Frisbie of the South Seas

Robert Dean Frisbie went to Tahiti in 1920, a young veteran of the First World War drawing a veteran’s disability pension because of his weak lungs. It was his intent to submerge himself in the slow, delightful current of the island life, just as it was his aspiration to write books of escape. But he tens often at odds with himself and sometimes in difficulties with the white authorities. It was Frisbie’s good fortune to become fast friends with JAMES NORMAN HALL, and the friendship served him as a beacon in the dark days after the death of his native wife, Nga. when Frisbie found himself alone with the care of their children. The story of this friendship, so sympathetically told by Mr. Hall, is being published in three installments, of which this is the second.



THE dread of dying while his children were still small became for a time a kind of obsession with Frisbie after he losl Ids wife. But his next letter, written ten weeks after Nga’s death, showed him in a wholly different mood. He thought that he had abandoned the literary career for good and all. and a great weight seemed to have been lifted from his heart.

PUKA PUKA, March 25th, 1939
Robert Dean Frisbie, who might have risen to the sunny heights of Literature, has sailed off the mountainside using his pareu for a parachute. The Divine Afflatus has breezed away to parts unknown. A dozen times I’ve tried to record my impressions of Samoa, but they don’t impress, blast them! I’ve tried to rewrite my novel, Javan Moonlight, and I find that it’s all moonshine. So I said, “The hell with it!” and would have chucked my typewriter in the lagoon except for the fact that I needed it to write this leller, telling you how relieved and happy I am; or, if not blissfully happy, reasonably cheerful and optimistic.
I’m fed up with Puka Puka. I must have confused my love for Nga with love for the island. With her death it has lost every atom of its glamour. Even Matauea Point, that I used to think a paradise, is now nothing but an uninteresting sandbank.
Johnny and I plan to go to Tahiti by the next ship. We have a little money and will try to pick up a small boat, very very cheap. Probably a Tuamotu cutter, between thirty and thirty-five feel over all. With a little boat and my $50 per month, we should get along handsomely. I am certain that as soon as I have my boat and am able to go where I please, I will he able to do some A No. 1 writing. It’s out of the question trying to write any more about Puka Puka, I have, as the reporters say, covered the place.
If I find that I can’t make a living by writing, I will use the boat as a little trading vessel —a kind of sea pedlar. All the islanders like to buy off a ship. They will pay more for a tin of tobacco or a bar of soap or a few yards of dress goods from the traderoom of a ship than they will for the same articles in a store. I remember a pedlar in the foothills of California who made his rounds twice a year. He had a covered wagon in which he slept and cooked and had his store. His goods were no better or cheaper than those in the local stores, but people would wait to buy from him. Why? For the novelty of the thing, maybe.
Well, I know I can make a go of being a sea pedlar. I’ll stock up in Suva, or Sydney, or Singapore, and then wander all over the Pacific. And Hall, think of the literary material I’ll gather along with the profits of trading! The Saga of a South Sea Pedlar — the book is as good as written, and I don’t see how it could fail to be accepted. I remember what Edward Weeks wrote: “There are months when the Atlantic cries aloud for good graphic humor such as this.”There will be any amount of it in my Saga, and “a delicious mixture of past and present ” as well, for I will be voyaging from islands where the people are still in the Stone Age to others where they have progressed to the — what? Call it the Film Age.
It’s got to be done! My ideal is a boat on exactly the lines of Captain Slocum’s Spray: 36' over all, 14' beam, 4' 6" draft. I wouldn’t have a bigger one if you gave it to me with a pink ribbon tied to its crance iron. If I could have a 10 h.p. engine I’d be mildly pleased. If I can t, I’ll get along without power. After all, Caplain Cook, who was as much of a South Sea trader as he was a navigator, had no engine. Anything that Kuki-Tané could do, Ropati-Tané can do.
You’ll be saying, What about the family? I’ve got that all planned. The headquarters will be Suvorov Island. I think and dream about Suvorov so much that it ought to be called Frisbie’s Island. As I’ve told you, it’s uninhabited. I will leave the kids there, with Heathen William and old Mama to look after them. Think of the happy life for them! I’ll take Whiskey Johnny with me for the first trading voyage; then each of the others in turn.
I’ll be seeing you in Tahiti, maybe before this letter reaches you. Set your mind at rest about one thing. I solemnly swear that I will not shout a single drink all the time I’m in Papeete. But I will, graciously, accept drinks from you. Only one at a sitting. Never two.


HE DIDN’T come. I was eagerly looking forward to the visit, for we had not met since 1933 when, after his first sojourn on Puka Puka, he had returned to Tahiti, bringing Nga with him. Their daughter Florence, whom he always called Whiskey Johnny, was born in the Papeete hospital. My daughter, Nancy, was three years old at the time of Whiskey Johnny’s birth and, of course, didn’t remember her; but she had heard a good deal about her in the meantime from me. She looked forward to meeting Whiskey Johnny at the time of this proposed 1939 visit, though naturally not with the same interest that her dad looked forward to meeting Whiskey Johnny’s dad once more. But they didn’t come.

Months later I received two letters from Frisbie, dated April 1st and May 20th, 1939, but there was no explanation as to why the proposed visit had been abandoned, nor was there any mention of The Saga of a South Sea Pedlar. That dream, I believe, was born while he was writing the March 25th letter, and faded before he reached the end of it. The letter of May 20th read: —

There is a Burns Philp trading vessel here but she brought no mail, so I have no pleasant letter from you to reply to. However, another ship will be here in July, bringing Viscount Galway, Governor General of New Zealand. I suppose it will be a warship. I have applied for passage on her, for Johnny and me, to Samoa. If I am turned down I will rig up a reef boat and Johnny and I will sail it to Pago Pago, which is only a little over three hundred miles. From there we will turn our steps to Honolulu, and maybe to Tahiti. After the warship comes, there will be no other ship until June, 1940.

I have received word that Farrar & Rinehart have accepted Javan Moonlight for publication. This the first of a trilogy. The second, Javan Moonlight’s Journey, I am sending up by this mail. The third will be a grand book called The Saga of William the Heathen. Then, let’s hope, I will be able to have my boat.

The apathy displayed in the letter, despite the heartening news that the Javan Moonlight tale had been accepted, was revealing. I could read between the lines the words Frisbie had lacked the heart to set down in black and white: “Hall, what a silly thing it was, writing that March letter! I couldn’t buy a six-foot skiff, to say nothing of a boat thirtylive feet over all, and if Johnny and I had gone to Tahiti we’d have had to swim there. But. it did ease my heart to write the letter.”

His next letter, dated June 18th, 1939, was written under gloomy circumstances.

We are in the midst of a damnable typhoid epidemic. Five have died so far, and one of my daughters escaped death by a hair’s breadth. I am, of course, officially in charge of all the cases, which now number thirty severe ones and numerous mild ones. Among the cases I have treated, all have survived so far; the deaths occurred among those who prefer native doctoring. I can’t expect to keep up this record though. The Resident Agent’s family are all down on their backs. I suppose I’ll contract it by and by; then the island will be in a mess.

I have been rereading Pitcairn’s Island, hoping to learn the sailor diction of the mutineers and blandly transfer it to my own Volume III — The Saga of William the Heathen. You know, when I read this “classic” — I can flatter when I please — of drunkenness, rape, and murder, I see that the world is only a larger edition of Pitcairn. The mutineers had a little paradise; they could have made it what they would, and they turned it into a shambles. Whatever Man touches he turns into ugliness. This is not a very original thought, but it can stand repeating daily, hourly, until he becomes so vividly conscious of it that he turns his thoughts to beauty.

While I am on this subject of the Bounty Mutiny, tell me, when you next write, why Metro-GoldwynMayer have not filmed the Pitcairn Island part of the tale. Insofar as that goes, why haven’t they made a motion-picture trilogy of the story? What a chance! First, the Mutiny part, already done; then Men Against the Sea, and then Pitcairn’s Island.

Lord! If only my Javan Moonlight trilogy — when and if it is completed — could be sold to the movies! Then I could build my boat. But I won’t dream about that. The Saga of William the Heathen could be filmed if I can keep from spoiling it with too much introspective musing. But the other two — not a hope. I hope they will publish the whole of the Moonlight story. It looks to me now as though it will run to half a million words.

I haven’t heard from Houghton Mifflin Company. I’ll let you know if they write.


I WILL explain the reference to Houghton Mifflin Company, the Boston publishers. I had reached the point where I was almost as deeply concerned in the matter of “the little ship” as Frisbie himself. He had been dreaming of it for more than fifteen years and I wanted to help him make the dream come true. So, during a brief sojourn in the U.S.A., I consulted Mr. Ferris Greenslet, Literary Director of Houghton Mifflin Company. I knew that Houghton Mifflin gave literary “ fellowships” to struggling writers, financing them to the extent of $1500 for some piece of work of which it approved. I hoped to get one of these fellowships for Frisbie, but I had not consulted him in advance about it. Mr. Greenslet was sympathetic, but when he asked mo what kind of book Frisbie might write I couldn’t tell him. I hastily suggested a book under some such title as The Letters of a South Sea Trader. Mr. Greenslet thought tins might be a suitable project for a fellowship and gave me the application blanks for Frisbie to fill out and return, together with his outline of the contents of the proposed book. I mailed these to Frisbie with an explanatory letter.

Frisbie was fired by the idea. He filled in the application blanks and sent, them to Houghton Mifflin Company, and, as stated in the June 18th letter, was still waiting to hear from them. When he did, he was “sunk.”

They fill a man with hope and then write him a brief and extremely cold note. I can do the book of letters and do it well, but I am not going to waste my time on it when I have no warmer interest than Mr. Greenslet shows. But what I think of the Houghton Mifflin fellowship and what I think of your devotion to my interests are two different things. I am simply annoyed that Mr. Greenslet should lead you on to putting yourself to a great deal of trouble for my benefit and then write me a brief, cold, and somewhat supercilious letter.

Evidently, this got his dander up. He decided to write the letters anyway.

PUKA PUKA, undated
I have just finished 130,000 words in letters. That damned book that you hatched is written. It is a masterpiece. It recaptures all the youthful enthusiasm of The Book of Puka Puka but does a better job of it. Perhaps it is Nga’s last present to me. Perhaps, through her death, she has given me a new, youthful outlook on life, a new (unwanted) freedom that has been reflected in the book. I here is nothing of the Moonlight superficiality and pseudo-sophistication in it. It is simply a happy-golucky idyl of atoll life, told from day to day, as things occur, with no attempt to be spectacular, or profound, or literary.
Concerning present-day Puka Puka life, you’ll get your fill of it when you read the letters. I have no heart to write any more on the subject. It. is enough to say that there have been no changes.

The abrupt change in mood in the second paragraph of this letter prepared me for the one that arrived six months later.

I am not sending the Letters manuscript either to you or to the publishers. What a pair of fools we were: you to suggest them and I to write them! I take back what I said about Mr. Greenslet. He is a man of sense and good judgment, the head of a fine publishing house. And yet I was sore because he hadn’t written me some such drivel as Oh, Mr. Frisbie! We’re simply thrilled by your prospectus for the book of letters! We know they’re going to be wonderful, and I can scarcely wait until I see the manuscript! ”

The letters are simply awful! Thank God I didn’t have the manuscript ready to send by the last ship. You and I know, or should know, that, good letters cannot be written to order. At any rate, Mr. Greenslet knew. I’m not blaming you — don’t: think it. I am blaming myself. The woodenness, the lifelessness, of the first few letters should have convinced me of the impossibility of such a task. Letters are life itself. They can’t be manufactured — not even by a man who wants a boat more than anything else in the world.

When I think about some of my abortive efforts at writing, il comforts me to remember the time, back in the early twenties, when you went to Iceland to write the book for Harper. You kept sending us idiotic poems in your letters. One day Nordhoff and I and several others were sitting on the Bougainville Club veranda reading our mail. Nordhoff read us a poem you had sent him called “A Winter Evening,” or some such title. It was about a meal you’d had in an Iceland farmhouse where they gave you a whole boiled sheepshead and a glass of schnapps for your supper. Nordhoff read it. without cracking a smile. Then he said: “It’s a bad sign when Hall gets to writing crazy verse. It means that he’s in a jam and can’t get on with his serious work.” And I remember that you never did finish the Iceland book.

PUKA PUKA, August 20th, 1939
I have learned that to preserve one’s sanity it is important to forget one’s wife. At first I thought I was callous in trying to do so. I reached the point where I could no longer visualize her face. Then, after long yearning to dream of her, the dream came. I woke up with a keen and not at all morbid desire to commit suicide. Had it not been for the children, I know that I would have walked quietly to the medicine chest and taken morphine with infinite pleasure. That dream taught me why my brain has, mechanically, as an act of defense, blocked off thoughts of Nga; kept the widower sane by not permitting him to visualize her face. She died on January 14th, and it was the night of June 23-24 that I dreamed of her. She was not dead; we were about to sail for distant parts and were obliged to leave all our portable property behind us — very evident symbolism.
After Nga’s death it was supposed that I would marry again. I was expected to, not for my own sake but for that of the children. Suitable wives were pointed out. I was advised, encouraged, even coerced. It was believed that no man could possibly bring up four little children. I didn’t agree. I failed to see why a man cannot bring up children as well as a woman, and now, after seven months experience, I know that he can. All this “only a mother knows” is rubbish. A man is quite as capable as a woman, though usually he is loo lazy to take on the job.
Of course, I prefer to lie on the beach, smoke a pipe, and meditate. But I can forgo such indolent pleasure if, otherwise, it means the boredom of a wife I do not love — a utility wife.
I am fond of toddlers, but this is not sloppy sentiment. I feel genuine concern over their troubles, and I watch them develop with amazement. I find a certain crafty pleasure in devising methods by which they can be trained in such a way that they enjoy being trained, and at the same time I am not overfatigued. For instance, making them wash their faces and comb their hair each morning.
At first I thought this impossible. Perhaps one hundred times I told them, ordered them, begged them to go to the bathhouse each morning to wash their faces and brush their hair. If I had been clever I would have learned, after the first forty or fifty times, that the method was faulty, but it took at least one hundred failures to teach me. Then I hit on the following plan.
Night. We are in the one immense mosquitonet, standing on our heads, yelling, hula-hula-ing, fighting, wrestling, and in other ways behaving like normal human beings. Suddenly I holler: “Johnny!” She turns a couple of somersaults to land on top of me, “Stand up!” I snarl. She does so. “Are you going to wash your face and comb your hair the first thing tomorrow morning?" I ask.
“ Yes, Papa,” she replies.
“Are you going to dress yourself neatly and say, ‘Good morning, Papa’?”
“Yes, Papa.”
“Okay,” I say. “Now tell me what you are going to do.”
Johnny replies: “In the morning I’m gonna wash my face, comb my hair, dress neatly, and say, ‘Good morning, Papa.’”
“Good girl,” I say. “Good night, Johnny.”
“Good night, Papa,” says she.
Then I call the next toddler, in the harsh tone he knows so well: “Hardpan Jake! Come here!” He hops across the mat on one leg, comes stiffly to attention at my feet, and repeats what Johnny has said.
Next I call Elaine, who is naturally a serious child. She goes through the speech a trifle selfconsciously and timidly.
Ngatokoruaimatauea is too young to speak English correctly, but she waddles up just to be one of the gang, giggles and makes a quacking noise, and then returns to her section of the sleepingmat.
Next morning all four rise earlier than usual, so impatient are they to play the game. When they have washed their faces, combed their hair, and dressed neatly they slip noiselessly inside the mosquito-net and line up at my feet. Johnny tickles me till I waken; then, in earsplitting unison, they yell: “Good morning, Papa!”
The lesson had to be repeated a few times, but only a few, and they have been taught other lessons in the same way. It works like a charm. I pass my method on to you, Hall-Tané, so that you can amaze Sarah and the neighbors by the ease with which you train Miss Nancy Ella.


THEN came World War II. I heard Mr. Chamberlain’s announcement of the beginning of hostilities via the radio, at one o’clock, Tahiti time; but it was much later that the news reached Puka Puka. Frisbie’s next letter was dated Puka Puka, November 12th, 1940.

I hope that you are still among the living and still on Tahiti; that you have not succumbed to the Faustian madness and gone to war — at your age. I am eating coconuts and fish on Puka Puka, but preparing to leave soon for Fiji. I have read nothing about the war since the news came that. Pétain had asked for an armistice. Such information as I do get. comes from old William. “Plenty bomu-bomu in Lonidoni,” he tells me. Lonidoni is, of course, London. William has a vague notion, at least of what a bomb is. He knows that. it. falls from the sky and makes a fearful noise when it hits the earth. “Bomu-bonnt . . . whang! Too much bomu-bomu in Lonidoni. Haw, haw, haw!”

I am going to Fiji in the schooner Tagtta, which is carrying lepers from Penrhyn Island to the leper colony at Makongai, Fiji. I am losing my mind, of course, which is the reason I will travel on a leper ship. I am not really crazy or demented, but I am losing contact with the Faustian Culture and entering into the Magian Culture of Puka Puka. It’s true. I find myself continually thinking in Puka Pukan, and it requires an effort to shift back to English. When a man thinks in a new language he enters into the culture of that language. I have discovered all this by reading the two volumes of Spengler’s Decline of the West. I wonder if it is possible for me to live anywhere else? I’m afraid not, but I’m going to Fiji to find out.

I am taking Johnny (Florence) with me, also my branch storekeeper, Araipu. Araipu has 300 pounds, I have somewhat less than 100. If we find a boat for sale cheap in Suva we will buy it. I have written to Farrar & Rinehart and to the Atlantic Monthly for an advance on future work—total, $2500. If they come through I will certainly buy the boat. Araipu and I will convert it into a Sea Pedlar. He is shrewd and tightfisted and will make a good supercargo. I will be captain and navigator. Araipu will make money while I write of things of the spirit. We expect to take cargoes of mats to Honolulu, where there is a good market for them. Mats that can be bought on Puka Puka at 4 cents a foot, retail in Honolulu at 22½ cents a foot. We will buy trade goods with the proceeds, to sell on Puka Puka. It’s not a grand money-making scheme, but it should keep us in beef and biscuits — and, maybe, pay for some schooling for my children, in Honolulu.

Six weeks later he wrote from Suva, Fiji. Once more his hopeful plans had gone to pot. Everything had promised so well, he thought, but he’d been too optimistic. He had found a boat in Suva that would have been okay for the sea-pedlar business between Puka Puka and Honolulu, and had taken an immediate option on it, but the publishers had turned him down, cold. Now the option was about to expire and he would expire with it.

He then told me that the book of Letters he had written had not been destroyed as it should have been, but had been altered to Journal form and now Comprised The Saga of Mr. Moonlight. A man wanting a boat so badly was compelled to compromise with his literary conscience. His references to the half-million-word Moonlight trilogy were very confusing. In some letters he spoke of it as finished and the complete manuscript sent to his publishers. In later letters he was still at work on it. Ilis titles for the three parts of it changed from letter to letter. I gave up trying to grasp the nature of its contents. I decided that he must have been telling the plain truth when he wrote, in the letter of October 7th, 1937: “The thing is too big for me; it has gotten out of hand. By ihe time I was halfway through I’d forgotten how it started.”


THEN came a long period without news. The next letter, undated, was written from Puka Puka. The unhappy experience at Fiji seemed to have been forgotten, the memory of it stored away in some unused corner of his mind to gather thickening veils of cobwebs.

As the years slip by I shuffle off all the dross of mere acquaintanceship and cling to the few real friends with whom I have something in common. I had, to begin with, a measurable capacity for friendship. Now, with middle age upon me, the few friends are fewer. I have not only more room for them, but a greater capacity to appreciate them. In old age, if there is but one friend left, I hope it may be you. Please keep writing even though my letters come only at widely separated intervals.

It seems odd to me that even you, after all these years, should ask why I persist in living on such a lonely atoll as Puka Puka, with a trading schooner coming only once or twice a year, and without (thank God!) another white man on the island. I seem to have known the answer for years, without even thinking of it.

Yesterday evening I was sitting on the Point of Yato. My mood was contemplative; physically I scarcely existed; spiritually I was in harmony with my surroundings. I enjoy activities conducive to contemplation; for example, the making of sails and fish nets. I can tie or stitch all day long, with scarcely a thought of what I am doing, but with each knot or stitch conjuring up some picture, or a series of them that bring felicity to the mind. I travel the Arabian desert with Doughty, or, perhaps, the countryside of England. I argue with my three favorite thinkers, Bergson, Spendler, and Pareto. I enjoy in retrospect actual experiences that gave me pleasure, and still more those lived vicariously in the pages of George Borrow, De Quincey, Marcel Proust, Keats, or Villon.

I am not physically lazy, but I find most recreations distasteful. I enjoy sailing my canoe, for although it is too exciting to allow one to slip into the contemplative mood, yet I experience the illusion of life in this canoe. For the same reason I love to build houses, but when they are finished they move from time into space, from becoming to become. Therefore, I soon abandon them and build again.

At Puka Puka I can spend each afternoon in the lagoon, with water goggles on, swimming from coral head to coral head, stopping to stare at peculiar growths, outlandish creatures that look like butterflies, or lead pipes, or balloons, or most anything except what they are. I like to invent sentences to describe these things — sentences that I carry home and write down, souvenirs of these journeys into a world that seems so strange and unreal to us humans.

The same applies to walking through the groves, or to fishing beyond the reef, and even more to trolling under sail, with a light beam wind, the four miles to and from Frigate Bird Islet. In this last there is an illusion of life created, if you can call it that, by the sailing canoe. There is the mild expectancy of adventure, ample time for my thoughts to skim along as tranquilly as the canoe itself — until a barracuda takes my hook or it is time to come about on the other tack.

Take the economic side of the question. Even when I am penniless I still eat, sleep under a roof, have an occasional bottle of mangaro beer. My income of $50 per month corresponds to that of a millionaire in the U.S.A. I have many servants: a washerwoman — when we have soap to wash with — old Mama, my head cook, two fishermen when I am too lazy to fish for myself, two women foodgatherers, two youths to climb coconut palms, gal her firewood, carry water, and paddle my canoe when the breeze fails. And, best of all, old William the Heathen, my private bard and comedian. Of course, one person could do all this work, but why should he? I do not have to feed any of my servants save old Mama, and I do not have to clothe them or house them. Their wages come out of the fixe pounds per month I pay to Central Village to attend to all my wants. Moreover, here people like to work in pairs, and they are apt to sneak off somewhere to sleep if there is too much to do. The other day an old man said to me: “My work today will be sharpening my knife.” He took the whole day to do it, too!

And then Ropati went on to describe the nature of the relationship that exists — or should exist — between a white man living alone on such an island as Puka Puka and the native inhabitants of the place. It explains why he was able to make such a success of it, and reveals the understanding he had of native character.

A white man in these islands must not go native. It is a pleasant thought to dally with in civilization, a disastrous one to put into practice. When a white man goes native, the people brand him as being no better than themselves. Now, probably, he is no belter; but if he goes native he will not be as good, and he will soon find that the natives look down on him. Why shouldn’t they? He cannot compete with them in their own culture; he cannot catch a fish as well as they, climb coconut trees, catch a turtle in the open sea — he can perform none of their tasks anything like as well. If he t ries to do these things he makes himself ridiculous; plainly, he is inferior to the natives. But he can, by living as a white man, prove his foreign culture to be, in many ways, superior to the native culture, and this he should do. I don’t mean that he should dress for dinner, sleep in a brass bedstead, or that he should refrain from a fishing excursion or a turtle hunt. I mean only that, in his general altitude, he should remain true to his race.

Natives want to be proud of “their” white man, as they call an epicurean beachcomber like myself. They are disappointed if their white man does not live up to expectations. They want to admire him, brag about him, serve him in the grand manner, He must wear ns good clothing as he can afford, shave often, never allow himself to get down at heel. He must demand instant obedience and never admit himself in error. He will then live happily, and the natives will respect him.

On the other hand, it is of the utmost importance that a white man never ridicule “the heathens,” never sneer at them or in any way humiliate them. If he does this he is lost. He must remember that, in the last analysis, they are not glorifying him but glorying in themselves. They elevate an erstwhile potato farmer to the status of an Eastern potentate, not because of his intrinsic worth, but because he becomes a prestige symbol for them. Let this potato farmer openly despise them, and the fictitious value they have given him vanishes at once. No matter how much money he may have; no matter how gorgeous his striped pants or his red silk shirt, his name, thenceforth, is Mud.

If all the while men who have “ jumped ship” in the South Pacific — whet her exploring ship, whaler, sealer, Botany Bay transport, man-of-war, private yacht, or luxurious cruise ship — could have had Ropati’s almost instinctive awareness of native character and his perception of the natives’ attitude toward white men, and if they could have profited by it, what a difference it would have made in the relationships between whites and Pacific islanders, whether Polynesians, Micronesians, or Melanesians.


I WAS in the U.S.A. with my family during the whole of 1940 and until May, 1941, when I returned to Tahiti. During this time Frisbie and I lost touch with each other. Civilian wartime mails in the Pacific were completely disorganized; letters went astray, or suspicious censors would hold them up for weeks or months. Frisbie often sprinkled Puka Puka words and expressions through his letters, and the censors may have believed that these were code words conveying some sinister meaning if only they could discover what it was. I received a note from Frisbie with no dale, but having a Rarotonga, Cook Island, postmark, which read: —

I don’t know why you haven’t heard from me, but your note makes plain why I’ve not heard from you. No more excuses about not knowing where I am or whether a letter will reach me. Letters addressed to Rarotonga will always be forwarded, and if Rarotonga is cut off, address me, simply, Ropati — South Seas. I am now so famous that mail is sure to catch up with me eventually, just as my reputation does.

It was nearly a year later that I heard from him again.

SUVOROV ISLAND, January 15th, 1942
Glance at the top of this page! It’s a fact! we’re here on Suvorov—I mean, Frisbie’s Island — Johnny, Jakey, Elaine, Little Nga, and the old man. Rut, alas! not in the wished-for boat. We left Puka Puka in a sea louse called the Taipi, Captain Cambridge. We Puka Pukans knew nothing about Pearl Harbor; in fact, we had heard no war news of any kind during six months until the Taipi arrived on New Year’s Day. The Taipi is a fortyfoot ketch. I brought my canoe along. Now here I am with the children, living once again an idyllic life on the loveliest, loneliest atoll of the Pacific. But wherever I look I see the spirit of Nga and recall the three happy months that we spent together here. I think it was Stevenson who wrote that there is no happiness to be compared with that of living out-of-doors with the woman you love. I learned the truth of that when Nga and I were here. Now I see her gentle spirit, so tangible to my own spirit, yet so intangible to the flesh.
The children are very happy. They all line the fringing reef with their fish poles and bring in whoppers. They swim in the lagoon, go hunting sea birds on the sand cays, turtle stalking, and coconut-crab hunting. A few days ago we sailed six miles across the lagoon to spend the night on one of the other islets; and the place was so lonely that, for the first time in my life, I felt a touch of panic at the extreme isolation. Today we sail to another islet, five miles distant in another direction. My sailing canoe adds immensely to our happiness. It isn’t the boat, of course, but it gives us the freedom of the whole Suvorov lagoon and the misty islets threaded along the encircling reef. I wonder if we should be so carefree and happy when the faraway world is in such misery.
But the war, at least, is not so far away. Shortly after the Taipi had sailed we saw a distress signal at sea and went out to investigate. We found nothing, but next morning two war planes flew low over the island. We nearly died of amazement and fright. I don’t know what their nationality was, for we hid under the thickest of the bush, only to hear the deafening roar of their engines and to catch glimpses of the terrible things not more than two hundred feet above our heads. It was as though the end of the world had come, and maybe it is the end — of the world we have known.

SUVOROV, January 30th
Work Inis stopped dead. This life is too healthy and natural for me to turn to artificial literary work. Mavbe I could write some articles though; they are less artificial than Action. What do you say? Shall I write one of the journey on a leper ship to a leper island? One on Fiji and one on Samoa? Okay; maybe I will. I would have already if I’d thought I could sell them.
I have my $50 pension and about £10 in cash. I have my four children and a servant girl to help look after them. And I’ve got Suvorov. But I haven’t got my boat. The dream has come true, all but that. After years of wanting it, working for it, scheming for it, I have come to the sad conclusion that there is only one way of getting it. You know how Government immorality has corrupted private morality everywhere in the world this past generation and longer. Consider any Government you please, although France is, probably, the most corrupt of the lot; they repudiate their debts internationally as well as those owing their own people.
Well then, I am going to abandon my private standard of morality and adopt that of a great and powerful state. As a matter of fact, I already have. I left Puka Puka owing Burns Philp £245, plus some £45 elsewhere in Samoa. I have to discover some balm to ease my conscience, for it is hopeless even to think of paying these hills. I never can. I write and write until my last spools of ribbons have no more ink in them; then I wet them with ammonia and manage to get a little more use out of them. For all my good bad resolutions I find it difficult to put them in practice. I find myself, in thought at least, typing this over and over on my machine with its inkless ribbon: “Now is the lime for Jaxan Moonlight Frisbie to write something that will enable him to pay his debt to the Burns Philp Company,” And I do write something. And that’s all the good it does me.
Hall, forget your own private standard of morality. You are living in a French colony where most of the fonctionnaires, from the Governor down, have no more morality than so many jackals and alley cats. Take an example from them and steal me a boat. A Government boat; they have some, I know. But one not more than thirty-five feet over all. You have at least one unfulfilled dream: the Adventure in Solitude. Well, fill my boat with your provisions for the Adventure in Solitude and sail it to Suvorov. It’s a perfect place for the Adxenture. You can go to the islet I mentioned, six miles across the lagoon, where I had a touch of panic because of awe-inspiring loneliness. We’ll get you settled there, with all your provisions; then I’ll clear out in my boat with the children and come back to Suvorov six months or a year later, whatever lime you want for “Solitude at its best and purest.” I’ve got to have my boat, and remember: theft isn’t what it used to be. Governments have made it customary and normal.


AND now Frisbie, forgetting everything but the joys of the present moment; forgetting even his children, so he said, seitled down to one of his periodic “ bouts” of uninterrupted reading. He had brought with him, among his other favorite books, Villon’s Poems, Montaigne’s Essays, and Charles Lamb’s Letters. What he particularly loved while reading was the contrast between his own actual surroundings and those of the author of whatever book he held in his hands. He gave such complete and absorbed attention to what he read that he lost all awareness of present time and place. When he glanced up from the page, François Villon’s fifteenth-century Paris, or Charles Lamb’s London of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth, would slowly fade from view and he would again find himself sitting in the shade of one of the ancient tamanu trees on Suvorov, looking out over the great lagoon; and he would hear the faint cries of the sea birds and the far-off thunder of the surf along the windward reefs.

“As I lay my book aside for a moment I become vaguely cognizant of present-day Suvorov, while in spirit I am still in Lamb’s London, with Manning, Coleridge, Hazlitt, George Dyer. Then I hear Johnny’s voice, and Jakey’s. A mingled feeling of surprise and pain comes over me: surprise because I begin to remember that I am on an island in the South Seas; pain because, for an instant, I feel that I have been neglecting my children — neglecting them since August 22nd, 1800, when Lamb’s priceless letter to Manning was written. I have been neglecting my children for the one hundred and forty-two years it has taken me to return to them. Perhaps they have forgotten me. Now I shall have to renew their acquaintance and coax back their friendship.”

One day he glanced up from his book to see a cutler “rounding the point of Turtle Islet.”

I couldn’t believe my eyes. For half a minute I thought it was you coming in with the boat I’d asked you to steal for me in Papeete; but as the letter I’d written you was still here, that glorious conjecture had to be abandoned. I ran for my binoculars. When the boat rose on a crest I could see a man standing at the starboard shrouds and another at the wheel. Both, like good sailors, kept their eyes ahead, and this took courage, for every moment or two a great sea would surge up behind the little boat, lift her stern until she was all but standing on her bowsprit, fling her forward a few yards, then roll under to set her on her stern until the bowsprit was pointing to the zenith.

The boat was the Vagus — “the finest little vessel I’ve ever seen, heard of, or dreamed of.” Frisbie then filled two pages, typewritten, with a description of the boat. (This appeared later, in almost the same words, in his book, The Island of Desire.) John Pratt, an Englishman, was the owner. He had come from England via the West Indies and Panama, making ihe passage from Panama to Rarotonga, in the Cook group, in eighty-odd days. Later, at lonely Palmerston Island, he was joined by Ronald Powell, an old friend of Frisbie, who was to pilot him to Suvorov and other islands of the northern Cooks.

Only a few days after the arrival of the Vagus, Suvorov Island was all but destroyed by one of the worst hurricanes that had ever crossed that part of the Pacific; but Ropati and his children survived it.

Frisbie’s January letters from Suvorov, and a third, written six weeks after the hurricane, reached me at the same time.

I am now in a position to say that you and Nordhoff, in your tale The Hurricane, described with great fidelity to truth precisely what happens on a lagoon island struck by such a storm. I am surprised that you could have done this without, yourselves, having gone through the frightful experience. The Frisbies know now what it is, and so do our companions in disaster. There were thirteen of us in all. Despite the supposed unluckiness of the number, no one was lost. It seems incredible, but so it is. Jimmy, one of the Manihiki natives here with the surveyors, was through the Hikueru hurricane in which nearly five hundred were drowned. He says that the Suvorov hurricane was even worse.

It had been blowing great guns all day — this was February 19th — and the sea was an awe-inspiring sight. At night we thought we were in the worst of it. Half of Anchorage Islet, where we were, was flooded, and several hundred trees were down; but the wind at that time was only a zephyr. At 4 A.M. on the 20th, the sea began sweeping completely across the land in waves no more than a foot deep at first. I took Little Nga on my back and ran with the other children to the reef boat, which we had made fast to a stump at the highest part of the islet. We were no sooner in the boat than out of the darkness came a sea about six feet deep, moving as fast as an express train. It swamped the boat and nearly capsized it. The miracle is that the children weren’t drowned, it came so suddenly; any but Puka Puka kids would have been swept into the lagoon. When the wave had passed we fought our way in pitchdarkness, with the deafening roar of sea and wind in our ears, to the biggest tamanu tree on the island. I managed to get the children up the tree before the next sea came. I lashed the four of them to the biggest limb about twenty feet up.

Then came sea after sea, crashing across the island with incredible speed and violence, carrying before it trees and huge masses of coral torn from the reef. Our clothing was, actually, torn from our bodies. We scarcely knew when dawn came, for the wind picked up masses of green sea and threw it across the island in solid chunks. Hall, some of those seas touched our feet, and we were twenty feet up! They and the wind destroyed nineteen out of every twenty coconut palms, and all but five of the tamanu trees: the one we were in and four others within a few feet of us. These five stood because they were close together, with their roots interlocked. But nearly every limb of the five was broken off except the huge one we were lashed to. One limb nearly eighteen inches in diameter at the butt crashed down between Elaine and Jakey; there were not four inches to spare on either side.

Well, we were in that tamanu tree, continually drenched and shivering with cold, from 4 A.M. until two in the afternoon. Then the wind shifted from northeast to north-northwest, and it seemed to break the seas, for no more washed over the land. About four o’clock we were able to climb down and start groping over the island, or what was left of it. The wind still blew at sixty or seventy miles, but it seemed only a breeze after what we’d had. We huddled in the lee of a great pile of trees and coral fragments. When night came the rain poured down, and the next day, and the next night. We had no clothing except what was left on our bodies. We ate raw fish the seas had washed up, and we had plenty of coconuts, for, in the center of the island, seas coming from all directions had formed a heap of trees, coconuts, dead birds and fish. On the third day the sun came out and we saw for the first time what had happened.

Fourteen islets — one of them, Mann, being the largest on the reef — were swept completely away; there was nothing left but clean coral reef. Six islets remained, but half of their land area was gone. Anchorage Islet, where we were, had been reduced to three rubbish-strewn sandbanks. We lost everything we owned except my typewriter and — glory be! — some typewriter paper which I had stored in the safest place I could find. Pratt’s boat, the Vagus, is gone. Not a stick of her has been found.

About this same time I received a letter from Captain Andy Thomson of the Schooner TiaréTaporo. Captain Andy’s schooner belonging to A. B. Donald & Company was, usually, the one that called at Puka Puka twice yearly.

Schr. Tiaré Taporo, RAROTONGA, June 13th, 1942
Just a note to let you know that we arrived here May 14th. Have made a couple of trips around the Lower Group. Day alter tomorrow we leave for Manihiki and Rakahanga. You probably haven’t hoard from Frisbie, so I’ll give you the news.
Suvorov was practically washed into the sea by a hurricane that hit it in February. Frisbie and his youngsters were there at the time. An Englishman by the name of Pratt arrived at Suvorov in his little yacht just before the big blow. He is now here on Rarotonga. He told me they survived by taking to the trees. There were five white men, three natives from Manihiki, and Ropati with his four children. Frisbie had built him a platform in the biggest tamanu tree on the island, where it was cool and breezy and a suitable place for him to write. This platform was, undoubtedly, the means of saving their lives. Pratt told me that the seas swept over the highest part of Anchorage Island to the depth of fifteen feet. Some photographs taken by a man who called at Suvorov a week after the blow show the main island half washed away, all the underbrush entirely gone; nothing left but sand and gravel. The fronds of what palms were left are just rags. Seven trees down out of every ten would be a conservative estimate.
Pratt said that when dawn broke and the wind began to moderate he took stock of himself. His khaki pants and shirt were torn to tatters. Dazed and exhausted, he put his hand in the pocket of the good side of his trousers and was much surprised to find there a handful of American dollar bills. His yacht and all his belongings had disappeared. They never found a trace of the yacht.
What an experience for Frisbie and his children! It’s a good thing the kids were Puka Puka born and bred. I don’t believe any white children could have lived through what they did.
Frisbie decided to stay on at Suvorov with the children. What a man! The schooner Tagua went to their relief; she must have called there about a fortnight ago. I sent Frisbie some milk, onions, potatoes, etc., by the Tagua. He may have gone with her to Rakahanga; if so, I will be seeing him there in about ten days.
Knowing Frisbie, my guess is that, even in the midst of all that hell, he was thinking: “I’ll make some publisher pay dearly for this if I survive and get around to writing about it!”

(To be concluded)