TALES FROM THE SOUTH PACIFIC

In­spired by the beauty and the cul­ture their au­thors sought out in the blue wa­ters and lush is­lands of the far Pacific, the books and sto­ries by this col­lec­tion of leg­endary writ­ers have stood the test of time.

Cruising World - - Contents - By Michael Robert­son

For more than a cen­tury, writ­ers have been in­spired by the ex­otic and trop­i­cal isles of French Poly­ne­sia.

The South In­dian Ocean and the South At­lantic Ocean. For most sailors and non­sailors, these two place names con­jure noth­ing more than spots that can be pointed to on a globe. But one men­tion of the South Pacific, and even a farmer in Ne­braska who’s spent his en­tire life in the Amer­i­can Mid­west will con­jure a ready knowl­edge of white-sand beaches, top­less na­tive women and can­ni­bals. The farmer might even men­tion the South­ern Cross, Tahiti and tat­toos, or Poly­ne­sia, grass skirts and whale-bone carv­ings.

South Pacific lore was born over a cen­tury ago, about the time that men be­gan leav­ing ports by choice to sail very small boats across oceans. Upon re­turn­ing, a few of them, with thick fin­gers cal­loused by salt and rope, be­gan writ­ing. For hun­dreds of pages, they shined a soft and en­tic­ing light on the most re­mote and in­ac­ces­si­ble land­scape on Earth. They wrote of be­ing car­ried along by warm trade winds and of land­ing in ex­otic, trop­i­cal places.

Their works in­spired other writ­ers (as well as artists and philoso­phers) to fol­low in their wakes — and more was writ­ten. Ul­ti­mately, a col­lec­tion of writ­ers and their sto­ries of­fered Western cul­ture the first ro­man­tic no­tions that still draw cruis­ing sailors to the South Pacific to­day.

Some of these writ­ers you are likely fa­mil­iar with; others I hope to in­tro­duce you to. Most in­ter­est­ing to me are the con­nec­tions that ex­isted be­tween sev­eral of them. May learn­ing about these au­thors fuel your own de­sire to set sail for the is­land places they loved and de­scribed.

HER­MAN MELVILLE (1819-1891), United States

Her­man Melville worked as a school teacher out­side Lenox, Mas­sachusetts, when he took a crew po­si­tion on a mer­chant ship at age 20. He briefly re­turned to teach­ing, but then, per­haps in­spired by Richard Henry Dana Jr.’s Two Years Be­fore the Mast, Melville signed on to work aboard the 104-foot three-masted whal­ing ship Acush­net, sail­ing out of Con­necti­cut. Af­ter round­ing Cape Horn, and more than a year af­ter leav­ing the United States, Melville jumped ship on the is­land of Nuku Hiva, in the Mar­que­sas, ini­tially hid­ing in the moun­tains to avoid cap­ture by his ship­mates. Af­ter weeks ashore, Melville boarded Lucy

Ann, took part in a failed mutiny and was jailed in Tahiti. He es­caped af­ter a cou­ple of months and lived on nearby Moorea be­fore sign­ing on to the whaler

Charles & Henry for a six-month voy­age to Hawaii. There he joined the Navy and served aboard the frigate USS United States, which set sail for Bos­ton. Ten days af­ter the ship ar­rived in Oc­to­ber 1844, Melville was dis­charged and be­gan writ­ing. His first, and best-sell­ing work in his life­time, was

Typee: A Peep at Poly­ne­sian Life (1846). Typee is a ro­man­ti­cized, ex­ag­ger­ated ac­count of Melville’s time spent liv­ing among the Poly­ne­sians in the Mar­que­sas. His­to­ri­ans have sug­gested that au­thors Jack Lon­don and Robert Louis Steven­son were in­formed and in­spired by Typee.

Melville fol­lowed up with a se­quel and wrote ad­di­tional books and sto­ries, in­clud­ing Moby-dick, a com­mer­cial fail­ure that put his writ­ing ca­reer in the dumps. Fol­low­ing the pub­li­ca­tion of Moby-dick, Melville be­gan work­ing as a cus­toms inspector in New York, writ­ing poetry in his spare time. One of his sons com­mit­ted sui­cide, a sec­ond died, and Melville even­tu­ally suc­cumbed to heart dis­ease in 1891.

PIERRE LOTI (1850-1923), France

In 1872, 22-year-old Pierre Loti lived in Papeete, Tahiti, for a two-month pe­riod that he char­ac­ter­ized as “the dream of my child­hood.” While there, he im­mersed him­self in Tahi­tian cul­ture: learn­ing the lan­guage, liv­ing among the peo­ple and lov­ing many women. In 1880, he found a pub­lisher for his au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal work of fic­tion, The Mar­riage of Loti. At the cen­ter of the story is Loti’s ro­man­tic li­ai­son with an ex­otic Tahi­tian girl.

The Mar­riage of Loti was a huge suc­cess (even turned into an opera called Lakmé) and in­flu­enced Paul Gau­guin to travel to the South Pacific, where he lived and painted ex­ten­sively be­fore his death in the Mar­que­sas. Con­tem­po­rary lit­er­ary critic Sir Ed­mund Wil­liam Gosse said, “At his best, Pierre Loti was un­ques­tion­ably the finest de­scrip­tive writer of the day.”

ROBERT LOUIS STEVEN­SON (1850-1894), Scot­land

One day in the early 1880s, in rainy Scot­land, his head filled with ad­ven­tur­ous tales of other writ­ers, Robert Louis Steven­son and his step­son passed the time draw­ing an elab­o­rate map of an imag­i­nary is­land. Soon af­ter­ward, he con­ceived the plot of Trea­sure

Is­land, pub­lished in 1883. Though it’s widely ac­knowl­edged that Steven­son was con­sciously in­flu­enced by sim­i­lar works by other writ­ers, it’s from Trea­sure Is­land that our cul­ture can at­tribute ref­er­ences such as trea­sure maps with an X mark­ing the spot, and the sea­man with a miss­ing leg and a par­rot on his shoul­der.

In June 1888, in search of a cli­mate that would be more con­ducive to his fail­ing health, Steven­son char­tered the 90-foot schooner Casco and set sail with his fam­ily from San Fran­cisco to Hawaii. From there, they con­tin­ued to the South Pacific, where he bought 400 acres in Samoa.

He be­came very ac­tive in lo­cal pol­i­tics as a de­fender of the Samoans against colo­nial ad­min­is­tra­tors. He took the name Tusi­tala, Samoan for “teller of tales.” In De­cem­ber 1894, at age 44, Steven­son looked up at his wife and asked, “Does my face look strange?” be­fore dy­ing of what is thought to have been a cere­bral hem­or­rhage.

Two years af­ter his death, In the South Seas was pub­lished. It’s part au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, part an­thro­pol­ogy, and chron­i­cles his trav­els with his wife, Fanny, and their fam­ily in the Mar­que­sas and Tuamo­tus from 1888 to 1889. To­day Steven­son’s home and gravesite in Vail­ima are a tourist draw, but also a place revered by Samoans.

JAMES NOR­MAN HALL (1887-1951), United States CHARLES BERNARD NORDHOFF (1887-1947), United States

Charles Bernard Nordhoff and James Nor­man Hall were Amer­i­cans who both served as pi­lots in the Army in Europe dur­ing World War I. But it was not un­til af­ter the war that they met, when com­mis­sioned to to­gether write a his­tory of their Army unit. The col­lab­o­ra­tion was suc­cess­ful, and when Harper’s mag­a­zine com­mis­sioned the pair to write travel ar­ti­cles about the South Pacific, they both moved to Tahiti.

When the Harper’s as­sign­ment was com­pleted, they con­tin­ued liv­ing in Tahiti, work­ing on as­sign­ment for The At­lantic dur­ing the 1920s and 1930s. Both Nordhoff and Hall mar­ried Poly­ne­sian women and raised fam­i­lies. At the same time, Hall sug­gested they col­lab­o­rate on a tril­ogy: Mutiny on the Bounty, Men Against the Sea and Pit­cairn’s Is­land.

Their part­ner­ship is one of the most suc­cess­ful in lit­er­ary his­tory and spans many more nov­els, in­clud­ing The Hur­ri­cane, a ro­man­tic tale of Poly­ne­sian life in the South Pacific that was later adapted to film by direc­tor John Ford.

ROBERT DEAN FRISBIE (1896-1948), United States

In­flu­enced by Robert Louis Steven­son, and spurred by his doc­tor, who ad­vised him to seek a warmer cli­mate, Robert Dean Frisbie moved to Tahiti in his 20s. Shortly af­ter ar­riv­ing, he met Charles Nordhoff and James Nor­man Hall, who both en­cour­aged him to write.

In a search for soli­tude, Frisbie moved to the Cook Is­land of Puka­puka, where he met his Poly­ne­sian wife, Nga­toko­rua. De­spite seek­ing peace and quiet (the pur­suit of which was a theme through­out his writ­ings), the cou­ple had five chil­dren be­fore the fam­ily re­lo­cated to Tahiti in the 1930s. Less than a decade later, Frisbie’s wife passed away and he and his five chil­dren re­lo­cated to un­in­hab­ited Suwar­row Is­land. They lived on the shal­low atoll for a full year on their own, sur­viv­ing a di­rect hit by a cy­clone. The story of their sur­vival was se­ri­al­ized in The At­lantic and was the sub­ject of his third book, The Is­land

of De­sire.

In 1943, Frisbie was di­ag­nosed with tu­ber­cu­lo­sis and evac­u­ated from the Cook Is­lands to a hos­pi­tal in Amer­i­can Samoa by a young Navy lieu­tenant, James Mich­ener. Frisbie re­cov­ered, only to die in the Cook Is­lands a few years later, of tetanus. In all, Frisbie wrote 33 mag­a­zine sto­ries and six books, in­clud­ing My Tahiti.

TOM NEALE (1902-1977), New Zealand

Tom Neale was a New Zealan­der who trav­eled the Pacific is­lands for decades as a young man, first in the navy and then aboard any boat or ship that would have him. He even­tu­ally set­tled in Tahiti, where he lived un­til 1943, when the urge to ex­plore hit again. In the Cook Is­lands in 1948, Neale met Robert Dean Frisbie, who re­galed him with tales of his time spent on Suwar­row Is­land. In­spired, and like­wise in search of soli­tude, Neale landed on Suwar­row in 1952 with only the sup­plies he could scrape to­gether.

In three sep­a­rate stints, punc­tu­ated by ill­ness, mar­riage and gov­ern­ment edicts, Neale spent 16 years on Suwar­row. Out of this ex­pe­ri­ence came the clas­sic An Is­land to One­self. In this mem­oir, Neale re­counts long months in bliss­ful iso­la­tion, ex­treme phys­i­cal and emo­tional hard­ship, and a pa­rade of in­ter­mit­tent visi­tors, in­clud­ing a cruis­ing fam­ily in the early 1960s who stopped by only to lose their yacht on a reef dur­ing an overnight squall. The cou­ple and their daugh­ter ended up liv­ing with Neale for months be­fore they were able to sig­nal a pass­ing ship.

JACK LON­DON (1876-1916)

Jack Lon­don was one of the first fic­tion writ­ers to ob­tain world­wide celebrity and a large for­tune from fic­tion writ­ing alone. Though he is known mostly for his sto­ries un­re­lated to the nau­ti­cal life, he wrote 10 books on the Pacific, set in places such as the Mar­que­sas and Solomon Is­lands. Tales of the Pacific is a col­lec­tion of sto­ries that some con­sider Lon­don’s best writ­ing.

Lon­don and his sec­ond wife, Charmian, were sailors and Pacific cruis­ers. In 1906, he com­mis­sioned a 45-foot ketch, Snark, for a planned cir­cum­nav­i­ga­tion. In April 1907, he and his wife and small crew set sail out of San Fran­cisco. Lon­don taught him­self ce­les­tial nav­i­ga­tion and sea­man­ship un­der­way, and vis­ited Hawaii, French Poly­ne­sia, Samoa, Fiji, the Solomon Is­lands and Aus­tralia.

Lon­don was in­spired by Her­man Melville’s Typee and was dis­mayed to find what he de­scribed as “a dis­mal swamp” when he vis­ited the set­ting of that book, Taip­i­vai in the Mar­que­sas.

W. SOM­ER­SET MAUGHAM (1874-1965), U.K.

Writer W. Som­er­set Maugham was not a sailor, but was drawn to the South Pacific by his in­ter­est in one of the Mar­que­sas’ most fa­mous (and in­fa­mous) res­i­dents: artist Paul Gau­guin. His time in the Pacific yielded not only his book on Gau­guin (The Moon and

Six­pence) and A Writer’s Note­book, chron­i­cling his is­land trav­els, but a re­mark­able short story ti­tled Rain. In De­cem­ber 1916, trav­el­ing via the steamer

Sonoma, Maugham got held up in Pago Pago, Amer­i­can Samoa, for a quar­an­tine in­spec­tion. De­layed for sev­eral days of tor­ren­tial rain, he and the other few pas­sen­gers holed up in a lodg­ing house.

These other pas­sen­gers in­spired the char­ac­ters of Maugham’s con­tem­po­rary moral­ity play.

Rain is the story of Miss Sadie Thomp­son, a smok­ing, drink­ing, jazz-lov­ing young pros­ti­tute ar­riv­ing in Pago Pago to be­gin work for a ship­ping line. But her paths cross with a smit­ten mil­i­tary sergeant who wants to help her jump-start a new life in Aus­tralia, and a zeal­ous mis­sion­ary cou­ple who want her to re­turn to the States and re­pent for her sins. The short story is lush in its South Pacific set­ting and was im­mensely in­flu­en­tial. Sadie was three times de­picted on the sil­ver screen by the likes of Glo­ria Swan­son, Rita Hay­worth and Joan Craw­ford.

JAMES A. MICH­ENER (1907-1997), United States

Raised a Quaker in ru­ral Penn­syl­va­nia, James Mich­ener was the ben­e­fi­ciary of cir­cum­stance when drafted into the ser­vice in the Pacific the­ater dur­ing World War II. Some­how, his base com­man­der mis­tak­enly as­sumed he was the son of Adm. Marc Mitscher, whose name was only sim­i­lar. Of course, this re­sulted in plum as­sign­ments for Mich­ener, who even­tu­ally worked dur­ing the war as a naval his­to­rian.

But it’s also lucky for us be­cause the time Mich­ener spent in the Pacific left an im­pres­sion, and af­ter the war Mich­ener wrote Tales of the South Pacific, for which he won the 1948 Pulitzer Prize for Fic­tion, along with ex­tra­or­di­nary com­mer­cial suc­cess. In

Re­turn to Par­adise, Mich­ener wrote, “The great writ­ers, Con­rad, Maugham and Melville, spent only a few years in the South Seas, but their mem­ory of those wa­ters was in­de­struc­tible; for the na­ture of life in the is­lands com­mands at­ten­tion to the vivid world and its even more vivid in­hab­i­tants.” The same could be said of Mich­ener him­self.

STER­LING HAY­DEN (1916-1986), United States

Like Robert Dean Frisbie and Tom Neale be­fore him, Ster­ling Hay­den sailed to the South Pacific in a bid to es­cape the trap­pings of Western life. He’d come of age as a deck­hand on schooners, reached the ranks of mate and then skip­per as a young man, and had sailed around the world sev­eral times be­fore be­ing dis­cov­ered by Hol­ly­wood, first as a model and then as a lead­ing man. As his lights-cam­era-ac­tion ca­reer took off, Hay­den ac­quired wealth and fame at the cost of a life he found com­pli­cated and liti­gious. He grew un­happy, and when a di­vorce judge for­bade him to take his kids sail­ing across an ocean, he did just that, fir­ing up the tabloids and end­ing his ca­reer. His 1962 mem­oir, Wan­derer, cap­tures Hay­den’s in­ner philo­soph­i­cal mono­logue around this tur­bu­lent time and has since been adopted by cruis­ing sailors as a man­i­festo of the mo­ti­va­tions that un­der­lie their pas­sion to cast off. In 1976, hav­ing re­turned to Hol­ly­wood with a role in The

God­fa­ther, Hay­den fol­lowed up on the suc­cess of Wan­derer with a novel, Voy­age.

BERNARD MOITESSIER (1925-1994), France

Up un­til his 40s, Bernard Moitessier was an ex­pe­ri­enced, well-known and well-re­garded sailor among the French sail­ing com­mu­nity. Fa­mously, in 1965, in a hurry to get back to France from Tahiti be­fore their kids were dis­charged from board­ing school, Moitessier and his wife, Fran­coise, sailed their 39-foot steel ketch, Joshua, di­rect and east­bound, more than 14,000 nau­ti­cal miles in 126 days. At the time, it was the long­est non­stop pas­sage ever con­ducted on a yacht.

Moitessier’s most notable story is a twist of Ster­ling Hay­den’s be­fore him. On the verge of pos­si­bly win­ning the 1968 Sun­day Times Golden Globe Race (the first race of solo, unas­sisted, non­stop cir­cum­nav­i­ga­tors), for which he stood to gain enor­mous fame and a siz­able purse, Moitessier changed course and con­tin­ued on, turn­ing his back on the prize. “Be­cause I am happy at sea and per­haps to save my soul,” is the oft-quoted trans­la­tion of the French­man’s rea­son­ing. He con­tin­ued sail­ing twothirds of the way around the world again, re­turn­ing to French Poly­ne­sia’s Tahiti.

His book, The Long Way, is a mem­oir of the ex­pe­ri­ence and a mod­ern clas­sic of sail­ing lit­er­a­ture. Ad­di­tion­ally, Moitessier wrote sev­eral other non­fic­tion sail­ing books that have been trans­lated to English. Moitessier’s pas­sions were tied to the South Pacific, and this is ev­i­dent in his writ­ing. Dur­ing his life, he spent much of his in­flu­ence protest­ing the test­ing of nu­clear weapons in the area and the overde­vel­op­ment of French Poly­ne­sia in par­tic­u­lar.

Tom Neale

Robert Dean Frisbie

Jack Lon­don

Hall and Nordhoff

Robert Louis Steven­son

Pierre Loti

Her­man Melville

Ster­ling Hay­den

W. Som­er­set Maugham

Bernard Moitessier

James A. Mich­ener

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