Butaritari — Part III

Illustration from The Wrecker, a novel RLS wrote in the South Seas. (Photo provided)

“On Tuesday the dusk had fallen, the lamp had just been brought, when a missile struck the table with a rattling smack and rebounded past my ear. Three inches to one side and this page had never been written; for the thing travelled like a cannon ball.”“In the South Seas,” Robert Louis Stevenson

Things like this were not supposed to happen, not after King Tebureimoa, ruler of Great and Little Makin in the Gilbert Islands of Oceania, had promised to reimpose the tabu on the sale of alcohol to his subjects.

He had made that promise early in the morning of July 16, 1889, in response to a threat made to the King by a white woman. She was the wife of Adolf Rick, manager of the Sans Souci trading post and bar, also official U.S. commercial agent for the Gilbert Islands.

The day before, a drunken mob of the King’s subjects had overrun the compound of Wightman Brothers, owners of the trading post and schooner Equator. At the time, Robert Louis Stevenson and family were occupying one of the houses within the compound. By then, this invalid author from Scotland had attained a station in life which made him a man of some importance. This aura of status was felt by the King, too.

Mrs. Rick embellished his perception by telling the King that RLS was a son of Queen Victoria and that the King’s subjects had put him in danger by ransacking his house with the author and his family present. Mrs. Rick told the King that a report was being made about it and that any more drunken antics by the people of Great Makin that could hurt the Queen’s son would guarantee that “a man-of-war would be despatched to make reprisals.”

That seemed to have worked. Louis writes that, “For the matter of a week we were thus suffered to go out and in and live in a fool’s paradise, supposing the king to have kept his word, the tabu to be revived and the island once more sober.” Then on the evening of July 23, the chaos resumed “and the islanders passing with light footfalls and low voices in the sand of the road, lingered to observe us…the dusk had fallen, the lamp had just been brought.” That’s when that “missile” came flying through the window that Louis says “travelled like a cannon ball” that could have killed him. “Three inches to one side and this page had never been written.”

It happened again on the next night, same time, same place. Now Stevenson was getting ticked off. “A cocoa-nut does not come slinging along on a windless evening, making an angle of about fifteen degrees with the horizon; cocoa-nuts do not fall on successive nights at the same hour and spot; in both cases a specific moment seemed to have been chosen, that when the lamp was just carried out, a specific person threatened, and that the head of the family … I believed I was the mark.”

Maybe somebody told the King that the thin man staying in the Wightman Brothers compound wasn’t exactly a son of Queen Victoria, that he had been tricked–maybe not. But for some reason the bar at the other end of town in the trading post called The Land We Live In was still selling booze to the King’s subjects which always had consequences.

Negotiations between the two competing bars was attempted with RLS playing the chosen diplomat, supposedly impartial since he had no ‘skin in the game.’ Stevenson observed that “The sale of drink is in this group a measure of the jealousy of traders; one begins, the others are constrained to follow; and to him who has the most gin, and sells it the most recklessly; the lion’s share of profit is assured.” But in July, 1889, on the island of Great Makin, right next to the equator, it became dangerous for the white traders to stop selling gin, brandy and kummel to the people even if they wanted to. Only the king could impose the tabu and anyone else who tried was asking for trouble. The way Stevenson put it: “This was the chief consideration against a sudden closing of the bars. The bar-keeper stood in the immediate breach and dealt direct with madmen. Too surly a refusal might at any moment precipitate a blow, and the blow might prove the signal for a massacre.”

What would you do in a hair-trigger situation like that? Call the police? The police were also the king’s personal bodyguard wearing European military uniforms. They were also the king’s drinking buddies and his protection was their only duty. Any mishap that befell the king’s subjects were not their problem unless the king said otherwise. Like any good narcissistic despot, King Tebureimoa cared only about himself and it was self-preservation that made him finally put an end to it. His subjects from the neighboring island of Little Makin were coming over very soon for an annual feast and celebration. The visiting crowd would include the two semi-independent chieftains who made a show of their disdain for their vassal status and the king was sober enough to predict that they would throw a good insurrection party on Great Makin if they were to arrive and find the king and everybody else drunk or “in hoggish sleep.” That’s why the king finally reimposed his booze tabu.

“Sunday, July 28 — This day we had the afterpiece of the debauch. The king and queen, in European clothes, and followed by armed guards, attended church for the first time, and sat perched aloft in a precarious dignity under the barrel hoops. Before sermon his majesty clambered from the dais, stood lopsidedly upon the gravel floor, and in a few words abjured drinking.”

And that’s how the great Great Makin drinking party ended with a whimper. Writes Stevenson: “The effect lingered for some time on the mind of the traders; it was with the approval of all present that I helped to draw up a petition to the United States, praying for a law against the liquor trade in the Gilberts; and it was at this request that I added, under my own name, a brief testimony of what had passed;–useless pains, since the whole reposes, probably unread and possibly unopened, in a pigeon-hole at Washington.”

Without pre-meditation, Robert Louis Stevenson had waded deeper into Island politics. The bohemian of Fontainebleau had come a long way.


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper? *

Starting at $4.75/week.

Subscribe Today