Weep for the Coming of Men: Epidemic and Disease in Anglo-Western Colonial Writing of the South Pacific





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.

Author Biography

Chrystopher J. Spicer, James Cook University, Australia

Dr Chrystopher J. Spicer has written extensively on Australian and American literary and cultural studies in a number of books and papers. His latest book is Cyclone Country: The Language of Place and Disaster in Australian Literature (McFarland, 2020). He is currently a cultural historian and a Senior Research Fellow (Adj) at James Cook University, Cairns, Queensland.


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How to Cite

Spicer, C. J. (2021). Weep for the Coming of Men: Epidemic and Disease in Anglo-Western Colonial Writing of the South Pacific . ETropic: Electronic Journal of Studies in the Tropics, 20(1), 273–293. https://doi.org/10.25120/etropic.20.1.2021.3783