In the South Seas

Source: Robert Louis Stevenson, In the South Seas: Being an Account of Experiences and Observations in the Marquesas, Paumotus and Gilbert Islands in the Course of Two Cruises on the Yacht ‘Casco’ (1886) and the Schooner ‘Equator’ (1889) (New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1896), pp. 277-279

Text: Saturday, July 27. – We had announced a performance of the magic lantern to-night in church; and this brought the king to visit us. In honor of the Black Douglas (I suppose) his usual two guardsmen were now increased to four; and the squad made an outlandish figure as they straggled after him, in straw hats, kilts and jackets. Three carried their arms reversed, the butts over their shoulders, the muzzles menacing the king’s plumb back; the fourth had passed his weapon behind his neck, and held it there with arms extended like a backboard. The visit was extraordinarily long. The king, no longer galvanized with gin, said and did nothing. He sat collapsed in a chair and let a cigar go out. It was hot, it was sleepy, it was cruel dull; there was no resource but to spy in the countenance of Tebureimoa for some remaining trait of Mr. Corpse the butcher. His hawk nose, crudely depressed and flattened at the point, did truly seem to us to smell of midnight murder. When he took his leave, Maka bade me observe him going down the stair (or rather ladder) from the verandah. ‘Old man,’ said Maka. ‘Yes,’ said I, ‘and yet I supposed not old man.’ ‘Young man,’ returned Maka, ‘perhaps fo’ty.’ And I have heard since he is most likely younger.

While the magic lantern was showing, I skulked without in the dark. The voice of Maka, excitedly explaining the Scripture slides, seemed to fill not the church only, but the neighborhood. All else was silent. Presently a distant sound of singing arose and approached; and a procession drew near along the road, the hot clean smell of the men and women striking in my face delightfully. At the corner, arrested by the voice of Maka and the lightening and darkening of the church, they paused. They had no mind to go nearer, that was plain. They were Makin people, I believe, probably staunch heathens, contemners of the missionary and his works. Of a sudden, however, a man broke from their company, took to his heels, and fled into the church; next moment three had followed him; the next it was a covey of near upon a score, all pelting for their lives. So the little band of heathen paused irresolute at the corner, and melted before the attractions of a magic lantern, like a glacier in spring. The more staunch vainly taunted the deserters; three fled in a guilty silence, but still fled; and when at length the leader found the wit or authority to get his troop in motion and revive the singing, it was with much diminished forces that they passed musically on up the dark road.

Meanwhile inside the luminous pictures brightened and faded. I stood for some while unobserved in the rear of the spectators, when I could hear just in front of me a pair of lovers following the show with interest, the male playing the part of interpreter (like Adam) mingling caresses with his lecture. The wild animals, a tiger in particular, and that old school-treat favourite, the sleeper and the mouse, were hailed with joy; but the chief marvel and delight was in the gospel series. Maka, in the opinion of his aggrieved wife, did not properly rise to the occasion. ‘What is the matter with the man? Why can’t he talk?’, she cried. The matter with the man, I think, was the greatness of the opportunity; he reeled under his good fortune; and whether he did ill or well, the exposure of these pious ‘phantoms’ did as a matter of fact silence in all that part of the island the voice of the scoffer. ‘Why then,’ the word went round. ‘why then, the Bible is true!’

And on our return afterwards we were told the impression was lively, and those who had seen might be heard telling those who had not, ‘O yes, it is all true; these things all happened, we have seen the pictures.’ The argument is not so childish as it seems; for I doubt if these islanders are acquainted with any other mode of representation but photography; so that the picture of an even (on the old melodrama principle that ‘the camera cannot lie, Joseph,’) would appear strong proof of its occurrence. The fact amused us the more because our slides were some of them ludicrously silly, and one (Christ before Pilate) was received with shouts of merriment, in which even Maka was constrained to join.

Comments: Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) was a Scottish novelist and travel writer. In the South Seas is a posthumously-published accounts of two cruises through the Pacific Ocean visiting the Hawaiian islands, the Gilbert Islands, Tahiti, New Zealand and the Samoan Islands. This passage relates to his second cruise and his visit to the Gilbert Islands in 1889. My grateful thanks to Artemis Willis for bringing this text to my attention.

Links: Copy at Internet Archive

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