Sylvie Largeaud-Ortega (University of French Polynesia)

Posted on Friday, March 5th, 2010

‘Stevenson’s The Ebb-Tide or Virgil’s Aeneid Revisited: How Literature May Make or Mar Empires’

Virgil wrote The Aeneid (~ 29-19 BC) upon Caesar Augustus’s request to validate his status as undisputed ruler of the Roman Empire. Virgil was to trace the origins of the Empire back to Homer’s Iliad and testify that Aeneas’s Roman offspring should rule the world. The Aeneid, in the wake of the Iliad and Odyssey, laid down the legendary foundations of an Empire in the Mediterranean.

Eighteen centuries later, European empire-building started expanding as far as the Pacific. The so-called ‘discoverers’ of the South Seas believed they were re-enacting the Antique epic tales that had founded Western civilisation. Among them, ‘discoverer’ Bougainville named the island of Tahiti ‘New Cythera’ and, in his turn, quoted Virgil to validate the French king’s enterprises of expansion in the Pacific, in his Voyage around the World by the King’s Frigate La Boudeuse and the Store Ship L’Etoile (1767-68), (1771).

Western empire-building, however, was challenged by Robert Louis Stevenson in the late 19th century. His novel The Ebb-Tide (1894) subsequently follows in the wake of Antique epic tales, but the encomium twists into scathing criticism of British, French, German and American hegemony in the Pacific. This paper suggests reading The Ebb-Tide as a palimpsest of The Aeneid, analysing Stevenson’s multiple references to Virgil. Like the ‘discoverers’, the hero, Herrick, is a Virgil buff, whose sole possession, The Aeneid, opens many doors in Southern archipelagos, from Tahiti to Zacynthos or ‘New Island’. The hero’s wanderings may be related to Aeneas’s search for the founding of an empire, and his voyage may be seen as a an allegorical descent to the Elysian fields and to Hell.

Unlike the ‘discoverers’ and their followers, Herrick questions the validity of the presence of white men in the Pacific. In The Ebb-Tide’s second narrative ‘Chant’, ‘The Quartette’, he confronts a Cerberus- and Anchises-like figure, Attwater, the spirit incarnate of Western political, spiritual and commercial expansion. The oracles Attwater pronounces orientate the hero’s quest for a meaning, providing him with what may be seen as an hermeneutic foray into the origins of white settling in the South Seas. A self-proclaimed ruler, prophet and trader, Attwater prides himself upon bringing civilisation to benighted islanders. The hero’s wanderings can be read as an initiatory voyage to search the grounds for Western empire-building in the Pacific.

Categorized as Abstracts

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