Ideas of ‘Managing’ Natives in Stevenson’s The Beach of Falesá
And Buchan’s Prester John
“It was the mission of the Anglo-Saxon race to penetrate into every part of the world, and to help in the great work of civilisation. Wherever its representatives went, the national conscience should go also […].” This quotation, made by Thomas Hodgkin (cited in Porter, 50), wholly expresses the general procedure of the English colonial rule. The early industrialization, overproduction at home and the resulting economical pressure to locate new markets had forced English people to explore far away shores all over the globe. During the imperial period the British Empire consisted of manifold countries and British colonialists encountered as many different native races. Due to advanced European technological achievements and military power natives were regarded inferior to the culture of white men. Ruling them and exploiting natural resources seemed to be very profitable at this time, but dealing with native cultures was not that easy. On the one hand, the proud British people claimed their cultural superiority and leadership. But on the other, it was not possible to enforce cooperation, or rather compliance, by any means, just because native populations clearly outnumbered British settlers in most colonised countries. It was vital for British people to think about ‘managing’ natives in a particular way to gain as much benefits as possible out of the colonies and, on the other hand, to avoid native uprisings.
In Stevenson’s The Beach of Falesá concepts of dealing with native women are comparatively harsh. The crafty colonial-born Englishman Case, who is the narrator’s guide, got used to drink alcohol and started acting violently towards natives. Thus, right from the beginning the narrator starts to adapt these rude manners. Stevenson creates a derogative incident (104-109) where his protagonist is supposed to get a wife. All through this degrading scene the Englishmen behave like pashas in bygone times, looking for ‘fresh’ women to extend their harem. The whole humiliating process consists of two steps. At first glance, women were ‘merely’ reduced to children because of their natural and open-minded behaviour – they are denied their adult status and regarded minor. The next step is even worse because it seemed as if the two men simply chose new pets for their home entertainment. In this situation native women are degraded from humans to a sort of animals. There is one significant moment when the narrator encounters the mother of his wife-to-be: “’Who the devil’s this?’ cried I, for the thing startled me.” (Stevenson, 107) This sentence indicates clearly, that this woman lost her status of human-being as well as her freedom of choice and is now devoted to her new master who takes care of her. Thus, native women are regarded as mere possessions without any rights – a slave-like status is imposed on them. The harsh treatment of the native housemaid by Japp in Prester John (34/35) is very similar to that, because he is bullying her all the time and is used to bash her. Usually, native natural religions were regarded as paganisms vulnerable to exaggerated superstitions and should be replaced by Christian religion. But even if natives had converted to Christendom the treatment of them did not change notably – the principle of an equal treatment among Christians did not work at all. The climax of debasement is reached in The Beach of Falesá when the marriage ceremonial takes place. Christian virtues and customs, which usually are respected during such a major event, become spurned. The marriage itself, which is actually one of the holiest and most serious rites of Christian religion, is diminished to an event of scornful mockery. The ‘certificate of marriage’ (Stevenson, 109) written by a degenerated drunkard who arrogated to be a chaplain, carries entirely the disdain towards and the humiliation of native women. As a kind of justification the narrator tries to escape to his own ignorance by blaming the missionaries for this unusual practice. Without them, he easily could have had as many native women as he wished and leaving them whenever he wanted to, would not have been a problem as well. The most important aspect the narrator appreciates about his wife is that she was well trained to show great respect for whites (Stevenson, 125). But the ongoing development of the story shows that even if the narrator is impressed by the beauty and behaviour of his wife, he feels guilty and ashamed by having such feelings. That clearly indicates the pervasive education and precast attitudes which apparently had been taught to many Englishman since their childhood. Therefore, treating natives well is regarded as an undesirable weakness of character (Stevenson, 111).