracks it open and – discovers it contains water! What? Is their cargo fake?

In a mad panic the three white men scramble down into the hold and pull up on deck crate after crate of the champagne, smashing the necks off in an orgy of violence and discovering that, below a certain point in the loading, the bottles are all full of water. In fact in the lowest crates, the fraudsters haven’t even bothered to put fake labels and metal caps on them. The whole cargo is a fraud, a scam.

The owners’ plan must have been to ditch the ship somewhere and claim the insurance money – that would explain the semi-criminal officers and the disposable ‘Kanaka’ (or native) crew. Now Davis, Herrick and Huish conceive the same plan but with a twist; to ditch the schooner somewhere off Samoa and get extradited back to San Francisco to blackmail the owners.

Except Davis suddenly claps himself on the forehead, hurries below, and returns having made a further bad discovery. They don’t have enough supplies to make it to Samoa; not least because in the drunk twelve days of the cruise so far he has been fantastically lavish with supplies, insisting entire meals were thrown overboard if they didn’t please his drunken palate. Misery is piled upon misery.

The island

They are just pondering what to do when there is a cry of ‘land-ho’ from one of the natives. Sailing into the island’s lagoon, the three see a settlement of sorts, but oddly lifeless. A white man hails them from the shore and rows out. Six foot three and incredibly posh, he is Attwater, a Cambridge-educated pukka example of the Englishman abroad. He uses all his powers of condescension to patronise and insult Huish and Davis but automatically accepts Herrick – an Oxford man – as his equal.

Attwater spins a long yarn about this being a ‘secret’ island, barely referred to on the charts, because he has managed to deter visitors ever since he discovered it holds a fortune in shell and pearls.

It quickly emerges that Attwater is a man of iron and a devout Christian. He describes  how, immediately upon arriving on the island, he imposed a fierce discipline on the inhabitants. He established an efficient pearl-fishing regime which he has been running for nigh on ten years, a trading schooner stopping by three times a year to drop supplies. Then the blasted smallpox arrived and killed off all but three of the native population of 33. Hence the sense of an abandoned settlement.

Attwater invites the trio for dinner at his house that evening, but makes it plain that Herrick must come at 4pm, the other two at 6.30pm. He obviously wants to have a private word. Then he gets back in his dinghy and rows ashore.

Davis is so infuriated by Attwater’s superior attitude that he tells Herrick he must use his early appointment with the big man to persuade him to return to the ship, along with his fortune of pearls, on any pretext he can think up – and then the trio can kidnap him, steal the pearls, either murder Attwater on the spot or maroon him on some atoll.

Thus briefed, Herrick – the one honest soul in the bunch – rows ashore later the same day to keep his 4pm appointment, tormented by the dilemma he’s been plunged into.

Attwater greets him and Herrick (and the reader) enters Attwater’s strange, fierce ambience. Attwater shows Herrick the modern diving suits, with metal helmets and boots, which he bought and got the villagers to wear to set about the pearl harvesting in a professional way – none of this inefficient native ‘diving’ nonsense. He goes into detail about the quick fierce smallpox epidemic. Somedays it was impossible to bury the dead. He shows him the pathetic graveyard.

The image of the tall white eerie white man dominating this island of the dead is eerie and compelling.

The dinner party

Davis and Huish arrive at 6.30 as planned, and there is an extremely fraught dinner party: Captain Davis stares nervously at Herrick wondering whether he’s sticking to the plan to betray Attwater; Herrick is in agonies because he suspects Davis is liable to make a rash move with his gun at any moment, whereas the two hours he’s just spent with Attwater have revealed him to be an extremely tough customer, with guns of his own. In fact, Attwater went out of his way to tell Herrick stories about his marksmanship: he particularly enjoys shooting round the edge of a target before finishing it off.

All this tension comes to a head when Attwater tells a prolonged yarn about his idea of ‘justice’ – how he hounded one of the islanders for disobedience and theft so harshly that the man eventually hanged himself. But at just that moment Attwater realised it that his other servant, a slimy obsequious native, was the guilty party all along. So when all the natives took him to see the hanged man, Attwater made the guilty one climb up into the tree alongside the corpse, and then shot him dead.

This brutal story brings to a head all the pressure on Herrick, who jumps to his feet decrying the host’s hypocrisy and brutality and storms out. Davis follows him out of the house and along the beach in a fret and tries – not for the first time – to calm the hysterical man down, but Herrick says it’s useless: Attwater is too strong, too powerful, he sees everything, he’s seen right through them. He explains how Herrick noticed immediately the drunken attempt Davis had made when they were at sea to paint over the Farallon‘s name; he knows he’s dealing with crooks; he tauntingly described Davis and Huish to Herrick as ‘wolves’ and asked what a little puppy like him was doing among them.

‘He knows all, he sees through all; we only make him laugh with our pretences — he looks at us and laughs like God!’

Eventually Davis talks Herrick out of his funk, and they walk back along the sand towards Attwater’s house. Davis is now plotting how he will take Attwater – coming up behind him and shooting him without warning; sitting down and shooting him in his chair?

He is in the middle of rehearsing these murderous choices when he is stopped in  his tracks by Attwater’s voice. the big man has come out onto the sand and is pointing his Winchester rifle straight at Davis. He says that while the pair were away he’s got Huish blind drunk and extracted the whole secret of their plan to murder him and steal his pearls. Well well well. A nice bunch of people. He waves his gun over towards the beach and the pier and their rowboat. ‘Get in it and don’t come back.’

Back on the schooner

Humiliated, Herrick and Davis tip the catatonic Huish into the dinghy and row back out to the schooner. But here they are only confronted with the same plight again: they don’t have enough supplies to make any other port – certainly not sail all the way to South America – they would have little option except to return to Papeete, where they will have a lot of explaining to do to authorities – authorities who are already sick and tired of them. More likely than not they will be arrested and sent to the notorious French penal colony at Noumea in New Caledonia. It’s just not an option.

Suicide attempt

Humiliated by the failure of their squalid plan, humiliated at being associated with these two vile murderers, humiliated by comparing his own wretched fate with the superb Christian trimphalism of the virile Attwater, Herrick slips away from the depressed captain, lowers himself into the boat tied to the schooner and then into the sea, planning to swim a little away and commit suicide by drowning.

But finds he can’t, he can’t, he just can’t bring himself to. Instead he miserably drifts.

About three in the morning, chance, and the set of the current, and the bias of his own right-handed body, so decided it between them that he came to shore upon the beach in front of Attwater’s. There he sat down, and looked forth into a world without any of the lights of hope. The poor diving dress of self-conceit was sadly tattered! With the fairy tale of suicide, of a refuge always open to him, he had hitherto beguiled and supported himself in the trials of life; and behold! that also was only a fairy tale, that also was folk-lore. With the consequences of his acts he saw himself implacably confronted for the duration of life: stretched upon a cross, and nailed there with the iron bolts of his own cowardice. He had no tears; he told himself no stories. His disgust with himself was so complete that even the process of apologetic mythology had ceased. He was like a man cast down from a pillar, and every bone broken. He lay there, and admitted the facts, and did not attempt to rise.

On the shore the washed-up Herrick is inevitably discovered by Attwater with his Winchester and throws himself pitiably on his mercy.

‘Oh, what does it matter?’ cried Herrick. ‘Here I am. I am broken crockery; I am a burst drum; the whole of my life is gone to water; I have nothing left that I believe in, except my living horror of myself. Why do I come to you? I don’t know; you are cold, cruel, hateful; and I hate you, or I think I hate you. But you are an honest man, an honest gentleman. I put myself, helpless, in your hands. What must I do? If I can’t do anything, be merciful and put a bullet through me; it’s only a puppy with a broken leg!’

See what I mean by a story drenched in despair and self-loathing?

Huish’s horrible plan

Back aboard the Farallon next morning, the resilient Cockney criminal Huish comes up with a diabolical plan which he presents to Davis: they will lull Attwater into a false sense of security by handing him a wordy letter (which he now dictates to Davis) and then – Huish flourishes a bottle he’s brought out from his luggage. It is vitriol. Concentrated acid. Throw it in Attwater’s eyes, says Huish, and bob’s your uncle – we get pearls, money, supplies and are set up for life!

Davis is sickened, appalled, nauseated but – being the weakling he is – that they all are – he reluctantly goes along with Huish’s plan. So they get the native crew to row them ashore where Attwater and Herrick – now converted to the big man’s side – emerge from his beachfront house toting a Winchester rifle apiece and keeping them covered.

Huish gets Herrick to take and read the letter out – then advances towards Attwater asking to talk a bit more. But Attwater simply tells him to come no closer. Forty feet away; it’s too far to throw the acid. Huish keeps up his yacking, designed to distract Attwater while he takes mini steps forward – until Attwater realises something is up – and realises it must be something in Huish’s fists. He tells Huish to unclench his fists (including the one holding the vitriol) so the plot comes to a sudden head.

Simultaneously, Huish goes to throw the acid at Attwater and Attwater fires his gun, shattering the vitriol jar in Huish’s hand which spills down into the little cockney’s face, burning it away. Huish screams and dances in agony as the acid eats into his eyes and face, and then Attwater finishes him off like an agonised animal with another brutal shot.

Attwater turns to Captain Davis, who is standing stricken in front of the huge ship’s figurehead which dominates the beach like the statue of a pagan goddess. In his best muscular Christian triumphalism Attwater commands Davis to make his peace with his Maker, to ask God’s forgiveness for his sins, to say his prayers – and the trembling Davis makes a short prayer for the life and health of his children, then says he’s ready.

The captain shut his eyes tight like a child: he held his hands up at last with a tragic and ridiculous gesture.
‘My God, for Christ’s sake, look after my two kids,’ he said; and then, after a pause and a falter, ‘for Christ’s sake, Amen.’
And he opened his eyes and looked down the rifle with a quivering mouth.
‘But don’t keep fooling me long!’ he pleaded.
‘That’s all your prayer?’ asked Attwater, with a singular ring in his voice.
‘Guess so,’ said Davis.
‘So?’ said Attwater, resting the butt of his rifle on the ground, ‘is that done? Is your peace made with Heaven? Because it is with me. Go, and sin no more, sinful father. And remember that whatever you do to others, God shall visit it again a thousand-fold upon your innocents.’

The wretched Davis came staggering forward from his place against the figure-head, fell upon his knees, and waved his hands, and fainted. When he came to himself again, his head was on Attwater’s arm, and close by stood one of the men in divers’ helmets, holding a bucket of water, from which his late executioner now laved his face. The memory of that dreadful passage returned upon him in a clap; again he saw Huish lying dead, again he seemed to himself to totter on the brink of an unplumbed eternity. With trembling hands he seized hold of the man whom he had come to slay; and his voice broke from him like that of a child among the nightmares of fever: ‘O! isn’t there no mercy? O! what must I do to be saved?’
‘Ah!’ thought Attwater, ‘here’s the true penitent.’

And that is the end of the main narrative. Attwater has triumphed over the ineffective ‘wolves’ but more – he has converted one of them to the true religion.

In the brief epilogue, Herrick is seen setting fire to the Farallon because Attwater’s regular supply ship, The Trinity Hall, has been sighted and they need to dispose of the evidence of their crime. When he goes to tell Davis that they are ‘saved’, that the supply ship will take them back to civilisation, no questions asked, Davis says he is going to remain on the island. Because, Davis says, his eyes blazing, he is truly saved, his soul has been redeemed. He has found peace in believing in the blood of the Redeemer – and he asks Herrick to join him.

It is a really bizarre and unexpected ending to a strange, powerful and haunting narrative.


Thoughts

This short book is stuffed with so many themes and ideas that it’s hard to know where to start.

1. Conrad

How did my tutors at university ever let me ‘study’ Joseph Conrad, without reading Stevenson’s Pacific fictions first? The despair reeking off this story – like the desperate events at the climax of The Wrecker – strongly anticipate the nihilism of Joseph Conrad’s sea stories, in all of which white men marooned in the Tropics go to pieces, commit suicide, murder each other or go mad – Almayer’s Folly, An Outcast of the Islands, The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’, Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim. The agèd captain Davis, forced to his desperate actions by misplaced devotion to his children, reminds me powerfully of Captain Whalley in The End of The Tether.

Conrad’s first novel, Almayer’s Folly (1895) was published only months after this book (1894). There is a direct link and lineage of location, themes and treatment between the two.

2. White and black

In his letters Stevenson made it crystal clear that four or five years cruising round the Pacific islands had given him a strong impression of the greed and stupidity of white men, and the rapacity and folly of the various imperial authorities. He published such excoriating criticisms of the colonial authorities’ small-minded, inept and corrupt administrations that he and his wife seriously worried that they would be expelled from the region.

In his fiction, the native peoples are shown as varied and flawed but by and large tower over the horrible, selfish, greedy, violent stupidity of all the white characters.

3. D.H. Lawrence

Attwater is the strange, powerful figure towering over the second half of the book. He strikes me as an archetypal fin-de-siècle figure, channeling Nietszchean ideas of the Superman who supersedes feeble bourgeois morality – but also looks forward to D.H. Lawrence’s emphasis on the uncontrollable power of the pagan life force.

I wonder whether Stevenson had read Nietzsche and heard the notion of the Übermensch. I wonder what Lawrence made of Stevenson’s Pacific fiction; it was after all, only fifteen or sixteen years after this book was published, that Lawrence’s first novel came out.

Attwater is presented as huge, strong, fierce and vital, both physically and metaphysically.

The boat was by that time forging alongside, and they were able at last to see what manner of man they had to do with. He was a huge fellow, six feet four in height, and of a build proportionately strong, but his sinews seemed to be dissolved in a listlessness that was more than languor. It was only the eye that corrected this impression; an eye of an unusual mingled brilliancy and softness, sombre as coal and with lights that outshone the topaz; an eye of unimpaired health and virility; an eye that bid you beware of the man’s devastating anger. A complexion, naturally dark, had been tanned in the island to a hue hardly distinguishable from that of a Tahitian; only his manners and movements, and the living force that dwelt in him, like fire in flint, betrayed the European.

‘The living force that dwelt in him, like fire in flint’ sounds like Lawrence. But beyond his physical fire is the unstoppable force of his bizarrely violent and apocalyptic Christian belief.

‘What brought you here to the South Seas?’ he asked presently.
‘Many things,’ said Attwater. ‘Youth, curiosity, romance, the love of the sea, and (it will surprise you to hear) an interest in missions. That has a good deal declined, which will surprise you less. They go the wrong way to work; they are too parsonish, too much of the old wife, and even the old apple wife. CLOTHES, CLOTHES, are their idea; but clothes are not Christianity, any more than they are the sun in heaven, or could take the place of it! They think a parsonage with roses, and church bells, and nice old women bobbing in the lanes, are part and parcel of religion. But religion is a savage thing, like the universe it illuminates; savage, cold, and bare, but infinitely strong.

It sounds like Lawrence speaking of the Life Force, and the way the Lawrentian vision is channeled into the figure of the Savage in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932).

The introduction to the OUP edition of The Ebb-Tide goes long on Stevenson’s critique of Western Imperialism, emphasising the striking contrast between honest and reliable ‘natives’ and the deplorably unreliable criminal, morally bankrupt whites.

But the figure of Attwater lifts the second half of the story onto a new level of intensity and weirdness and the element of critique is far broader than complaints about colonial incompetence.

Attwater’s omnipotence over the natives, who he rules with a rod of iron, combining harsh justice with blistering Christian evangelism, is matched by the ease with which he handles and outwits the three losers.

If the basic story critiques Imperialism, the demonic figure of Attwater is a challenge to all Western values. He scorns them and rises above them; he is a terrifying Overman. Far from being a handy stick to beat now-vanished Imperial values with from a left-wing academic perspective, Attwater strikes me as being, like some of D.H. Lawrence’s figures, a proto-fascist figure, a dark shadow whose ‘triumph of the will’ prefigures dark twentieth century monsters.


Phraseology

As if the dark story with its themes of suicide, despair and colonial violence weren’t enough to grip the reader, I also found a strand of pleasure in the endlessly inventive turn of phrase of these rough beach-combers, crooks and bums. Seems to me Stevenson has gone to great lengths to study and record the actual speech of the Pacific types he travelled among. The familiar-yet-strange, late-19th century lexicon is by turns striking, challenging, mind-expanding, puzzling.

He broke off. ‘I don’t often rip out about the kids,’ he said; ‘but when I do, there’s something fetches loose.’

‘I’ll trouble you not to come the dude over me… He thinks I don’t understand when he comes the heavy swell…’

‘The old game was a risky game. The new game’s as safe as running a Vienna Bakery.’

‘Blow me, if it ain’t enough to make a man write an insultin’ letter to Gawd!’

‘If there’s any boy playing funny dog with me, I’ll teach him skylarking!’

‘But put me down on this blame’ beach alone, with nothing but a whip and a mouthful of bad words, and ask me to… no, SIR! it’s not good enough! I haven’t got the sand for that!’

William Blake wrote that ‘Energy is Eternal Delight’, and the expressiveness of Stevenson’s characters – their strange and teasing turns of phrase – is a central pleasure of reading his books.


Related links

A Stevenson bibliography

1878
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.
1879
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.
1881
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.
1882
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.
1883
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.
1885
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.
1886
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.
1887
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)
1888
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.
1889
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.
1890
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.
1891
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
1892
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.
1893
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.
1894
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—-
1895
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.
1896
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.
1897
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.

2005
Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography by Claire Harman

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