The New Edinburgh Edition of the Collected Works of Robert Louis Stevenson

New Light on The South Seas

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This post is contributed by Roger G. Swearingen, author of The Prose Works of Robert Louis Stevenson etc., presently working on a biography of Stevenson and an edition (not for EdRLS) of The South Seas.


New Light on The South Seas from unpublished pages and Stevenson’s day-to-day journals

The cruise journals

Stevenson’s day-to-day journals from his first two cruises in the South Seas – aboard the yacht Casco in 1888-1889 and the trading schooner Equator in 1889 – have attracted almost no attention from his biographers or from most literary scholars, even those writing about his work in the South Seas.

The reason is simple. No one, then or now, seems to think (or to have thought) at all highly of The South Seas, a work that Stevenson called “my big book on the South Seas: the big book on the South Seas it ought to be, and shall” (RLS to Marcel Schwob, 19 August 1890, Letter 2238). And his day-to-day journals consist of almost 250 legal-sized pages in Stevenson’s not particularly legible handwriting – a formidable task for anyone merely to read.

I have now had the pleasure of doing just that, thanks to four weeks of undivided research time that I was able to spend recently with these pages at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California.

The recently-discovered opening chapters

Yale, GEN MSS 808, Table of contents v

Yale, GEN MSS 808, Table of contents v

I have also had the pleasure of making a complete, annotated transcription of the first half‑dozen chapters of The South Seas as Stevenson himself wrote them: forty‑four folio manuscript leaves, 16,000 words, now in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.*

Unseen and unknown for more than a century, these opening pages are titled “Whites in the Pacific” (or “Sailors and Traders”, or “schooners, islands and maroons”, to give two other versions of the title from Stevenson’s outlines). And they offer a panoramic survey of life as it was actually being lived in the South Seas when Stevenson was there. He depicts an environment of whites of many nationalities far from the places of their birth and upbringing and of native peoples who themselves exhibit a great diversity of outlooks and cultures, a world made up of men living in harbour towns and on islands and aboard ships, and of men, women, and children, native and white, living on islands and in island groups separated by vast distances of open, largely empty, imperfectly charted, unlighted and unpredictable seas.

It is a world in which life and commerce go forward according to rules and customs and uncertainties that would baffle or at least surprise most outsiders: a world of vitality, incoherence, danger, risk, and charm – and often of outlandish humour and misbehaviour as well. Beginning the book as he does – anecdotally, and with a focus on “Whites in the Pacific” – Stevenson frames The South Seas as a work of contemporary social history rather than as autobiography, narrative, journalism, or travel.

Colvin’s In the South Seas

This is not at all the same book that generations have known under the title In the South Seas. In the South Seas is a compilation that Stevenson’s friend Sidney Colvin made after Stevenson’s death for publication in the Edinburgh Edition of Stevenson’s works in 1896. Colvin reprinted the chapters on the Marquesas, the Paumotus, and the Gilbert Islands that Stevenson himself had seen published in 1891 in the New York Sun and other newspapers and in the English weekly magazine Black and White. But Colvin did not include the chapters on the pearl islands of Penrhyn and Manihiki. Nor did he include Stevenson’s account of Hawaii, possibly from a wish not to reprint Stevenson’s lengthy comments on leprosy and his account of visiting the leper settlement on the Hawaiian island of Molokai in late May 1889. Nor did he publish Stevenson’s own opening chapters, no doubt because he had no idea that they existed. The result was In the South Seas, a remarkable book as it stands but something completely different from The South Seas as Stevenson outlined and began writing it.

Stevenson reworking of journal entries

“His majesty was very Arabian and monstrous languid,” Stevenson wrote in one passage in his day-to-day journal that is only glanced at in the published version, near the end of the first chapter of his account of Butaritari, in the Gilbert Islands:

and though the courtiers made very merry with us, examining the gold stoppings in our teeth, the sovereign but twice condescended to smile, never to speak. The queen on the other hand will retain a lively impression of our visit; for when one of our party played the part of Commander Goode [in King Solomon’s Mines] and snapped his false teeth at her, she became deadly pale and was thenceforth unable to remove her eyes from the performer. A younger lady, after the same experience, retired behind the royal privy, and I could observe her to experiment on the condition of her own teeth; they were fast enough and white enough you may be sure.

Stevenson’s day-to-day journals are occasionally amusing, as in the present instance. But they show, at all times, how much effort Stevenson put into revising his journals for publication. In the first three chapters on the Marquesas, the first landfall of the Casco, Stevenson takes passages from more than twenty different places in his journal, from the third to the fifty-seventh page and ranging in length from a few words to more than a thousand. He adds clarification and context, and above all he adds thematic comments and reflections: long and short passages that make narratives, facts, and conversations in the journals instances of themes rather than mere occurrences. Tari (Charlie) Coffin and his family, so poignantly presented in the third chapter of Stevenson’s account of the Marquesas, “The Maroon”, is first mentioned under the date of July 22nd [1888], on the eleventh page in Stevenson’s journal:

We were aware of an elderly grizzled man, of a younger fellow, slim and tall and grave, and a girl of sixteen, with her baby in her arms. The girl had remarked our presence; and the family had come down the den to make us welcome after the island fashion, so unassuming to us clumsy and niggardly barbarians, so embarrassing.

For the published version, Stevenson then draws upon, re-shapes, and provides context for material from this and three other places in his journal, transforming the account of Tari Coffin into an instance of the profound melancholy that he saw as dominating the outlook of the Marquesans.

An edition in preparation

Extensive and representative selections from Stevenson’s journals, the complete text of his original opening chapters for The South Seas, annotations, photographs and illustrations, outlines, and much else – even a previously unknown chapter on the island of Manihiki – will all appear together in a new, complete reading edition of Stevenson’s “big book” that I now have in preparation. For the first time it will be possible to see and read The South Seas as Stevenson himself envisioned it and as he actually began it. The South Seas is a fascinating and major work that will add significantly – and brilliantly – to the Stevenson canon.

Roger G. Swearingen



* Stevenson, Robert Louis, Drafts of the South Seas, 1889-1891. Yale, GEN MSS 808. Images of the whole MS can be viewed and downloaded in the online Beinecke Digital Collections: folder 2, folder 3 (folder 1 is just the original envelope that held the MS).

For more information, see previous post ‘Major new Stevenson manuscript: In The South Seas‘.


Written by rdury

04/04/2014 at 11:48 pm

Posted in News

2 Responses

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  1. Oh, this is wonderful! I’ve always rated RLS’s South Seas factual writings very highly; I can’t wait to get my hands on this. 120 years of snobbery and racism finally get a long overdue riposte. Perhaps this will draw more attention to the last, and in many ways most fascinating, phase of his astonishing life and career. Incredibly exciting news.

    Michael Daviot

    05/04/2014 at 12:19 am

  2. What a great project to delve into, and thanks also for the insight on how he consolidated notes from so many places in his journals. Makes me feel better as a writer to find Stevenson did it as well.


    06/04/2014 at 6:02 am

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