Wilderness in 19th Century South Seas Literature: An Ecocritical Search for Seascapes





South Seas literature, wilderness, nineteenth century, Pacific Ocean, ecocriticism, seascapes


In Western thought and literature, a terrestrial bias is considered a phenomenological primacy for notions such as wilderness. This ecocritical review draws on nineteenth-century South Seas literature with its influences from frontierism and the literary movements of romanticism, realism and naturism to consider a more fluid appreciation and reconceptualisation of wilderness as non-terrestrial and an oceanic touchstone for freedom. American terrestrial frontierism, that drove colonial settlement of the North American continent, is used as both counterpoint and important embarkation point for ventures into the Pacific Ocean following ‘fulfilment’ of the ‘manifest destiny’ to overspread the continent. For American, British and Australian writers, the Pacific represented an opportunity to apply literary techniques to capture new encounters. South Seas works by Melville, Stevenson, Becke and Conrad offer glimpses of seascapes that provide perceptions of heterotopias, archetypes and depictions of dispossessed itinerants at a moral frontier and wilderness that is both sublime and liberating, liminal and phenomenological.  

Author Biography

Denise Dillon, James Cook University Singapore

Dr Denise Dillon is an Associate Professor of psychology whose major focus in both teaching and research is environmental psychology. Having majored in both psychology and English literature, Denise’s interests extend to the field of ecocriticism and other forms of literary criticism. Based in Singapore for over a decade now, Denise has developed a deeper appreciation for phenomenological groundedness in green spaces. 


Abrams, M. H. (1999). A glossary of literary terms (7th ed. ed.). Harcourt Brace College.

Auden, W. H. (1950). The Enchafèd Flood: Or, the Romantic Iconography of the Sea. Faber and Faber.

Baine Campbell, M. (2002). Travel writing and its theory. In E. P. Hulme & T. Youngs (Eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Travel Writing (pp. 261-278). Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/CCOL052178140X.016

Bakhtin, M. M. (1981). The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays (Vol. 1). University of Texas Press.

Barre, B. (2001). Getting the job done: protecting marine wilderness. In D. Harmon (Ed.), Crossing Boundaries in Park Management: Proceedings of the 11th Conference on Research and Resource Management in Parks and on Public Lands. Hancock, Michigan: The George Wright Society. http://www.georgewright.org/39barr.pdf

Barrish, P. J. (2011). The Cambridge Introduction to American Literary Realism. Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781139021678

Becke, L. (1900). By Reef and Palm. Project Gutenberg. (Original work published 1894)

Becke, L. (1992). The power and fascination of Melville. In B. Higgins, & H. Parker (Eds.). Critical Essays on Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (pp. 115-117). G. K. Hall & Co.

Becke, L. (1897). Wild Life in Southern Seas. T. F. Unwin. https://doi.org/10.5962/bhl.title.146500

Buell, L. (1995). The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctv1nzfgsv

Buell, L. (2005). The Future of Environmental Criticism. Blackwell Publishing.

Callicott, J. B. (2008). What wilderness in frontier ecosystems? Environmental Ethics, 30, 235-249. https://doi.org/10.5840/enviroethics200830330

Casey, E. S. (1993). Getting Back into Place: Toward a Renewed Understanding of the Place-World. Indiana University Press.

Casey, E. S. (1997). The Fate of Place: A Philosophical History. University of California Press.

Casey, E. S. (2002). Earth, World, and Land: The Story of the Missing Term [Unpublished lecture, transcribed by Lissa McCullough]. http://escasey.com/Article/Earth_World_and_Land_The_Story_of_the_Mi.pdf

Cohen, M. (2010). The Novel and the Sea. Princeton University Press.

Connery, C. (2006). There was no more sea: The suppression of the ocean, from the bible to cyberspace. Journal of Historical Geography, 32, 494-511. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jhg.2005.10.005

Conrad, J. (1923). The Mirror of the Sea: Memories and Impressions. J.M. Dent.

Conrad, J. (1996). Victory: An Island Tale. Penguin Books. (Original work published 1914)

Cronin, W. (1995). The trouble with wilderness; or, Getting back to the wrong nature. In W. Cronon, ed., Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature (pp. 69-90). W. W. Norton & Co.

Dowie, M. (October 11, 2019). The Myth of a Wilderness Without Humans. The MIT Press Reader. Retrieved 14 March from https://thereader.mitpress.mit.edu/the-myth-of-a-wilderness-without-humans/

Dryden, L. (2009). Introduction. In E. L. Dryden, S. Arata, & E. Massie (Eds.), Robert Louis Stevenson and Joseph Conrad: Writers of Transition.

Foucault, M. (1986). Of other spaces. Diacritics, 16, 22-27. https://doi.org/10.2307/464648

Goh, R. (2009). The geopolitics of criticism: The sea as liminal symbol in Stevenson’s The Ebb-Tide and Conrad’s An Outcast of the Islands. In E. L. Dryden, S. Arata, & E. Massie (Eds.), Robert Louis Stevenson and Joseph Conrad: Writers of Transition (pp. 125-139). Texas Tech University Press.

Halter, N. (2021). Australian Travellers in the South Seas. ANU Press.

Hillier, R. I. (1989). The South Seas Fiction of Robert Louis Stevenson. Lang.

Hugo, V. (2002). The Toilers of the Sea. Modern Library. (Original work published 1866)

Jarvis, D. (1983). Morality and literary realism: A debate of the 1880s. Southerly, 1, 404-420.

Jolly, R. ((1996). Introduction. In R. L. Stevenson, South Sea Tales. Oxford University Press.

Jones, Klein, C. J., Halpern, B. S., Venter, O., Grantham, H., Kuempel, C. D., Shumway, N., Friedlander, A. M., Possingham, H. P., & Watson, J. E. . (2018). The location and protection status of Earth’s diminishing marine wilderness. Current Biology, 28(16), 2683–2683. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2018.07.081

Kearns, K. (1996). Nineteenth-Century Literary Realism: Through the Looking-Glass. Cambridge University Press.

Klein, B., & Mackenthun, G. (2004). Introduction. The sea is history. In B. Klein & G. Mackenthun (Eds.), Sea Changes: Historicizing the Ocean (pp. 1-12). Routledge.

Lundberg, A., Vital, A. V., & Das, S. (2021). Tropical imaginaries and climate crisis: Embracing relational climate discourses. Tropical Imaginaries and Climate Crisis (Special Issue) eTropic: Electronic Journal of Studies in the Tropics, 20(2), 1-31. https://doi.org/10.25120/etropic.20.2.2021.3803

Lyon, T. J. (1996). A taxonomy of nature writing. In C. Glotfelty & H. Fromm (Eds.), The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology (pp. 276-281). University of Georgia Press.

MacKinnon, J. B. (2013). The once and future world: nature as it was, as it is, as it could be. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Markham, C. R. (1913). Vasco Nuñez De Balboa, 1513-1913. The Geographical journal, 41(6), 517-527. https://doi.org/10.2307/1778076

Melville, H. (1998). Moby Dick. Oxford University Press. (Original work published 1851)

Melville, H. (2001). Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life. Penguin. (Original work published 1846)

Mitchell, A. C. W. (n.d.). Australian literature. Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/art/Australian-literature

Murfin, R. C., & Ray, S. M. (2003). The Bedford glossary of critical and literary terms (2nd ed.). Palgrave Macmillan.

Nash, R. (1969). Wilderness and the American Mind. Yale University Press.

Nash, R. (1976). The value of wilderness. Environmental Review, 1(3), 12-25. https://doi.org/10.2307/3984308

Peck, H. D. (1973). ‘Robinson Crusoe’: The moral geography of limitation. The Journal of Narrative Technique, 3(1), 20-31.

Perez, C. S. (2020). Poems. eTropic: Electronic Journal of Studies in the Tropics, 19(1), 42-64. https://doi.org/10.25120/etropic.19.1.2020.3676

Pratt, J. W. (1927). The origin of ‘manifest destiny’. The American Historical Review, 32(4), 795-798.

Raban, J. (1992). The Oxford Book of the Sea. Oxford University Press.

Seltzer, L. F. (1970). The Vision of Melville and Conrad: A Comparative Study. Ohio University Press.

Short, R. (1870). The Slave Trade in the Pacific. A Statement on the Introduction of Polynesian Labour into Queensland and the Operation of the “Polynesian Labourers Act, 1868. In Prepared at the Request of the Select Committee of the Legislative Assembly of Queensland, and Suppressed by Them. With Introductory Observations. George Levey.

Sloan, N. A. (2002). History and application of the wilderness concept in marine conservation. Conservation Biology, 16(2), 294-305. https://doi.org/10.1046/j.1523-1739.2002.00071.x

Snyder, G. (2010). Practice of the wild. Counterpoint Press: Distributed by Publishers Group West.

South Seas. (n.d.). [Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged, 12th Edition. (1991, 1994, 1998, 2000, 2003, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2011, 2014)]. https://www.thefreedictionary.com/South+Seas

Spicer, C. (2021a). Louis Becke’s Modern Buccaneer: The transformation of William “Bully” Hayes into the first modern literary pirate of the Pacific JACANZS, 1(2), 73-108. https://doi.org/10.52230/LDYB2302

Spicer, C. (2021b). The Granite and the Rainbow: Towards a New Biography of Louis Becke. JASAL: Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature, 21(2), 1-11.

Spicer, C. J. (2021c). 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

Stevenson, R. L. (1996). South Sea Tales. Oxford University Press. (Original work published 1893)

Thomas, N., & Eves, R. (1999). Bad Colonists: the South Sea Letters of Vernon Lee Walker & Louis Becke. Duke University Press.

Thompson, L. (2002). The imperial republic: A comparison of the insular territories under U.S. Dominion after 1898. Pacific Historical Review, 71(4), 535-574. https://doi.org/10.1525/phr.2002.71.4.535

Thoreau, H. D. (1862). Walking”. The Atlantic Jun 1.

Thoreau, H. D. (1988). Cape Cod (J. J. Moldenhauer, Ed.). Princeton University Press. (Original work published 1865)

Tuan, Y.-F. (1990). Topophilia: A Study of Environmental Perception, Attitudes, and Values. Columbia University Press.

Turner, F. J. (1894). The significance of the frontier in American history. State Historical Society of Wisconsin.

Turner, H., & Sutherland, A. (1897). The Development of Australian Literature. Richard Clay & Sons.

Wilderness Act, 88th Congress, Second Session, 1131-1136 (1964). http://www.wilderness.net/NWPS/documents//publiclaws/PDF/




How to Cite

Dillon, D. (2022). Wilderness in 19th Century South Seas Literature: An Ecocritical Search for Seascapes. ETropic: Electronic Journal of Studies in the Tropics, 21(1), 248–372. https://doi.org/10.25120/etropic.21.1.2022.3823