Weep for the Coming of Men: Epidemic and Disease in Anglo-Western Colonial Writing of the South Pacific
Keywords:epidemic disease, South Pacific, Literature, Herman Melville, Robert Louis Stevenson, Louis Becke, Jack London, Fredrick O'Brien
During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, epidemics ravaged South Pacific islands after contact with Westerners. With no existing immunity to introduced diseases, consequent death tolls on these remote islands were catastrophic. During that period, a succession of significant Anglo-Western writers visited the South Pacific region: Herman Melville, Robert Louis Stevenson, Louis Becke, Jack London, and Fredrick O’Brien. In a remarkable literary conjunction, they each successively visited the Marquesas Islands, which became for them a microcosm of the epidemiological disaster they were witnessing across the Pacific. Instead of the tropical Eden they expected, these writers experienced and wrote about a tainted paradise corrupted and fatally ravaged by contact with Western societies. Even though these writers were looking through the prism of Social Darwinism and extinction discourse, they were all nevertheless appalled at the situation, and their writing is witness to their anguish. Unlike the typical Victorian-era traveller described by Mary Louise Pratt as the “seeing-man”, who remained distanced in their writing from the environment around them, this group wrote with the authority of personal felt experience, bearing witness to the horrific impact of Western society on the physical and mental health of Pacific Island populations. The literary voice of this collection of writers continues to be not only a clear and powerful witness of the past, but also a warning to the present about the impact of ‘civilisation’ on Pacific Island peoples and cultures.
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