Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Ebb-Tide, set in the South Seas where he was resident, was the last of his novels to be published in his lifetime (in September 1894; Stevenson died in December). Though written in collaboration with his stepson, Lloyd Osborne, the final version is thought to be largely Stevenson’s work. Stevenson described the novel as a “dreadful, grimy business” and, indeed, its characters have few redeeming features. When the novel opens we find them – Herrick (a Cambridge-educated gentleman fallen on hard times), Davis, (a disgraced ship’s captain), and Huish, (a Cockney clerk and petty criminal) – sleeping rough:
“In the telling South Sea phrase, these men were on the beach. Common calamity had brought them acquainted, as the three most miserable English-speaking creatures in Tahiti.”
Stevenson is particularly good on the men’s low state: a tattered copy Virgil which Herrick carries around only remaining in his position because he cannot sell it; Davis adopting a ridiculous dance on the quay so they might eat. At the end of the first chapter they are described as:
“…one wet mass…shivering and dozing off, and continually reawakened to wretchedness by the coughing of the clerk.”
A chance of escape arises when Davis is given the opportunity to captain the schooner Farallone, with its cargo of champagne, to Sydney, smallpox having taken its toll on the original crew, and with no-one else willing to take up the task. Davis invites Herrick and Huish to join him despite their lack of sea-going experience, revealing that, far from taking the cargo to its intended port, he plans to sail for Peru and sell it, before taking the schooner for himself. Herrick is reluctant (“I’ve not fallen as low as that”) but eventually agrees.
Stevenson skilfully uses the changing dynamics of the trio’s relationship to keep tensions high throughout the novel. Davis puts his proposal to Herrick before inviting Huish and appoints him First Mate, but, once on board, Huish decides to begin drinking the champagne and Davis soon joins him in permanent drunkenness leaving Herrick isolated. In moral terms (and Stevenson is always a moral writer), Herrick’s conscience continues to bother him, Huish’s bothers him not at all, and Davis vacillates between the two.
For various reasons the flight to Peru is abandoned and, when they encounter an unmapped, but inhabited, island they hatch a new plot. The island introduces a fourth white character, Attwater, educated like Herrick, presenting himself as a Christian, but entirely ruthless. Discussing how he managed to get the labour for his settlement, Davis comments, “you must be a holy terror!”
“…one way or another, one got it into their head that they must work, and they did…”
His personal island, and the calm manner in which he discusses his brutality, make him seem like a prototype Bond villain. In the end, Herrick must choose between Attwater and Davis, a choice which is almost literally between the devil and the deep blue sea.
The Ebb-Tide has the adventure of Treasure Island but without the heroism. Instead we see the moral complexity which characterises Stevenson’s most memorable creations, Silver, and, of course, Jekyll and Hyde. Our colonial adventurers are portrayed as, at best morally confused, at worst, morally bankrupt. “Don’t think me a philanthropist,” Attwater tells Herrick, “I dislike men, and hate women.” It is difficult not to see the disease which permeates the novel (Attwater’s island has also lots most of its inhabitants to smallpox) as representative of colonialism.
Certain aspects date the novel – a comprehensive understanding of the vocabulary of sailing is likely to be less common among readers for one. The Kanakas (a word used to describe the inhabitants of the Pacific Islands) are largely silent, though a conversation between Herrick and one of the sailors is a key moment in the story. Often they are used a moral barometer to allow us to judge the European characters. Stevenson’s use of phonetic speech further distances them from the narrative, though he does the same for Huish, and, interestingly, seems to have been aware of the problem:
“It is a dreadful, grimy business in the third person where the strain between a vilely realistic dialogue and a narrative style pitched about (in phrase) “four notes higher” than it should have been has sown my head with gray hairs.”
However, The Ebb-Tide with its (to quote Stevenson again) “ugliness and pessimism” also seems one of his most modern works, and a sad reminder of what he might have gone on to produce.