The Beach of Falesa by Robert Louis Stevenson

beach of falesaWho knew Robert Louis Stevenson was so funny.

The Beach at Falesa  is funny, but funny in the same way that Nicolai Gogol is funny.  You have to be in the right frame of mind to appreciate the humor.  And you have to be willing to overlook, or at least look past,  some things that modern readers aren’t so willing to overlook so much anymore.  With reason.

If you’re expecting a straight forward adventure tale, the kind Stevenson delivered so well in Treasure Island. be prepared to be undermined.  The story starts off with the arrival of John Wiltshire, a trader, to a south seas islands.  He intends to do business with the natives, essentially exploiting their customs in a way that will make himself rich.  He meets Case, an established trader on the same island, who convinces him to marry a native girl as a way to convince the other natives he is a man they can do business with.  Case assures him the marriage will only be “valid” on the island.

The marriage certificate reads in part:

This is to certify that Uma, daughter of Faavao of Falesa, Island of –, is illegally married to Mr. John Wiltshire for one week, and Mr. John Wiltshire is at liberty to send her to hell when he pleases.

While John Wiltshire soon comes to fall genuinely in love with Uma, he later remarries her once missionaries finally arrive at Falesa, he soon realizes that the other natives see her as taboo for some reason and refuse to do business with him at all because of her.

Eventually, things start to go very wrong for John Wiltshire, but are his misfortunes the results of natives who see his wife as untouchable or of Case, his business rival, who has convinced the natives that he has supernatural powers?

The Beach of Falesa should be read as a critique of colonialism and anti-miscegenation.  This is what Mr. Stevenson intended and why his publishers censored The Beach of Falesa.  (So, I guess you can read this one for Banned Books Week next year.)  I’m not sure I see it as an open critique, but I can see it as something of an expose.  First published in 1892, seven years before Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, I cannot think of anyone writing about European Colonialism in this critical, realistic way before.  Maybe someone out there can let me know how accurate this is.

What probably upset Mr. Stevenson’s publishers most was the ending which features John Wiltshire still married to the island girl, Uma, now the father of two mixed-race children whom he loves, worrying about where his son and daughter will find a place in the world.

A sentiment which really puts Robert Louis Stevenson far ahead of his time in a way that surprised me.

And no pirates.  Not what I was expecting at all.

5 thoughts on “The Beach of Falesa by Robert Louis Stevenson

  1. Stevenson was so good with this new setting. All of his South Seas fiction is good. This was a good choice to print as a standalone novella. “The Bottle Imp,” as you might guess from the title, is not so realistic.

    If you want to see more proto-Heart of Darkness, see the short novel The Ebb Tide. Conrad has to have read it. It has Kurtz! Or pretty close.

  2. I knew I could count on you to come up with a proto-Heart of Darkness story for me. I’ll look for it. Am I right to consider The Beach of Falesa a proto-Heart of Darkness, maybe proto-proto if I can say that. I wonder if the late 1890’s is when the narrative shifts from one of outright celebration of conquest and subjegation to one of critique, questioning the whole system. I suspect there is a very good thesis topic here if someone needs one.

  3. I suppose Stevenson, Conrad, and Kipling (e.g., “The Man Who Would Be King,” 1888) were actually encountering these figures, Europeans who had been able to set themselves up as petty tyrants in areas where the rule of law was weak. And who then could theorize about why they were right to do so.

    1. Building up a pretty good syllabus for a graduate course here. I wonder if there are title from the other side of the story we could add. We need “The Man Who Would be King” from a South Asian perspective and then we’d be set to go.

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