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Archive for April, 2010

Castaway in Paradise

Thursday, April 8, 2010 @ 12:04 PM  posted by Mark

Castaway in Paradise, James C. Simmons’ compendium of South Seas adventures involving deserters, runaways, pirates and mutineers, has a breezy tone that belies the often horrifying nature of its hand-to-my-heart true stories. The tales of Europeans and Americans on South Seas expeditions that go terribly wrong, Castaway never romanticizes the idea of being abandoned to your own devices with no friends, yet somehow each adventure shimmers with romantic allure.  Even when Simmons is describing cannibalism, starvation, desperation and shipwreck, the siren song of the South Seas calls.

Alexander Selkirk‘s adventures on Mar a Tierra Island kick off the book in grand style. Selkirk (the real life adventurer on whom Defoe based Robinson Crusoe) chooses to be left on an out-of-the-way island rather than continue a voyage on an English privateer captained by a lunatic, but his voluntary isolation soon leads him to despair. He mopes on the beach, barely eating, waiting in vain for another ship’s sails to appear on the horizon, but what actually appears is a better cure for his loneliness than he ever could have imagined: sea lions! Mar a Tierra Island turns out to be the mating ground for a colony of sea lions, who arrive in such numbers that Selkirk is forced to flee his beach. Wandering inland, he discovers a paradise abundant in goats, clear streams, wild root vegetables and house cats that had been stranded on the island during previous shipwrecks. He finds a cave to live in, tames some cats and goats, and spends the next four years in isolated bliss, teaching his domesticated animals to dance to sea shanteys, until Captain Woods Rogers accidentally lands on the island in 1709 and “saves” him. When he returns to England, Selkirk’s story becomes a sensation, and we all now know him in fictional guise as Daniel Defoe’s unlikely hero.

Other castaway adventures did not end so well. Simmons tells the horrifying story of the whaleship Essex, which was battered to bits by an angry whale in 1821 (Melville based Moby-Dick on this episode). The crew of the Essex take to their lifeboats, but, fearing that cannibals inhabit a nearby island downwind from them, they set a course against the currents and tradewinds for South America. That nearby island was Tahiti and was actually inhabited by tribes friendly to Europeans, but because of the slow communications of the early 19th century, this discovery was not yet widely known. Had they steered toward Tahiti, they would have been saved; as it was, they exhausted their resources fighting the currents and began to die of hunger and thirst, and the survivors were forced to eat their starved shipmates for nourishment. By fleeing supposed cannibals, the crew of the Essex were forced to become cannibals themselves, and only five of the 21 crew members survived.

Simmons covers a wide span of time, from the early 17th to the mid-20th century, at an incredibly fast and entertaining clip. Herman Melville’s sojourn in the Marquesas gets a full treatment (Melville would base his first two books, Typee and Omoo, on his desertion from a whaleship), and Simmons recounts with loving, colorful detail every manner of shipwreck, armed conflict, desertion and melancholy that led men (and women) to the solitude of uninhabited islands, far from human companionship. The tales fall into two distinct camps: happy stories of paradise on earth and relentlessly horrifying nightmares, both of which become equally engaging to the reader.

By the end of the book, you’ll either want to drop everything and begin your own South Seas adventure immediately or you’ll curl deeper into your comfortable armchair and think twice about ever leaving the house again. These stories, of lives on the very edge of the existential abyss, cast your own day-to-day struggles in a new light and will make your daily cares either seem tedious by comparison or joyfully light and easy (or both).

Avast, ye lubbers!

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