reviewed by Anette Bremer
© all rights reserved
Some three months into her third voyage through the Pacific Islands, Fanny Stevenson reports on a particularly fruitful trading venture. From the people of Noukanau who ‘crowd[ed] the ship all morning… chattering like monkeys’, she buys
three pronged shark’s-tooth spears, one for a stripped undershirt, the other two for a couple of patterns apiece of cotton print. I also bought a mat with rows of openwork running through it, just like hemstitching, and for a florin I got an immense necklace of human teeth. A little while ago, in some of these islands, especially Maraki, a good set of teeth was a dangerous possession, as many people were murdered for them. I trust mine were honestly come by — at least taken in open warfare’ (188 ).
Perhaps more exceptional than the way in which Stevenson simultaneously describes a moment of trade, outlines changing local customs, and offers a self-portrait as an amateur South Seas trader with a shrewd eye as to quality and value, is her shift in tone from the cliched racism of ‘chattering like monkeys’ to the uncensoriousness of her comments on
how the teeth of the ‘immense necklace’ were come by. The amused irony of hoping that her teeth were ‘taken in open warfare’ sits a little uneasily with her monkey epithet.
Robert Louis and Fanny Stevenson had bought land in Samoa in early 1890 after their second Pacific voyage, which like the first Pacific cruise was undertaken in the interests of Robert’s health. A further bout of illness while in Sydney en route to England to settle their affairs determined the Stevensons’ third cruise, this time on the trading vessel, the Janet Nicoll.1 As Robert Louis Stevenson’s older, previously divorced American wife, Fanny Stevenson, like the islands on her Pacific itinerary, has been exoticised.2 After opening her introduction with a heroising, romantic image of Stevenson, Roslyn Jolly steers her discussion back into richer waters when she recommends The Cruise of the ‘Janet Nichol’ for its outward-glancing eye, suggesting that the book has currency not only as a historical document capturing the transitional nature of colonialism in the central and western Pacific (what is now called Micronesia) in 1890 (33) but also as it records a ‘vigorous cross-contamination between indigenous and white cultures… [and the resulting] complex social interactions and power relations’ (29).3
Two features of The Cruise of the ‘Janet Nichol’ add richness to its record of indigenous/white relations. Firstly, it retains the immediacy and style of a diary. While Jolly is silent on the transition of diary into published travel account, the editor of Stevenson’s Samoan writings is more forthcoming, suggesting that the Janet Nicoll diary was a ‘good deal rewritten and dressed up’ for publication.4 It is impossible to arbitrate on this point from the brief bibliographic history Jolly provides, but the book does retain the diary’s distinctive manner of indiscriminately mixing trivial and meaningful details.
For example, in a long entry recording her landfall at Penrhyn, Stevenson records the manner in which Islanders negotiate the tension between imported and native traditions. Occasionally, they become ‘tired of being missionary’, tell the pastor he must leave and go on a ‘gigantic “spree”’ (99). While Stevenson has heard that the island is ‘hardly a safe, abiding-place’ during this time, what captures her diarist eye is the behaviour of a pig out on a stroll with his family:
Sometimes piggy stops a moment to smell or root at the foot of a palm, but always with a glance over his shoulder; if the distance seems growing too wide between himself and his family, he rushes after them, and for a moment or two trots soberly at his master’s side (95).
What Stevenson is illustrating here is her theory of travel writing. In a letter quoted by Jolly, she complains to Sidney Colvin that Robert’s notion of the ‘stern duty’ of travel writing (that it should only comprise ‘scientific and historical impersonal fact’) is ill-founded: ‘people are dying to hear about a Ori a Ori, the making of brothers with cannibals, the strange stories they told, and the extraordinary adventures that befell us’ (39). Here, Stevenson weighs into a long-standing debate on the experiential content of travel writing, while her advocacy of the anecdotal and the relational reinforces long-held critical opinions on women’s travel writing.5 Stevenson’s approach here is salutary: the particularity of her record and her refusal to subsume individual stories and incidents into a generalised discourse on the Pacific, amounts in a travel book which remains attentive to each culture’s singularity.
One form of cross-cultural encounter tragically is shared by many of the 35 or so Pacific islands which Stevenson visits. May 27 1890 finds the Stevensons at Funafuti, where two ‘wretched-looking’ traders come on board (119). One, a ‘half-caste from some other island’, is a source of local history, telling a ‘sicken[ing]’ story of how two American vessels, flying Peruvian flags, hoodwinked the island’s king with gifts and an offer to educate the island’s population in Peru (120). ‘Needless to add’, Fanny ruefully notes, ‘the entrapped islanders were never seen again’ (121). A similar dark deed has marked Arorai’s past (139), while Stevenson explains the women of Natau’s wariness towards strange European vessels with ‘these islands were a favourite recruiting place for slavers and, worse still, a haunt of the loathsome ‘Bully Hayes’ (126). From The Cruise of the ‘Janet Nichol’ we learn Bully Hayes was a ‘picturesque desperado of the South Seas’ (121), but in what may be the result of uncertainty as to the readership of this edition, Jolly does not provide additional annotation for this and numerous other historical and anthropological references.
If the after-effects of blackbirding are everywhere still apparent in the Micronesia described by Stevenson, there is another legacy of cross-cultural contact. ‘Throughout the island world of the Pacific, scattered men of many European races… disseminate disease’, commences Robert’s novella, The Ebb Tide.6 The Cruise of the ‘Janet Nichol’ elaborates on this other kind of cross-contamination, recording encounters with the sufferers of boils, measles, leprosy, numerous cases of elephantiasis, an unspecified skin-peeling disease, a nose-swelling disease, and various side-effects of poor diet. Three ‘unmistakable lepers’ came on board ship at Natau; the toes of the ‘one with elephantiasis were dripping blood’ (129). No stranger to disfiguring disease — the previous day Fanny shook hands with a trader whose ‘fingers were dropping off’ (125) — but this occasion proves to be ‘not very pleasant for us barefooted people’, Fanny ordering that the mats be ‘thoroughly washed’ at the next anchorage (129-130).
The phrase ‘not very pleasant to us barefooted people’, however, rests on a paradox: while its use of an exclusive ‘us’ signals to metropolitan readers European distaste towards lax Islander behaviour, at the same time, Fanny’s bare feet symbolise her infection. Disease manifests the Pacific’s corruption from contact with Europeans, yet a more insidious pathology results from Europeans’ exposure to Pacific manners and customs. To Fanny’s contemporary metropolitan readers, her bare feet might be the first sign of cultural, and thence moral, decline.7
Pitted against this world of diseased traders, missionaries and Islanders, is a more familiar eroticised, exotic Pacific. With the comment ‘what a cold, ugly colour [is] a white arm’ Stevenson reverses the erotic gaze of some Nanomean women who are ‘crying out in admiration’ as they pull up her sleeves (133). ‘Their taste differed from mine’ (133) Fanny observes, contrasting her ‘sickening’ (85) flesh colour to ‘their warm, brown one’ (133). Although Stevenson habitually gives away printed cloth to the women, it is a ‘pity for the less Fani (a girl on Manihiki) covered her pretty brown body the better she looked’ (91). What might appear to be an implicit criticism of Islander adoption of missionary dress codes, when coupled with Fanny’s idealisation of a beachcomber’s life as lived out in ‘dreamland, beloved and honoured and tenderly cared for all the summer days of his life’ (95), becomes close to what Margaret Jolly calls an ‘erotics of the exotic’.8
That Stevenson gave Fani printed cloth in line with ‘island point of etiquette’ (91) brings into focus a major theme of The Cruise of the ‘ Janet Nichol’. Trade, as Jolly notes (35), is central to all the cross-cultural relationships Stevenson records ; as the Janet Nicoll collected copra and shells, Fanny participated in her own micro-economy of trade, striking bargains, forging alliances or consolidating friendships through trade and gift-giving. A veteran of two previous Pacific cruises, she came well prepared. Day four finds Stevenson ‘making wreaths of artificial flowers for presents to the natives’ (62), one which she wore on her own hat ‘in case of an emergency’ (88), while the entry for May 21 explains the reason behind what seems to be an inexhaustible supply of ‘plain gold wedding rings’: ‘I always wore a few that I might take them from my own hand to offer as presents’ (114).
Stevenson reveals herself as savvy in relation to Islander customs, but she is less interested in whether or not recipients of the rings were equally cognisant of the ritualised nature of her giving of a token as intimate as a wedding ring. This is not to criticise Stevenson for failing a postcolonial test; rather, it is to recognise the author as marked by her history, culture, time and place. Yet Stevenson is also remarkable in the manner in which she negotiates her particular prejudices with the different histories, cultures and manners she encounters during her Pacific voyage. It is in this regard that she becomes, for this reader, an ‘unforgettable character’, rather than in the sense of her grandson’s words splashed across the back jacket, which celebrate the ‘breath-taking[ly] beaut[iful]’ Stevenson perched on the after-cabin ‘shooting sharks’. After all, Stevenson’s self-representation does not occur in a vacuum. What brings out her ‘unforgettable’ characteristics are those other selves she encountered – beachcombers, traders, missionaries and above all, the Islanders – who generously shared with her their experience of living in a changing Pacific.
The Cruise of the Janet Nichol among the South Sea Islands: A Diary by Mrs Robert Louis Stevenson was published by University of New South Wales Press in 2004.
Anette Bremer is a lecturer in Australian Studies in the Department of English Applied Linguistics, School of English and American Studies, Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest.
1. Stevenson consistently misspelt the name of her ship as the Janet Nichol.
2. While Alexandra Lapierre’s biography of Fanny Stevenson has been criticised for its flights into fiction, her assessment of Stevenson as ‘more barbaric, more baroque than anything I could have imagined, more humane and more monstrous, [an] American woman [who] embodies a myth and world in herself’ does not mark the extreme of the romanticisation of Fanny. Alexandra Lapierre, Fanny Stevenson: Muse, Adventuress and Romantic Enigma (London: Fourth Estate, 1995), p. 4.
3. Jolly begins her discussion of Stevenson’s book with a quotation by Austin Strong, who, when asked by Reader’s Digest in 1946 to write on ‘The Most Unforgettable Character I’ve Met’, celebrated his grandmother, Fanny Stevenson: ‘I can see her now — a small woman in a blue dress, sitting barefoot on the roof of the after-cabin of a trading schooner in the South Seas. Her Panama hat, set at a rakish angle, shades a face of breath-taking beauty. She is holding a large silvered revolver in each hand, shooting sharks with deadly accuracy as they are caught and hauled to the taffrail by excited sailors’. By directing attention to the wealth of historical and cultural detail recorded in Stevenson’s Pacific account, Jolly tempers Strong’s romanticisation of his grandmother yet Jolly’s focus is foiled by the publisher who has chosen to reproduce Strong’s words on the edition’s back jacket and as the centrepiece of their publicity.
5. Charles Batten canvases the vigorous eighteenth-century debate over the appropriate content of a travel narrative in his Pleasurable Instruction: Form and Convention in Eighteenth-Century Travel Literature (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978). Susan Bassnett endorses the commonplace that women’s travel writing has a focus on the relational and the private in her rather pedestrian survey of the role of gender in the discourse of travel, ‘Travel Writing and Gender’, Peter Hulme and Tim Youngs, eds., The Cambridge Companion to Travel Writing (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), pp. 225-241.
8. Margaret Jolly, ‘From Point Venus to Bali Ha’i: Eroticism and Exoticism in Representations of the Pacific’, Lenore Manderson and Margaret Jolly, eds., Sites of Desire/Economies of Pleasure: Sexualities in Asia and the Pacific(Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1997), p. 100.