“I was ashamed to be so much moved about a native”—Wiltshire on Falesá

Almost 50 years after Herman Melville wrote Typee, which drew from his own experiences in Polynesia a few years earlier, Robert Louis Stevenson published The Beach of Falesá, one of its recognizable but much-altered descendants.

In many ways the two books seem nearly opposite. Typee‘s Tommo is afraid of the natives and bent on escape, but considers them basically charming. Wiltshire, the narrator of Stevenson’s novella, knows they can be dangerous but considers himself so comfortably superior, in every possible measure, that he has hardly any regard for the natives at all. Tommo wins Fayaway with romantic outings at the lake; Wiltshire picks his bride out of a crowd upon landing at the beach and weds her with a certificate to be “illegally married…for one week.” Tommo can never read the natives, always frustrated by unfamiliar expressions and exotic tattoos; Wiltshire believes:

It’s easy to find out what Kanakas think. Just go back to yourself any way round from ten to fifteen years old, and there’s an average Kanaka. There are some pious, just as there are pious boys; and the most of them, like the boys again, are middling honest and yet think it rather larks to steal, and are easy scared and rather like to be so.

The funny thing is, Tommo knows the same things about the natives on Nukuheva; there and in Omoo the Melville-narrator holds just about that exact opinion. He’s just not quite so blunt about it all.

By 1892, Wiltshire qua white man is a much older hand in the South Pacific. For one thing, he’s not a sailor, but a trader. He’s not there to explore or to see the world but to sell Western goods to the natives. He disdains the missionaries, blaming them even for the cheapness of his sham marriage: “If they had let the natives be, I had never needed this deception, but taken all the wives I wished, and left them when I pleased, with a clear conscience.” He’s willing to give the natives “plain sense and fair dealing,” but considers them anarchic and lawless. All the same, “[i]t would be a strange thing if we came all this way and couldn’t do what we pleased.” Funny how that works.

Wiltshire’s coarseness gives the narration a bare and somewhat bracing flavor that complements the paradise-on-the-surface-only setting. He slips in and out of some approximation of Bislama and bounces around, recounting dialogue, between “said” and “says” seemingly at his whim. He’s not a very nice person, but he’s sort of ethical and not half as bad as the other white men around. He does right by his wife Uma, but his end with her is the perfect picture of the split psychology of the colonial. He stays because he’s in love with her, they have children together, and he loves them and worries about their future—because “[t]hey’re only half-castes, of course; I know that as well as you do, and there’s nobody thinks less of half-castes than I do; but they’re mine, and about all I’ve got.”

No, not a very nice man—and not a very nice novella, but a good one. And good reason to read more Stevenson.

2 comments to “I was ashamed to be so much moved about a native”—Wiltshire on Falesá

  • Inverted Typee – absolutely. I hadn’t thought of that. Fayaway’s paradise has been invaded and destroyed.

    Would you believe that Stevenson wrote another Polynesian story that’s just as good? It’s the short novel The Ebb-Tide. It’s partly a seafaring story! I’m going to try to write about it next week. This side of Stevenson has been a bit of a shock.

  • nicole

    Sure, I can believe that. I’ll have to put it on the list. Interested in the shock, though.

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