Tuesday, 14 July 2009

South Sea shenanigans

A while back I ran into a lovely and artistically brilliant hoax/pastiche, Parting The Veil of Faery, The Colmore Fatagravures, which purport to be time-ravaged photogravures of fairies taken by the Scots experimenter Neville Colmore with a "Spectobarathrum" in the 1890s. I won't say any more except to highly recommend it, and move on to the book connection: that Colmore is described as a friend of "the famed American explorer and author, Walter Traprock ... best known for the popular accounts of his scientific expeditions published in the 1920s, Cruise of the Kawa, Sarah of the Sahara and My Northern Exposure".

The Cruise of the Kawa is on Project Gutenberg (EText-No. 6586), where the real author behind Walter E Traprock is revealed as the architect, journalist and author George Shepard Chappell (1877-1946). He wrote a number of comic works as Traprock, but Cruise of the Kawa appears to be the most notable. From Gutenberg:

We get under way. Polynesia's busiest corner. Our ship's company. A patriotic celebration rudely interrupted. In the grip of the elements. Necessary repairs. A night vigil. Land ho!

A real discovery. Polynesia analyzed. The astounding nature of the Filberts. Their curious sound, and its reason. We make a landing. Our first glimpse of the natives. The value of vaudeville.

Our handsome hosts. En route to the interior. Native flora and fauna. We arrive at the capital. A lecture on Filbertine architecture. A strange taboo. The serenade.

A few of our native companions. Filbertine diet. Physiological observations. We make a tour of the island. A call on the ladies. Baahaabaa gives a feast. The embarrassments of hospitality. An alcoholic escape.

A frank statement. We vote on the question of matrimony. A triple wedding. An epithalmic verse. We remember the Kawa. An interview with William Henry Thomas. Triplett's strategy. Safe within the atoll.

Marital memories. A pillow-fight on the beach. A deep-sea devil. The opening in the atoll. Swank paints a portrait. The _fatu-liva_ bird and its curious gift. My adventure with the _wak-wak_. Saved!

Excursions beyond the outer reef. Our aquatic wives. Premonitions. A picnic on the mountain. Hearts and flowers. Whinney delivers a geological dissertation. Babai finds a _fatu-liva_ nest. The strange flower in my wife's hair.

Swank's popularity on the Island. Whinney's jealousy. An artistic duel. Whinney's deplorable condition. An assembly of the Archipelago. Water-sports on the reef. The Judgment.

More premonitions. Triplett's curious behavior. A call from Baahaabaa. We visit William Henry Thomas. His bride. The christening. A hideous discovery. Pros and Cons. Out heart-breaking decision. A stirrup-cup of lava-lava.

Once more the Kawa foots the sea. Triplett's observations and our assistance. The death of the compass-plant. Lost! An orgy of desperation. Oblivion and excess. The Kawa brings us home. Our reception in Papeete. A celebration at the Tiare.

It's very good. I can only describe it as doing for the South Sea Island genre what Cold Comfort Farm - see Further beyond the woodshed - did for the English rustic novel. Amid general pleasant whimsy, it's a thoroughly barbed skit on exotic flora, fauna and culture, nautical machismo, and cavalier attitudes to native culture and, particularly, native women, as in this scene where the crew of the Kawa justify their desertion of their Polynesian wives:

Little by little, however, the calm of the great ocean invaded our souls and that well-known influence (mentioned in so many letters of consolation), "the hand of time," soothed the pain in our hearts. I think it was the quiet, self contained Whinney who brought the most reasoned philosophy to bear on the situation.

"They will forget," he said one evening, as we sat watching the Double Cross slowly revolve about its axis. "We must remember that they are a race of children. They have no written records of the past, no anticipations of the future. They live for the present. Childlike, they will grieve deeply, for a day maybe; then another sun will rise, Baahaabaa will give another picnic--" he sighed deeply.

"The tragedy of it is that their memories should be so short and ours so long," I commented.

"Yes," agreed Swank, "but I suppose we ought to be thankful. They were a wonderful people, it was a wonderful experience. And no matter what art-juries of the future may do to me, my pictures were a success in the Filberts."

Blessed old Swank, he always looked on the bright side of things!

(The running joke is that the wives in the photographic illustrations - Kippiputuona, "daughter of pearl and coral", Lupoba-Tilaana, "mist on the mountain" and Babai-Alova-Babai, "essence of Alova" - appear to be all the same Western woman).

Herman Swank, the artist, alludes pretty strongly to Gauguin, and a number of authors and explorers get a collective cameo appearance:

Well, they were all there! O'Brien--dear old Fred, and Martin Johnson, just in from the Solomons with miles of fresh film; McFee, stopping over night on his way to the West Indies; Bill Beebe, with his pocket full of ants; Safroni, "Mac" Macquarrie, Freeman, "Cap" Bligh--thinner than when I last saw him in Penang--and, greatest surprise of all, a bluff, harris-tweeded person who peered over the footboard of my bed and roared in rough sea-tones:

"Well, as I live and breathe, Walter Traprock!"

It was Joe Conrad.

As with Cold Comfort Farm, Cruise of the Kawa is a close parody on some of its sources. I don't know who "Freeman" is, but "Fred O'Brien" refers to Frederick O'Brien, author of White Shadows in the South Seas, an account of his time on the Marquesas. A look at Gutenberg (EText-No. 14384) suggests this to be the prime target:

Thirty-seven days at sea; life of the sea-birds; strange phosphorescence; first sight of Fatu-hiva; history of the islands; chant of the Raiateans
First night in Atuona valley; sensational arrival of the Golden Bed; Titihuti's tattooed legs
A feast to the men of Motopu; the making of _kava_, and its drinking; the story of the Girl Who Lost Her Strength

(O'Brien's Fatu-hiva is an island; Traprock's Fatu-Liva is a bird that lays cubical eggs with dice spots (see Museum of Hoaxes).

"Macquarrie" is probably Hector Macquarrie, author of the travelogue Tahiti Days (of interest for containing one of the first detailed accounts of fire-walking ritual). The other rather obscure name-drop, "Safroni", is the Australian author and composer Arnold Safroni-Middleton, who wrote a number of books (available at the Internet Archive) with South Sea locations. These included his memoirs Sailor and Beachcomber, South Sea Foam and A Vagabond's Odyssey, as well as the novels Sestrina and Gabrielle of the Lagoon (both subtitled "A Romance of the South Seas", though Sestrina is set in Haiti). A quick dip is enough to get the flavour:

Across the skies of Bougainville the stars had been marshalled in the millions. It seemed a veritable heathen faeryland as the night echoed a hollow "Tarabab!" But even that heathenish word was only the tribal chief's yell as he stood under the palms conducting the semi-religious tambu ceremony. The tawny maidens and high chiefs, with their feather head-dresses, all in full festival costume, were squatting in front of the secret tambu stage, some mumbling prayer, others beating their hands together as an accompaniment. And still the dusky tambu dancer moved her perfect limbs rhythmically to the rustling of her sarong-like attire, swaying first to the right then to the left as she chanted to the wailings of the bamboo fifes and bone flutes. The orchestral-like moan of the huge bread-fruits, as odorous drifts of hot wind swept in from the tropic seas, seemed to murmur in complete sympathy with the pretty dancer. One might easily have concluded that Oom Pa, the aged high priest, was the "star turn" of the evening as he stood there enjoying his thoughts and performing magnificently on the monster tribal drum.

There was something fascinating and super-primitive about the whole scene. The very scents from decaying forest frangipanni and hibiscus blossoms seemed to drift out of the damp gloom of the dark ages. The presence of civilisation in any form seemed the remotest of possibilities. Even the fore-and-aft schooner, with yellowish, hanging canvas sails, lying at anchor just beyond the shore lagoons, looked like some strange-rigged craft that sailed mysterious seas.

But as the assembled tribe once again wildly clamoured for the next dancer to come forward and exhibit her charms, a murmur of surprise rose from the back rows of stalwart, tattooed chiefs a white girl suddenly ran out of the forest and jumped on to the tambu stage!

One aged chiefess who was busy mumbling her prayers looked up and gave a frightened scream. Even the aged philosophical head-hunter Ra-mai, who had one hundred and eighty skulls hanging to his credit in his palavana hard by, gave a mellow grunt, so great was his surprise. A white girl, lips red as coral, hair like the sunset's gold, standing by his old pae pae! It was something that he had never dreamed of. The tawny maidens squatting beneath the coconut-oil-lamp-lit shades on the right of the buttressed banyans, lifted their hands in astonishment. For a moment the white girl stood perfectly still. All eyes were upon her. She stared vacantly as though she were in a trance. Then she moved forward a few steps, her feet lightly touching the forest floor as if she were a visionary figure veiled in moonlight. Only the sudden renewal of the wild clamouring and guttural cries of "la Maramam tambu, papalaga!" ("A white girl will dance before us!") seemed to rouse her to her senses, reminding her of the reason she had responded to the swelling chorus of tribal drums.

- Gabrielle of the Lagoon; a Romance of the South Seas (c. 1919)

The dancer is the heroine, Gabrielle Everard, who has been brought up locally by her trader father. Only she got rhythm because

no one would have dreamed by looking at her that she was not a pure-blooded white girl. Her father had married a beautiful three-quarter caste girl in Honolulu, so Gabrielle had a strain of dark blood in her veins!

It really is "loam and lovechild" transplanted to an exotic setting. Those decaying forest frangipanni and hibiscus blossoms sound as risky as sukebind. As the old, and strangely Mummerset, chiefs say:

"'Tis a white girl suddenly up-grown and full of fever for love" ... "Had it been a full-moon sacred festival, 'twould have been well to slay her for such boldness, the cursed papalagi!"


I'm slightly surprised, given the date for Cruise of the Kawa, that Henry De Vere Stacpoole wasn't in the lineup of cameos, as his Blue Lagoon trilogy was well in the genre. I re-read it not long ago (see Gutenberg EText-No. 393) and it's actually not at all bad for a 1908 novel tackling a fairly edgy scenario (for those who don't know it, this is the one where cousins Richard and Emmeline Lestrange grow up from childhood alone on a tropical island after the elderly Paddy, with whom they were shipwrecked, finds a cask of rum and drinks himself to death; they eventually reach puberty and produce a child). It has nice touches, such as their calling their son "Hannah", the only other name they dimly recall. Stacpoole gave the book closure, as well as avoiding any problems of how they'd deal with life after rescue, by killing them off (they're found asleep in a boat, having eaten the plot coupon "never-wake-up" berries Paddy warned them about). The sequels, The Garden of God and The Gates of Morning, take the grown-up Hannah (renamed Dick) through various tribal adventures, the second having quite a right-on message about European exploitation of South Sea cultures. But I suspect Stacpoole got tired of the whole farrago when he destroyed the Blue Lagoon island with a tsunami.

Interesting character, Stacpoole: very large output, of which only The Blue Lagoon is widely known these days. Born in Ireland, he trained as a doctor; the Blue Lagoon series sprang from authentic knowledge of the South Seas from his travels as a ship's doctor. But his writing career was slow to get started (he described it as "more like a Malay fishing prahu than an honest-to-God English literary vessel") and began with several turkeys: The Intended (a Trading Places scenario handled seriously - this did succeed when, at the advice of Pearl Craigie, he rewrote it as a comedy, The Man Who Lost Himself); Pierrot, "a French boy's eerie relationship with a patricidal doppelganger"; and Death, the Knight, and the Lady

the deathbed confession of Beatrice Sinclair, who is both a reincarnated murderer (male) and a descendant of the murder victim (female). She falls in love with Gerald Wilder, a man disguised as a woman, who is both a reincarnated murder victim (female) and the descendant of the murderer (male).

Hmm. But The Blue Lagoon and its sequels made his fortune, after which he settled at Bonchurch, Isle of Wight.

P.S. While Googling to see if any of the native language in Gabrielle of the Lagoon was authentic, I ran into this curiosity: The Papalagi. This is the English translation of Erich Scheuerman's 1920 Die Papalagi, a purported account of the impressions of European society by Tuiavii of Tiavea, a South Sea Chief. It's most likely a hoax: see The Looniverse, which views it as a ripoff of Hans Paasche's The Journey of Lukanga Mukara into the innermost of Germany.

- Ray

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