The Muse of the South Seas: literary encounters with the South Pacific


   Since the mid-nineteenth century many celebrated British, European, American and Australian writers and poets have travelled to the South Pacific. Most came for inspiration, some for their health and the writing came later. Some stayed a short while, others stayed longer; Robert Louis Stevenson died there. The encounters of writers such as Rupert Brooke, James A. Michener, Somerset Maugham, Herman Melville and Nancy Phelan with the people of the Pacific Islands and their experience of the unique Pacific geography has resulted in a significant literary genre that to some extent has not received the recognition it deserves.

Early writers in what I would call the ‘Pacific literature’ genre found material for their stories in their personal impressions of the local people and cultures. In the 1840s Herman Melville deserted his ship in Nuku Havi and made his way to Tahiti on an Australian whaling ship, the Lucy Ann. Bound for Papeete, he become involved in a mutiny, which resulted in a sentence in the calabooza (local prison). He escaped, and his second Pacific book, Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Pacific, written several years before Moby Dick, is partly based on his subsequent experience as a beachcomber (omoo). Melville’s descriptions of the characters and situations are to some extent an idolisation of native culture in the face of the impact of Western civilisation. Melville was well known as someone who disliked external authority and literary scholars suggest that his Pacific sojourn had a profound effect on his political and social views. Both Omoo and Melville’s first Pacific story, Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life, were publishing successes.

Pierre Loti is one of the lesser-known European writers who visited the Pacific. He was a French naval officer and spent two months in Tahiti as part of his sea training. It is said he ‘went native’ while there and sometime later wrote The Marriage of Loti, the story of a love affair between a Polynesian girl, Rararhu, and a French midshipman. It has been described as rather exotic, slightly absurd and naïve. But what makes the story interesting is Loti’s use of imagery and highly descriptive phrases in the manner of Proust, an author he much admired. While in Papeete, Loti befriended Queen Pomare IV (Queen of Tahiti 1872-1877) and it is said The Marriage of Loti inspired Gauguin to come to Tahiti.
The Scottish poet and writer Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson is perhaps the best-known literary resident of the South Pacific. Ill with tuberculosis, he with his wife Fannie Vendgrift Osbourne and his stepson Lloyd Osborne, set off for warmer climes and exotic locations. In 1888 he chartered the schooner Casco in San Francisco and sailed southwards. While on this journey visiting the Gilbert Islands, New Zealand and Tahiti he wrote two ballads based on local legends. The family finally came to Samoa where Stevenson and his wife were to make their home for the rest of their lives. His first Pacific work was The Vailima Letters, a published series of letters he wrote to his friend Sir Sidney Colvin. Stevenson felt at home in Samoa and bought a parcel of land above Apia in the village of Vailima. His close contact with the local community resulted in him becoming heavily involved in politics and he even took a local name, Tusitala (Teller of tales). He died at Vailima and his tomb is on top of Mount Vaea.

Rupert Brooke, best known as a First World War poet, perhaps never intended to visit the South Pacific. In 1913, following an emotional breakdown, he travelled through North America to New Zealand and the South Seas. In early 1915 he settled in Tahiti for several months on the island of Mataiea. He was nursed by a local woman, Mamua (he named her Taamaata), with whom he had an affair and, it is rumoured fathered a child. Brooke continued to write poetry during what is called his South Seas period and Tiare Tahiti is probably his best known and admired poem of this period. The opening stanza of the poem describes paradise after death:

Mamua, when our laughter ends,
And hearts and bodies, brown as white,
Are dust about the doors of friends,
Or scent ablowing down the night,
Then, oh! then, the wise agree,
Comes our immortality.

The second last line of the poem was used by F. Scott Fitzgerald for his debut novel This Side of Paradise. It is said that when he was dying aboard a ship in the Mediterranean, Brooke asked that Mamua be told of his death and said “Give her my love.”

A fertile source of inspiration for writers was their encounters with fellow passengers during their travels. Perhaps the best know example of this is in the short stories and novels of W. Somerset Maugham. In 1916 Maugham was working for British military intelligence. He had hoped to be sent to Russia but a persisting lung ailment meant that was not possible and he had to take some time, preferably in a warm climate, to convalesce. He had wanted to visit the South Seas, not only because he had long had an idea for a novel about the painter Paul Gauguin’s life in Tahiti but because since reading the works of Melville, Loti and Stevenson in boyhood, his imagination had been fired by dreams of the South Seas. In 1916-1917, he travelled on the steamship Sonoma, visiting Samoa, Tahiti, Tonga, Fiji and New Zealand.

Rain is Maugham’s most famous short story. Sadie Thompson and the missionary Alfred Davidson and his wife, are said to be directly inspired by three people Maugham encountered on the trip between Honolulu and Pago Pago. According to his biographer Selina Hastings, Maugham was “spellbound by the prelapsarian beauty of the islands, by the deep blue lagoon, the brilliant colours of the vegetation and the immensity of the southern sky at night.” The effect of the physical environment and its beauty can be seen in the novel on Gauguin that Maugham wrote soon after, The Moon and Sixpence. Like many visitors to the South Pacific, Maugham and his companion stayed at the Grand Pacific Hotel in Suva (recently reopened after a long period of dereliction). Maugham described his travels in the Pacific in A Writer’s Notebook, published in 1984 almost twenty years after he died.

The Second World War brought the writer James A. Michener to the Pacific, assigned there as a naval historian. He was stationed in several places, among them in Luganville on Santo Island, in what was then ‘the New Hebrides,’ now Vanuatu. His first published book, Tales of the South Pacific, written in 1946, won the Pulitzer Prize. It is a series of short stories, with characterisations of colonial, immigrant, and indigenous characters based on what Michener saw and heard in the New Hebrides and the Solomon Islands. The book was a huge success and was the inspiration for one of the most successful musicals of all time – South Pacific. It is said that Ambae Island in Vanuatu was the inspiration for the island Bali Hai in Tales of the South Pacific. Michener was another guest at the Grand Pacific Hotel in Suva during his war service. He said it was “one of the most memorable hotels of the world, not majestic, and not particularly spacious, but a haven to all who crossed the Pacific on tourist ships and now came by plane… It was grand, and it certainly was pacific…” 

Michener wrote another work based on his time in the Pacific, Return to Paradise. Intended as a sequel to the earlier Tales, Return to Paradise is a series of fictional short stories with factual descriptions based on his travels and encounters in the Coral Sea and beyond. He was a sometime visitor to Vanuatu after independence in 1980.

Nancy Phelan’s idyllic childhood in Sydney could not be more in contrast to her journey and time spent in the then Gilbert Islands, present day Kiribati. Nancy was an artist and friend of writers and poets such as Peter Porter, Dorothy Hewett and Patrick White. She started working for the South Pacific Commission, forerunner of the South Pacific Community or SPC, in 1946 and eventually took a post as organiser for island literature in the Commission’s Social Development section. While working there in the early 1950s, she took a long break and travelled to the Gilbert Islands on the British Phosphate Commission ship Triadic. Her book about her three-month stay, Atoll Holiday, is a delightful account of her adventures around the main Tarawa atoll, such as breakfasting with the King of Butaritari. Atoll Holiday is more than a travel book. It shows her fascination with the people and culture of Micronesia and is a genuine attempt to understand and record a disappearing way of life. The book is accompanied by a series of remarkable photographs, taken with her keen eye for artistic detail, which themselves form a unique record of the Gilbertese people and their lives.

If there were more space, other writers to talk about would include Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall, authors of the Bounty Trilogy, Jack London, and J. Maarten Troost who wrote two irreverent and at times amusing stories about his travels in Kiribati, Fiji and Vanuatu. Whatever your taste in short stories or novels, Pacific literature is sure to furnish you with something that will inspire and intrigue. Many of the Pacific countries have changed greatly since the time of the visiting writers, but it is still possible to trace their footsteps and share in the enchantment and pleasure these places inspired. A literary trail through the South Seas guided by the works of Maugham, Stevenson, Phelan and others, would be a wonderful way of seeing the Pacific.

By Anthony Bailey.

Selected list of books to read

Mad about Islands: Novelists of a Vanquished Pacific, A. Grove Day.

Getting stoned with Savages: A Trip Through the Islands of Fiji and Vanuatu, J. Maarten Troost.

Sex Lives of Cannibals, J. Maarten Troost.

The Moon and Sixpence, Somerset Maugham.

The Trembling of a Leaf: Little Stories of the South Sea Islands, Somerset Maugham.

Return to Paradise, James A. Michener.

Tales of the South Pacific, James A. Michener.

Omoo, Herman Melville.

Bounty Triology, Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall.

Atoll Holiday, Nancy Phelan.

In the South Seas, R.L. Stevenson.

The Beach at Falesa, R.L. Stevenson.