Monday, November 12, 2012

South Sea Tales by Jack London

The Tropics as Wild West
South Sea Tales is a collection of eight short stories by Jack London, first published in 1911. It is the first of his collections in which all the stories are set among the islands of the South Pacific. This region of the globe would become predominant in the writings of the second half of his career, much as the first half of his career was dominated by stories of the Klondike Gold Rush. In the stories included here, London paints a picture of life in the South Seas that is far from a tropical idyll. He shows us a brutal world in which the native islanders and their white oppressors are constantly at each other’s throats.

The stories take place in the Solomon Islands, Fiji, Tahiti, the Paumotus, and elsewhere throughout Polynesia and Melanesia. Many of the natives make their living gathering the natural fruits of the sea, including pearls, and must deal with white traders who continually try to swindle them. White corporations own plantations on the islands, where they harvest copra (coconut meat), cocoa, sugar cane, or other agricultural exports. White men’s boats known as “blackbirders” patrol the island coasts, gathering up cheap labor to work these plantations. Once signed on, the islanders are held in indentured servitude and brutalized by their masters. London depicts these slaves as constantly trying to kill their masters, steal their goods, and escape. When these attempts take place, the whites slaughter them mercilessly and indiscriminately.

London displays little sympathy for the brutalized natives here. In fact, he treats the violence and killing with an almost comic nonchalance, much in the way that stories set in the Wild West often make light of gunfights and hangings. The unfortunate difference between the two genres, of course, is that what we’re talking about here is racial violence, black vs. white. In some of the stories, the natives are depicted as little more than a relentless tide of savages who must be exterminated in order to defend the white man’s life and livelihood. The story entitled “The Inevitable White Man,” for example, begins with a conversation about manifest destiny, then goes on to glorify a man whose only discernible talent is the shooting of blacks. Modern audiences are likely to find such tales off-putting, if not downright offensive.

Luckily, three of the stories break from this pattern and redeem the collection somewhat overall. These three exceptions focus primarily on conflicts between man and nature. “The House of Mapuhi” tells the story of a native who discovers a giant pearl on a remote atoll. Three white traders vie for the prize, all of whom try to swindle the pearl diver. All deals are off, however, when the island is devastated by a hurricane. In “The Seed of McCoy,” a ship with a hold full of flaming cargo pulls up to Pitcairn Island. There they are met by a descendant of the Bounty mutineers who offers to guide them to another island with a suitable port, in hopes that they can save their ship before it burns up entirely. In “The Heathen,” by far the most positive story in the book, a trading vessel sails into the heart of a hurricane. The two survivors of the disaster, the white narrator and a native Bora Boran, form a close, lifelong friendship.

These three worthy stories provide some relief from the relentless brutality. As a collection overall, however, South Sea Tales leaves the reader with the impression that London was a master of adventure storytelling who could have used a little sensitivity training.

Stories in this collection
The House of Mapuhi 
The Whale Tooth 
“Yah! Yah! Yah!” 
The Heathen 
The Terrible Solomons 
The Inevitable White Man 
The Seed of McCoy 

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