Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Ebb Tide

I am on the tail end of my Robert Louis Stevenson reading jag, having made lots of detours along the way. I only have Treasure Island left to go, which somehow I managed not to read during my childhood. One of my favorites among all his stories has been the novella, The Ebb Tide, which he co-wrote with his step-son Lloyd Osbourne – a taut, gripping tale of three disparate men, two Brits and an American, who are down on their luck and stranded in Tahiti. Together they hijack a schooner and plot to kill a rich settler on an outer island and steal his priceless stock of pearls.  
At the beginning of the novella, there is a general description of the transplanted European in the tropics, a particular breed of seedy misfit who is familiar to us from the fiction of Joseph Conrad, Somerset Maugham, and, more recently, Graham Greene:
“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. Others again must marry for a livelihood; a strapping, merry, chocolate-colored dame supports them in sheer idleness; and, dressed like natives, but still retaining some foreign element of gait or attitude, still perhaps some relic (such a single eye-glass) of the officer and a gentleman, they sprawl in palm-leaf verandahs and entertain an island audience with memoirs of the music hall.” 
This is not too different from the catty description of Alexander Salmon (which I have quoted before here) by Herman Melville:
“This adventurer rose late, dressed theatrically in calico and trinkets, assumed a dictatorial tone in conversation, and was evidently on excellent terms with himself. We found him reclining on a mat, smoking a reed-pipe of tobacco, in the midst of an admiring circle of chiefs and ladies.”   
While Alexander Salmon was a displaced European who reinvented himself and his humble origins in Tahiti, he was certainly no slacker or parasite. While he acquired considerable amounts of land as a result of his marriage to Ariitaimai, it was as a result of his efforts that they came to yield as much value as they did. Because the war with the French had destroyed many of their crops and livestock, Alexander had to work extremely hard to rebuild his family’s livelihood. Luckily, it turned out he had an aptitude for farming and for business. By introducing the most modern methods of production, he vastly increased the yields of his wife’s coconut plantations and pig farms. He also began cultivating coffee and oranges, exporting his goods as far afield as Sydney and California.
Another way in which he was unlike the stereotype of the lazy European settler was his passionate commitment to his adopted home. With Ariitaimai, he helped to broker a peace deal in the Tahitians war with the French in 1846-7, after which he acted as Queen Pomare’s secretary and was closely involved in preparing the treaty that laid out the powers and responsibilities of the French Protectorate vis-à-vis the Tahitians and their Queen. And later he headed the Commerce Tribunal (or Chamber of Commerce) and served on the island’s Council of Administration. And in 1858, he travelled all the way to Paris in an attempt to bring to the attention of Emperor Napoleon III “actions [by the French authorities] which have led to wrongful treatment prejudicial to this ... blessed but unhappy isle.”  
So there was no sprawling on palm-leaf verandahs for Alexander Salmon. And when he died in 1866 – of dysentery at the age of only 46 – the whole island went into mourning. As reported in the official newspaper of the time, “in the various posts he had filled he had won the affection of many by the amenity of his character... that the entire population preceded by the Governor of the colony accompanied his mortal remains” to the cemetery.
There can be little doubt that Robert Louis Stevenson heard Alexander Salmon’s story from his son Tati while RLS was staying at the family home in Papara in 1888 (I have described here how RLS sat up in bed at Tati’s house scribbling the last section of The Master of Ballantrae). Perhaps it was too much of a success story to inspire the Scot – who preferred to write about his seedy colonial misfits wrestling with the good and evil within themselves in a far-off land.

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