“The Tapu of Banderah" A Short Story by George Louis Becke (1897)
Author of over thirty books
George Lewis Becke (1855 to 1913) was born in Port Macquaire, New South Wales, Australia of English parents. He did not enter school until he was 12 and at age 14 he and his brother traveled to San Francisco. At age 16 he stowed away on a voyage to Samoa. For two years he worked in Samoa as a book-keeper. At age 18 he met the infamous Captain Bully Hayes, a legendary south sea swindler, near pirate and infamously a "blackbirder". In the slang of the time a "blackbirder" was one who captured south sea natives and sold them into slavery. For about a year Becke cruised the waters of the Salomon Islands and New Guinea with Captain Hayes. Upon return to New South Wales Becke was unable to obtain employment that suited him. He had become friends with a contributor to The Bulletin and he began to submit stories loosely based on his South Sea Adventures to The Bulletin. In time he was to publish over 30 books, mostly collections of stories, about the adventures of Australians in the South Seas. In the strictest sense Becke is not a bush or outback writer. Given this, the same forces that drove many to live and work in the outback of Australia drove others to very dangerous work as sailors and offshore traders.
"The Tapu of Banderah" takes place on an island off shore from New Guinea. A trading ship has landed to sell supplies to the local missionaries and Australian traders who have colonized the island and converted the natives to Christians. Just as the ship is about to depart the deeply exploited near enslaved natives rebelled and began, running amuck and killing all the Caucasians they could find. Becke's style is straightforward story telling. I found his prose a pleasure to read, clear and crisp. There is a bit of local slang but I like learning new words. "Tapu" for example is a Polynesian expression for a repelling hex. A lot of the feeling for life on the island, as seen by the missionaries, is conveyed in this passage:
Following the lead of the “devil−doctors,” who, stripped to the waist, and with their heads covered with the hideous masks used in their incantations, looked like demons newly arisen from the pit, the yelling swarm of natives at last reached the fence outside Blount's house; and Mr. Deighton, with an inward despair saw among them some of his pet converts, stark naked and armed with spears and clubs.
"The Tapu of Banderah" lets us get a feel for the terror the Australians must have felt while not overlooking the deep irony in their creation of the situations that were so fraught with danger for them.
This story and others by Becke can be read HERE.
Becke is a good writer of adventure stories that keep our attention. I think if I had lived in Australia in the late 1890s I would have been very happy to see that The Bulletin had another George Louis Becke story in it. I have previously posted on five writers, Barbara Baynton, Henry Lawson, Andrew "Banjo" Patterson, Marcus Clarke, and Rudd Steele in my Australian Bush Writers Reading Project. I am including George Lewis Becke in this project also even though he was a writer largely of sea tales. His stories are of the same era and show the same spirit and my guess is many an outback resident escaped in his stories.
My primary source of information on the life of Becke is the Australian National Dictionary of Biography.