A few weeks ago, browsing through the travel literature section of a book shop, I found a copy of a book I never knew existed. It was named In the South Seas, and the author was a person who, in my ignorance, I used to associate to those pirate novels that we were (forced to) reading at school.
The fact is, as the patient bookstore owner took the care to tell me (dont’t you love when staff in such stores do actually know about books?), Stevenson ought to be remembered for his travel writing as much as for his novels or literary critiques. In spite of a precarious health – his family had a history of tubercolosis and he died aged 44 – he was a brilliant traveller who visited much of France, the US and, obviously, his native Scotland.
In the South Seas is the travel diary of the voyage that him, his wife and offspring took in the South Pacific. It started as an “on assignment” work (why doesn’t it ever happen to me as well?) and developed into a full-time relocation, from 1890 until his death in 1894.
During those four years, and on a series of small boats, the Stevenson family toured the South Pacific before making camp for good in Samoa. These errands, marked in bright red on the map below, gave the author the material with which to write this fantastic little book.
Travelling through Polynesia in those years was quite different from what it might be like now, for those islands were only one generation away – sometimes less – from their first contacts with Westners and memories of cannibalism, continuous warfare and widespread violence were still pretty much alive.
Despite that, and despite being a byproduct of the Victorian age, Robert Louis Stevenson is devoid of any superiority complex of the kind that ruined so many of his contemporaries. Rudyard Kipling wrote his White Man’s Burden five years after Stevenson’s death and, yet, this chronicle of voyages is almost completely free of critical judgement of the kind you’d see in other Victorian dispatches.
It really beggars belief that this man, his wife and sons decided to sail through this remote part of the world and simply accepted what they saw for what it was, criticising human behaviours the same way they’d have criticised those of fellow Brits at home, and also exerted a good deal of self doubt when situations developed in ways they didn’t foresee. This, coupled with the vivacity of the narration, is the aspect that makes this book so enjoyable even after all this time.
There’s another side to this book, more sombre and sad than the report of visits to exotic islands: Stevenson, as already said, visited the Pacific at a time of transition in the history of the islands, while the old pre-Christian traditions were being slowly replaced by the imposition of a new way of living by the colonising West, predominantly by the French and Americans.
Stevenson and his family were the witnesses of this dramatic change and of its legacy made of alcoholism, violence, hopelessness, pain and dearh. It would’ve been easy to expect Stevenson to applaud this revolution, under the all-Victorian certainty to be the heralds of the best possible way of life in the world, but this is not the case. Instead, what we see is a critique of the imposition of the new Christian beliefs, a damning report of the sense of loss felt by the locals after their customs have been binned by the arrival of a culture perceived as more powerful and, finally, a dramatic call against the new illness spreading everywhere the West arrived: alcoholism.
In the South Seas is not only, then, a brillian piece of travel literature, a final farewell from a gifted writer. It’s also a very critical look at the way we export our culture to others, often replacing theirs, convinced that ours is better anyway. The sad thing is that 120 years or so have passed and few things seem to have changed.