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By Reef And Palm
by Louis Becke
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George Lewis/Louis Becke (1848-1913) was an Australian short-story writer and novelist. He began his voyages in the south seas at a very early age and there are two accounts of these beginnings: one by the Earl of Pembroke, who presumably obtained his information from Becke, which is prefixed to By Reef and Palm (1894), and the other written by Becke. It is difficult to reconcile them, and all that is certain is that Becke spent many years on vessels trading in the Pacific islands. Becke went to London, and he remained in Europe for about 15 years, during which time a large number of collections of short stories and a few novels and stories for boys were published. He was fairly paid by the magazines for his stories, but he always sold his books outright. About 30 of Becke's books are listed in Miller's Australian Literature with six other volumes written in collaboration with W. J. Jeffery.
From the Back Cover
A Fictional Journey to the Lands of Paradise
This small collection of "yarns" about life in the Pacific Islands launched Australian author Louis Becke into whirlwind celebrity with its publication in the late 1890s.
A former trader, sailor-and some say even pirate-Becke knew the islands of the South Seas as few authors ever have. His tales force us to behold the exploitative nature of the European impact on the natives and on the land. At the same time, his stories hold lessons about the clashes that occur when cultures are counterpoised in their views, and how each works in its own inevitable way to change the other.
A. Grove Day said of him: "He merits a secure place in the literary history of the Pacific, primarily because his very lack of polish reflects the rude and lawless period in which he lived. . . . In his ability to end a story with some apparently irrelevant afterthought, which somehow sums up the entire yarn, and the age, and the ocean, too, Becke is without comparison."
When delivering a ketch for his employers, Becke, just 18, met notorious slaver, buccaneer, and swindler "Bully" Hayes. He sailed with Hayes for three months as "supercargo" until Hayes ship, the Leonora, sank during a typhoon. Becke survived the shipwreck, and left Hayes, but a British warship pursuing the pirate arrested Becke and others for trial in Brisbane. Fortunately he had salvaged a copy of the power-of-attorney from his employers and was acquitted of the charges of piracy.
While in Queensland he took part in the gold rush, but by age 25 he had the urge to wander again and became an employed trader on Kiribati, then opened his own store in February 1881 on Nukufetau, and married a native girl.
After losing all his belongings in 1881 in a shipwreck near Beru Island, he left both islands and wife to seek a job with his first employer, but instead landed in Sydney. By 1886 he was married again to a native Australian, Bessie Maunsell, and was working as a draftsman until moving to Townsville in 1888. Once again the urge for the islands came over him, and he took a post as a trader from 1890 until 1892 when he returned to Sydney.
Unable to find another post as a trader, Becke turned to writing. Traditio n has it that publication of his first story, "'Tis in the Blood" was the result of acquaintances he made in a pub who put him in touch with an editor of a weekly paper. Shortly thereafter he was asked to write autobiographical material for T.A. Browne (writing under the pseudonym Rolf Boldrewood) which Browne would use as background material for a novel. However, Brown apparently used too much of the material verbatim, and Becke brought suit against Browne in a case that was argued successfully by Becke's lawyer, another famous Australian literary figure, Banjo Patterson.
In 1894 Becke's first collection of short stories was published by Unwin in London under the title By Reef and Palm. Other collections soon followed, but Becke's habit of selling his copyright, and Unwin's notoriously poor payment practices, combined to leave Becke relatively poor despite his success. Forced to declare bankruptcy in 1894, he separated from his wife in 1896 and left for England. There he became a celebrity on the British literary scene, renowned for his conversational ability as a story teller. He became friends with many colonial adventurers, including Rudyard Kipling.
Always poor and always restless, Becke moved around Great Britain, lived in Ireland for a year, and in France from 1903-1906. He also took trips to the U.S. and Jamaica during those years, and then returned to the South Pacific in 1908 after remarrying. By 1909 he was back in Sydney, but he still impoverished and constantly hounded by creditors. His fame diminishing as well, Becke began to drink heavily and spent the final two years of his life mostly alone and battling cancer. He died in 1913.
In some ways it is difficult to assess the literary contribution of Louis Becke. His prose style is not up to the polished standards of giants such as Conrad or Melville, but his knowledge of the world in the South Seas produced a vivid record of cultures clashing and the inevitable results.
According to Becke expert Professor Dirk Spennemann of Charles Sturt University, "In 1957 James Michener and A. Grove Day devised a series of questions to identify those who really knew the Pacific. The only useful question to ask, so they felt, was to name 'best writer about the Pacific,' as there was only one 'correct' answer: Louis Becke."
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