“Get out your big atlas”

[Dots between square brackets indicate cuts made by Sidney Colvin. For correct and critical edition of this letter see Mehew 6, 2109.]

To Sidney Colvin [Colvin 1911, 3, pp. 78-80]

Fakarava, Low Archipelago, September 21st, 1888

My dear Colvin,

Only a word. Get out your big atlas,

Since 1828 The British Library, London, has been the home to one of the world’s largest atlases, the Klencke Atlas, until 2012 the largest atlas in the world. This large and ornate atlas can normally be found on display in the entrance lobby to the Maps reading room at The British Library [http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk]

and imagine a straight line from San Francisco

The cruise of the schooner Casco []

to Anaho, the N.E. corner of Nukahiva, one of the Marquesas Islands;

Map of the Marquesas Islands, French Polynesia, 1843 [www.picclickimg.com]

Nuku Hiva, Marquesas Islands, drawing by Maximilien-Rene’ Radiguet (1816-1899), 1843 [https://previews.agefotostock.com]

imagine three weeks there: imagine a day’s sail on August 12th round the eastern end of the island to Tai-o-hae, the capital;

View of the Bay of Taiohae on Nuku Hiva island, Marquesas islands, engraving from Le Tour du Monde magazine, 1875 [https://previews.agefotostock.com]

imagine us there till August 22nd: imagine us skirt the east side of Ua-pu – perhaps Rona-Poa on your altas –

and through the Bordelais straits to Taahauku in Hiva-Oa, where we arrive on the 23rd;


imagine us there until September 4th, when we sailed for Fakarava, which we reached on the 9th, after a very difficult and dangerous passage among these isles.

Tuesday, we shall leave for Taiti, where I shall knock off and do some necessary work ashore. It looks pretty bald in the atlas; not in fact; nor I trust in the 130 odd pages of diary which I have just been looking up for these dates: the interest, indeed, has been incredible: I did not dream there were such places or such races. My health has stood me splendidly; I am in for hours wading over the knees for shells;

French Polynesia shells [https://static1.squarespace.com]

I have been five hours on horseback:

P. Gauguin, The white horse, 1898 [https://previews.magnoliabox.com]
RLS will describe his journey with Brother Michel at Hiva-oa (27 August 1888) in ‘In the South Seas’, Pt. I, ch. XIV, ‘In a Cannibal Valley’.

I have been up pretty near all night waiting to see where the Casco would go ashore, and with my diary all ready – simply the most entertaining night of my life.

RLS will describe his landing at Fakarava (8 September 1888) in ‘In the South Seas’, Pt. II, ch. II, ‘Fakarava: an atoll at hand’.

Withal I still have colds; I have one now, and feel pretty sick too; but not as at home: instead of being in bed, for instance, I am at this moment sitting snuffling and writing in an undershirt and trousers; and as for colour, hands, arms, feet, legs, and face, I am browner than the berry: only my trunk and the aristocratic spot on which I sit retain the vile whiteness of the north.

RLS (right) on the schooner Casco [http://s3.amazonaws.com]

Please give my news and kind love to Henley,

William Ernest Henley (1849–1903) [http://broughttolife.sciencemuseum.org.uk]

Henry James,

Henry James, 1889 [www.literaryhistory.com]

and any whom you see of well-wishers. Accept from me the very best of my affection: and believe me ever yours,

The Old Man Virulent

RLS in 1888, by W. Eaton. According to Colvin, the signature used at foot of this letter and occasionally elsewhere, ‘The Old Man Virulent’, ‘alludes to the fits of uncontrollable anger to which he was often in youth, but by this time hardly ever, subject: fits occasioned sometimes by instances of official stolidity or impertinence or what he took for such, more often by acts savouring of cruelty, meanness, or injustice’ [www.hmdb.org]

Papeete, Taiti, October 7th, 1888

Never having found a chance to send this off, I may add more of my news. My cold took a very bad turn, and I am pretty much out of sorts at this particular, living in a little bare one-twentieth-furnished house, surrounded by mangoes, etc. All the rest are well, and I mean to be soon. But these Taiti colds are very severe and, to children, often fatal;

The Queen’s Palace, Papeete, Tahiti, c. 1885.

so they were not the thing for me. Yesterday the brigantine came in from San Francisco, so we can get our letters off soon. […] There are in Papeete at this moment, in a little wooden house with grated verandahs,

P. Gauguin, Road in Tahiti, 1891 [www.copia-di-arte.com]
Papeete, Tahiti, late 19th century [www.thetahititraveler.com]

two people who love you very much, and one of them is

Robert Louis Stevens

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