Academic journal article Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature : JASAL

Ecologies of the Beachcomber in Colonial Australian Literature

Academic journal article Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature : JASAL

Ecologies of the Beachcomber in Colonial Australian Literature

Article excerpt

In his 1964 article 'Beachcombers and Castaways,' the well-known British anthropologist H E Maude writes 'probably we would all know a beachcomber if we were to see one, yet he is hard to define as a type.' He describes the OED definition-'a settler on the islands of the Pacific, living by pearl-fishing, etc., and often by less reputable means'-as 'reasonably accurate,' before giving a detailed history of those figures who had 'voluntarily or perforce' become integrated into the Indigenous communities of the South Sea Islands from the 1780s to the 1850s (255). 1 Many beachcombers were escaped convicts or deserting sailors seeking freedom from hardship by retreating to places popularly conceived as natural paradises. These days, however, Maude's account of the beachcomber as part castaway, part vagabond is no longer quite so familiar. Beachcombing has become associated with scanning the shoreline to collect shipwrecked objects or natural specimens washed up by the sea. It is accompanied by a variety of environmental investments including expertise in tidal patterns, species identification, conservation, and an intimacy with the coastal landscape described by Rachel Carson, in The Edge of the Sea (1955), as a deep 'fascination born of inner-meaning and significance' (xiii). This article explores the beachcomber's changing relationships to island settings and their local species in stories and memoirs by the colonial Australian author Louis Becke, as well as in later non-fiction works by writer and naturalist E J Banfield. It suggests that Banfield's 1908 book, The Confessions of a Beachcomber, marks a self-conscious transformation of this figure from tropical-island fugitive to ecological recluse.

Beachcomber literature is defined by its exotic island settings and its cast of savage native tribesmen, sensuous island women, and the fugitive, often dissolute white loafers and traders who live among them. It forms a significant part of what Melissa Bellanta has called an 'explosion of adventure-romance published in Britain in the fin-de-siecle period, the most popular of which were written from outposts of Empire: Rudyard Kipling in India, Robert Louis Stevenson in the Pacific, Rider Haggard in South Africa' (Bellanta, n.pag).2 The colonial author Louis Becke is the most prolific Australian writer of beachcomber fiction, for which-like Herman Melville in the Marquesas, R L Stevenson and others-he drew upon his first-hand experiences of island living. Becke grew up in Sydney and stowed away to Samoa at the age of sixteen, afterwards sailing with the notorious pirate, Captain W H 'Bully' Hayes, who became an important figure in his fiction. In their 1898 collection of essays, The Development of Australian Literature, the well-known local critics Alexander Sutherland and Henry Gyles Turner note Becke's reputation as a kind of Stevenson of the southern oceans. 'Becke's South Sea Island stories, when published in Sydney,' they write,

created such a sensation that local critics united to proclaim him as the superior of Robert Louis Stevenson! Such a comparison with one of the most perfect masters of English is an outrage. Though there is some strong writing in Becke's stories, and an abundance of local picturesqueness, they are on the whole coarse in tone and fleshly in colour. Many of them positively reek with gore, and nearly all are unpleasantly free in their pictures of a very loose morality (104).

Becke's first short story, ''Tis in the Blood,' was published in the Sydney Bulletin in 1893, and reproduced in his first collection of stories, By Reef and Palm the following year. A second collection of stories, The Ebbing of the Tide, appeared in 1896-just two years after Stevenson's The Ebb-Tide-and this article will explore some stories from these early volumes. It is true that they have an 'abundance of picturesqueness' and that they 'reek with gore' and display a 'very loose morality'; but it is the juxtaposition of these elements-of sex and violence in a paradisiacal setting-that is crucial to their specific recipe for masculine adventure beyond the high-seas. …

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