“We are now about to rise, like whales, from this long dive”

[As usual, dots between square brackets indicate cuts made by Sidney Colvin. For full, correct and critical edition of this letter see Mehew 6, 2192.]

To Edward L. Burlingame [Colvin 1911, 3, pp. 169-71]

Schooner Equator, at sea,

Wednesday, 4th December 1889

My dear Burlingame,

We are now about to rise, like whales, from this long dive,

and I make ready a communication which is to go to you by the first mail from Samoa. How long we shall stay in that group I cannot forecast; but it will be best still to address at Sydney, where I trust, when I shall arrive, perhaps in one month from now, more probably in two or three, to find all news.


Business […]. – […] Will you be likely to have a space in the Magazine for a serial story, which should be ready, I believe, by April, at latest by autumn?

Edward Livermore Burlingame (1848-1922). In 1886, he was appointed founding editor-in-chief of Scribner’s Magazine, where he served until his resignation in 1914 [https://upload.wikimedia.org]

It is called The Wrecker; and in book form will appear as number I of South Sea Yarns by R.L.S. and Lloyd Osbourne. Here is the table as far as fully conceived, and indeed executed.

[Table of chapter headings follows...]

‘The Wrecker’ was to be serialised in Scribner’s Magazine August 1891-July 1892.

The story is founded on fact, the mystery I really believe to be insoluble;

From the ‘Daily Alta California’, 21 April 1889: Captain and crew of the Wandering Minstrel had been schpwrecked on Midway Island in February 1888. There they found a seaman abandoned by another shipwrecked crew because suspected of murder. The men of the Wandering Minstrel were rescued on 6 April 1889. The story became the germ of the plot for RLS and Lloyd’s ‘The Wrecker’. Cfr. Letter 2176: https://lettersofrobertlouisstevenson.wordpress.com/2019/11/28/i-have-seen-sights-that-cannot-be-told-and-heard-stories-that-cannot-be-repeated/ [https://cdnc.ucr.edu]

the purchase of a wreck has never been handled before, no more has San Francisco.

 German Gunboat Adler, overturned on the reef, on the western side of Apia Harbor, Upolu, Samoa, during salvage work after the storm, March 1889 [https://upload.wikimedia.org]

These seem all elements of success. There is, besides, a character, Jim Pinkerton, of the advertising American, on whom we build a good deal; and some sketches of the American merchant marine,


opium smuggling in Honolulu, etc.

William A. Whaley, aka The King of the Opium Ring (1861-1907) [http://2.bp.blogspot.com]

It should run to (about) three hundred pages of my MS. […]

In 2010 a major RLS manuscript has come to light in Ireland, at an auction. It is a collection of over 90 pages of drafts for his planned historical, cultural and anthropological work, In the South Seas (https://edrls.wordpress.com/2010/11/05/ms_southseas/)

I would like to know if this tale smiles upon you, if you will have a vacancy, and what you will be willing to pay. It will of course be copyright in both the States and England. I am a little anxious to have it tried serially, as it tests the interest of the mystery.

Pleasure. – We have had a fine time in the Gilbert group, though four months on low islands, which involves low diet, is a largeish order;

Canoe and outrigger, Apiang Island, Gilbert Group, 1889 [www.capitalcollections.org.uk]
Break in Mariki Island, Gilbert Group, 1889 [www.capitalcollections.org.uk]

and my wife is rather down. […]

Fanny being carried ashore, Apiang, 1889 [www.capitalcollections.org.uk]

I am myself, up to now, a pillar of health, though our long and vile voyage of calms, squalls, cataracts of rain, sails carried away, foretopmasts lost, boats cleared and packets made on the approach of a p. d. reef, etc., has cured me of salt brine, and filled me with a longing for beef steak and mangoes not to be depicted.

Lloyd, RLS, Fanny, Mr. Rick, an agent for Wightman Brothers traders on Butaritari, and a member of the crew of the schooner Equator. Two masts can be seen behind them. The photo has the written inscription “The schooner ‘Equator’- 68 tons – Capt. Denis Reid – casting off Oceanic Co’s Wharf at Honolulu, Hawaiian Islands, on course for Butaritari, Kingsmill Islands, with Stevenson party on board, June 30 1889” [www.capitalcollections.org.uk]

The interest has been immense. Old King Tembinoka of Apemama, the Napoleon of the group, poet, tyrant, altogether a man of mark, gave me the woven corselets of his grandfather, his father and his uncle, and, what pleased me more, told me their singular story,

RLS’s three Gilbert Island corselets, sold in a 1915 auction and now at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. RLS described the gift and the history of the owners in In the South Seas, Part V, ch. VII. Heavy and rigid, these provided effective protection against sharks’ teeth weapons, throwing spears, and European knives and bayonets. They are made of horizontal bundles of coconut fiber, firmly bound together with twisted fiber cord. The high back of the one in the middle is braced by two short sticks rising from the shoulders, and reinforced by two long sticks bound along the outside edges. The black diamonds and stripes on all three corslets are human hair [www.penn.museum]
Gilbert Island warriors wearing corselets, 1906 [www.penn.museum]
Close-up of one of the corselets given by King Tembinok’ to RLS, showing the braided bundle of coconut fiber bound along the ende of an arm hole. Similar bundles of fiber are lashed together to form the body of the corselet and the high, stiff back [www.penn.museum]
HM King Tembenoka of Apemama, 1889 [www.capitalcollections.org.uk]

then all manner of strange tales, facts, and experiences for my South Sea book, which should be a Tearer, Mr. Burlingame: no one at least has had such stuff.

We are now engaged in the hell of a dead calm, the heat is cruel –


it is the only time when I suffer from heat: I have nothing on but a pair of serge trousers, and a singlet without sleeves of Oxford gauze – O, – yes, and a red sash about my waist; and yet as I sit here in the cabin, sweat streams from me.

RLS wearing his red sash about his waist, Samoa 1894 [www.robert-louis-stevenson.org]

The rest are on deck under a bit of awning; we are not much above a hundred miles from port, and we might as well be in Kamschatka.

“On the ‘Equator’ – cruising amongst Kingsmill Islands, making land”. The crew of the Equator look out to sea. One man is standing in a small boat attached to the side of the main craft. Another two are holding on to the ship’s rigging [www.capitalcollections.org.uk]

However, I should be honest; this is the first calm I have endured without the added bane of a heavy swell, and the intoxicated blue-bottle wallowings and knockings of the helpless ship.

The (Australian) bluebottle or Pacific man o’war (Physalia utriculus) is a siphonophore looking like a jellyfish and living at the surface of the ocean. The gas-filled bladder remains at the surface, while the remainder is submerged. Its long tentacles deliver a venomous sting, which is powerful enough to kill fish and even humans [https://upload.wikimedia.org]

I wonder how you liked the end of The Master; that was the hardest job I ever had to do; did I do it?

My wife begs to be remembered to yourself and Mrs. Burlingame. Remember all of us to all friends, particularly Low, in case I don’t get a word through for him […]. – I am, yours very sincerely,

Robert Louis Stevenson

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