Departing Hawaii on October 7, 1907, after what can only be considered a disaster first leg of the journey, The Snark headed toward the Marquesas Islands, located two thousand miles southeast. A course challenging enough due to contrary trade winds made even more difficult with a broken engine. When the crew of The Snark failed to report in on schedule, The New York Times front page read:
SAN FRANCISCO, Cal., Jan. 9. — Friends of Jack London, the author, are beginning to feel alarmed over his failure to arrive at the Marquesas Islands, which he was expected to reach early in December. London left Hilo, Hawaii, Oct. 7 last in his little boat, the Snark, for Marquesas, and is about a month overdue.
But, as planned—and defying odds—they had arrived sixty long days later at the bay of Taiohae, fulfilling a lifelong dream of London’s, who, as a child, had been fascinated with the book Typee (1846) by Herman Melville. Yet, what he found was far less romantic than the picturesque beauty of Melville’s account; the people withered by ailments such as consumption and leprosy, the grounds depleted, and landmarks overgrown. London pointed a sharp finger at the culprits.
Life has rotted away in this wonderful garden spot, where the climate is as delightful and healthful as any to be found in the world. Not alone were the Typeans physically magnificent; they were pure. Their air did not contain the bacilli and germs and microbes of disease that fill our own air. And when the white men imported in their ships these various micro-organisms or disease, the Typeans crumpled up and went down before them.
Within these entries, London’s ethnocentric views begin to creep in, with a bit of hypocrisy as well, which becomes even more apparent when coupled with Charmian’s own journal that was published later in 1915 as The Log of the Snark:
After lunch Jack and I went forward with our rifles, and shot at the numerous birds fishing in the olive current of the channel. It was my first shooting at moving objects, and, considering that the aiming was from a plunging boat, I didn’t do so badly, for I got three boobies on the wing, two or three more that were just rising, and ruffled the feathers of others. Also, I struck a bonita which instant up-bellied, and as instantly disappeared among its ravening brothers. I tried porpoises, and they immediately grew shy and came seldom to the surface. And we fired at a small whale, but it quickly sank out of danger.
It's surprising that the Londons couldn’t see—how could they not—that they were the latest scourge to play sportsmen from the boat’s deck in a place he himself had long admired from afar. Still, the locals treated them like visiting royalty, preparing a massive feast. But when descendants of the cannibals Melville had spoken of drew near, a lump in Jack’s throat must have formed:
From a distance came answering cries, in men’s voices, which blended into a wild, barbaric chant that sounded incredibly savage, smacking of blood and war. Then, through vistas of tropical foliage appeared a procession of savages, naked save for gaudy loin-cloths. They advanced slowly, uttering deep guttural cries of triumph and exaltation.
What were the vociferous natives bringing to eat? Human flesh? Or were they coming to cook up The Snark crew? In keeping with the spirit set by Melville’s Typee, there’s an attempt to hype the encounter, but all that results are them dining with a few of the “savages.”
Sailing on to Tahiti, London described the islanders as being made up of “… thieves, and robbers and liars, also by several honest and truthful men and women,” and so he was pleasantly surprised to bump into an old pal he’d met in San Francisco years before: Ernest Darling, aka The Nature Man. London was so taken with The Nature Man that he devotes an entire chapter to him, recording a history that would otherwise be forgotten. A real goofball who’d come to the islands seeking a healthier lifestyle and shelter, he told London how he’d had been practicing the art of levitation in order to fly over bordering properties and reclaim his stake of land that had been cordoned off by others. Despite “healthier living,” The Nature Man passed away in 1919 at the age of forty-seven.
Friendly receptions continued with their stop at Raiatea of the Society Islands—where they picked up a new crew member named Tehei, a fisherman who’d acted as their guide—and the neighboring Tahaa, where the people offered a “Polynesian giving feast” of fruits, livestock, etc. London became worried that the overabundance would weigh down The Snark, and although that didn’t occur, they did lose many of the provisions as items slipped off deck, including a pig. When they reached Bora Bora, they accompanied the locals on a fish drive, called stone fishing, and learned, to their chagrin, that as the guests of honor they would receive ALL the fish caught.
The Snark meandered on, visiting Fiji (where Captain Warren was replaced) and Samoa. London found hospitality most everywhere, taking in local customs and promoting the simple life the natives embody. At first.
All that changed in one happenstance in the Solomons (“the rawest edge of the world”) when The Snark hit a reef and opportunistic “savages” came from out of nowhere to pilfer the maimed ketch, having to be held off with weapons. Later, when dynamiting fish, they exchanged fire with bushmen on the shore. Maybe, to a modern way of thinking, there’s something admirable about an indigenous population who are probably a bit pissed that visitors to their shores are acting in such a manner.
The real threat to The Snark crew wasn’t so much hostile encounters as it was sickness. London quipped that he may write another book titled Around the World on the Hospital Ship Snark because of all the diseases plaguing members of the crew, including Solomon Island Fever, ulcers described as “venomous” (particularly painful in the open sea air), yaws, and dysentery. He writes, “One and all, they are afflicted with every form of malignant skin disease.” And it wasn’t just the crew being hit hard. In the essential Wolf: The Many Lives of Jack London by James L. Haley, the writer was also suffering. He had a skin condition resulting in swollen feet and hands, and he had developed two fistulas in his rectum.
The ending to The Cruise of the Snark seems to peter out like an old recorder running out of tape. They made waves for Australia, where London spent five weeks regaining his health, but it was only temporary. Five years later, on November 22, 1916, a life of adventure came to an end when Jack London died at age 40 in Glen Ellen, California from complications of alcoholism, uremia, and likely the tropical diseases he’d picked up while traveling aboard The Snark. For a man who prided himself as being one of Darwin’s fittest, the conclusion must have come as a blow to his sense of white male superiority.
In 1904, Mark Twain claimed to have hit upon the right way to finish his autobiography that he had been struggling to complete, on and off, for thirty years. Twain wrote:
Make the narrative a combined diary and autobiography. In this way you have the vivid things of the present to make a contrast with memories of like things in the past, and these contrasts have a charm which is all their own.
He also recommended talking of things that interest you in the moment because, regardless of how far you become removed from the happening, it still lends an ear of immediacy when rereading.
Jack London’s style of writing in The Cruise of the Snark adheres to Twain’s guidelines. He composed a great deal of the text that became Snark while on board—in the moment—coupled with afterthoughts when the voyage had ended, and thus, London’s adventure to sail around the world in a 45-foot boat is quintessentially modern 105 years after it was published. Open to the first page, and Jack London is ready to begin his adventure, again and again.
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David Cranmer is the publisher and editor of BEAT to a PULP. Latest books from this indie powerhouse include the alternate history novella Leviathan and sci-fi adventure Pale Mars. David lives in New York with his wife and daughter.