‘In the South Seas’ is an account of a journey undertaken by Robert Louis Stevenson and his wife Fanny in June 1888. The book, which was published posthumously, describes their experiences in the Marquesas, the Paumotus, and the Gilbert Islands.
Due to his declining health, Robert Louis Stevenson decides to take his family on a voyage to the Pacific Islands. In the Marquesas, their first destination, the group becomes acquainted with local customs and traditions. They quickly discover that white people and the natives share as many differences as similarities. They also notice that the islands, however beautiful they are, hide some very dark secrets of the past…
After their stay in the Marquesas, the Stevenson party sets sail for the Paumotu Archipelago. They rent a magnificent villa on Fakarava atoll and spend their time exploring the surroundings and socializing with family-oriented and hard-working Paumotuan people. On one occasion, they attend a traditional funeral of an old man. This sad occurrence leads Mr Stevenson to trace the history of religious beliefs in the South Seas.
From the Paumotus, the group travels to Hawaii and then to the Gilbert Islands. They visit Butaritari atoll, where they witness a wild and boozy celebrations of the 4th of July, and attend a five-day long festival full of music and dancing. Afterwards, the family heads to Apemama to meet King Tembinok’ – a tyrant ruler surrounded by female wardens. Although the monarch does not accept the presence of foreigners, he makes an exception and grants the Stevensons a permission to live on the island, in their very own Equator City.
I should be honest here, this book is not an easy read. Despite being very informative and interesting, it may not suit everyone’s tastes.
Stevenson’s travelogue is first and foremost an accurate and in-depth description of certain Pacific islands and their native inhabitants. As a keen observer of nature and people, the author paints a very real picture of what we often call ‘a tropical paradise’. And, let me tell you, this picture is not a rosy one but always full of respect for the Islanders. Because in Stevenson’s eyes the natives weren’t cruel cannibals, though he knew exactly that some of them had enjoyed human flesh. He didn’t treat them as savages either, even when their behaviour was far from the commonly accepted norms. Such attitude makes his South Sea tales very believable and convincing. As a reader, you simply trust everything the author says.
The book is exceptionally well written. Depictions, even if long in some parts, are second to none. They capture attention, they appeal to the senses, they make you want to be in that particular place – on the beach in Kiribati or in the warm waters of French Polynesia. Stevenson’s words leave you longing for an adventure. With every page your desire to experience the island life grows stronger. And then, suddenly, when you put the book down, you are forced to get back to reality while Pasifika slowly fades away.
The author’s style definitely delights, however some readers may struggle with the language. You are probably aware of the fact that it is quite archaic, so understanding Stevenson’s thoughts can be a challenge. But if you are prepared for the 19th century prose and not afraid of a few uncommon words, give it a try. I’m sure you won’t be disappointed, especially when you bury yourself in that magnificent atmosphere of the Pacific region.
I must say I enjoyed this book very much. It is a true classic and can be regarded as one of the most valuable pieces of literature that addresses the Blue Continent. It’s a must-read for those who are truly interested in the South Seas.