London’s Lens and Tropical Tales

When I think of Jack London, I typically think of the snowy Klondike, sled dogs, and a little log cabin by the Oakland Estuary.  It is just recently that I learned more about his love for the rolling hills of the Sonoma countryside and his dedication to his land and property in Glen Ellen.  Yet Jack London…surfer?  This was news to me.  When a fellow Oaklander gave me the idea to look into Jack London’s South Pacific travels, I was intrigued.  I started to read about his love of adventure and sailing.  I learned more about his interest in South Pacific cultures; his desire to build the perfect vessel to sail around the world.  In fact, I have learned quite a bit about Jack London recently.  While inspired to share more over time, it is his taste for the tropics that I have chosen to focus on as our Bay Area summer has turned mild.  I dug around a bit and was connected to a source for images from Jack London’s personal photo albums.  An amateur photographer, London often carried a camera and was passionate about documenting his experiences.  It is clear that his cameras often traded hands as he moved from capturer to subject.  As I skimmed through picture after picture of his travels through the islands it was clear to me that even over 100 years ago, the lure of the tropics was too much to resist.

In 1906 Jack London started building a boat, a 45-foot long ketch, which he hoped to sail around the world over the course of seven years with his second wife, Charmian, by his side.  Delays, debt, and the catastrophic impact of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake prevented a departure that year, and the boat finally sailed out of the Oakland Estuary in April 1907.  Named the Snark, the namesake of a character from a Lewis Carroll story, the boat was plagued with problems from the get-go.  A head that broke within the first 24 hours, leaks, spoiled food, poor handling, and an inexperienced crew required London to think on his feet.  He taught himself the art of navigation while on board to keep his beloved vessel on course for Honolulu, Hawaii.  While the voyage was intended to allow time for writing, in part for a series of articles about the journey he was contracted to write for the Cosmopolitan, his time was spent wearing a variety of hats on board.

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London 14While the boat underwent repairs in Hawaii, the couple spent time enjoying the waters of Waikiki, exploring plantations, camping on Haleakala on the island of Maui, and becoming fascinated by the local’s antics on surfboards.  London’s curiosity about surfing led to the essay “The Royal Sport” and many say that his reflections on the sport contributed to surfing’s popularity on the mainland.  He spoke eloquently about the ocean and its riders in his non-fiction work The Cruise of the Snark:

“As I write these lines I lift my eyes and look seaward. I am on the beach of Waikiki on the island of Oahu. Far, in the azure sky, the trade-wind clouds drift low over the blue/green turquoise of the deep sea. Nearer, the sea is emerald and light olive-green. Then comes the reef, where the water is all slaty purple flecked with red. Still nearer are brighter greens and tans, lying in alternate stripes and showing where sandbeds lie between the living coral banks. Through and over and out of these wonderful colours tumbles and thunders a magnificent surf. As I say, I lift my eyes to all this, and through the white crest of a breaker suddenly appears a dark figure, erect, a man-fish or a sea-god, on the very forward face of the crest where the top falls over and down, driving in toward shore, buried to his loins in smoking spray, caught up by the sea and flung landward, bodily, a quarter of a mile. It is a Kanaka* on a surf-board. And I know that when I have finished these lines I shall be out in that riot of colour and pounding surf, trying to bit those breakers even as he, and failing as he never failed, but living life as the best of us may live it.”

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The Londons spent a week on the grounds of the leper colony on Molokai during their time in Hawaii.  He stated in The Cruise of the Snark that he expected it to be the “most cursed place on earth.”  He was pleasantly surprised, going on to share how he could not “help having a good time.”  He spoke to the unfair treatment the afflicted patients received in the sensationalized tales told in the press.  His curiosity about the disease is clearly evident in his writing, mostly in relation to its true level of contagiousness which was so feared at the time.  He wrote about the happiness he experienced amongst the patients in the colony, and also documented many cases through photos.

The Snark sailed from Hawaii on to the Marquesas Islands.  London was determined to follow in Herman Melville’s footsteps to glimpse life through his mentor’s eyes.  As a little boy, London was entranced by the tales shared in Melville’s first published book Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life.  He was fascinated by the culture’s roots in cannibalism and later humbled by the realization that Melville had imagined and romanticized the beauty of the Typee Valley; a jungle village wrought with disease stood in the place of the idyllic picture described by Melville.

London was clearly fascinated by members of island cultures, as he moved through the various island communities he captured images of men, women and children.  Throughout the pages of his album collection, you can see these century old images and they speak to the curiosity and wariness that the subjects must have been felt as a Westerner snapped his shutter.

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London 19Ernest Darling, aka “The Nature Man”, was of particular interest to London as the Snark turned its bow into the waters off Tahiti.  The story of Darling piqued my curiosity, reminiscent of what we often hear in food culture today.  On his death bed in Portland, Oregon, Darling chose to escape city life and chased the sun in an effort to cure his ailments.  Thought by many Western doctors to be insane, Darling spent time in and out of jail and asylums as he navigated his way to Tahiti via Los Angeles and Hawaii.  His home became a hilltop plantation he procured by squatting on the land.  He developed it into a working farm full of hundreds of fruit trees.  As described by London, “To live, he must have a natural diet, the open air, and the blessed sunshine.”  In perfect health and 65 pounds heavier than his former sickly self, Darling was the 19th Century example of what a plant-based diet can do.  Greeting his guests with a jar of honey and a basket of mangoes and bananas, Darling befriended the fellow Socialist and the two appeared to be inseparable for much of London’s time in Tahiti.  As London bade farewell, his final notes were once again poetic:

“Ah, me, Ernest Darling, sun-worshipper and nature man, there are times when I am compelled to envy you and your carefree existence.  I see you now, dancing up the steps and cutting antics on the veranda; your hair dripping from a plunge in the salt sea, your eyes sparkling, your sun-gilded body flashing, your chest resounding to the devil’s own tattoo as you chant…And I shall see you always as I saw you that last day, when the Snark poked her nose once more through the passage in the smoking reef, outward bound, and I waved good-bye to those on shore.  Not least in goodwill and affection was the wave I gave to the golden sun-god in the scarlet loin-cloth, standing upright in his tiny outrigger canoe.”

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London 41The Londons spent the last months of their trip exploring Samoa, Bora Bora, Fiji, and The Solomon Islands.  The onset of illness coupled with a disturbing introduction to the cannibalistic practices of warring tribes led London to title his albums from this stage of the voyage “The Terrible Solomons”.  Plagued by mysterious tropical disease and infection, London chose to bring the journey to an end.  A steamship ride to Australia led to convalescence in an attempt to get well.  Once improved, the couple eventually returned to Oakland.  Their return route involved a steamer voyage to Ecuador and then to nearby Panama to cross over to the Gulf of Mexico.  Once in the Gulf they traveled up to New Orleans and made their final leg via rail back to the East Bay.  Clearly their recovery reinvigorated their desire for adventure.

Of course many of the images found throughout the albums are of Jack London’s wife Charmian.  She is captured while laughing in the ocean, staring into a volcano, riding horseback along a cliff, and simply brushing her wet hair on the deck of the Snark.  Jack London clearly took pleasure in snapping pictures of his other half.

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While the Londons would travel to Hawaii once more in 1915 shortly before Jack’s death, they never set foot aboard the Snark again.  London’s journey across the ocean over 100 years ago, and his chronicle of it through essays and non-fiction work, brought to light the impact Western colonization had on local culture throughout the South Pacific.

My voyage through London’s words, images, and experiences cured my own tropical curiosity about this iconic Oaklander and his quest to explore the South Pacific.  His description of the landscape and the sea, of the people he encountered, while written in the context of the racial and cultural views at the turn-of-the-century, is still relevant and thought-provoking in 2016.  It sparked a conversation between my husband and I just last night; who is going to be the poetic adventurer of our generation?  Who is going pique the interest of our own offspring, and their offspring, to inspire them to look to history to learn more about the present?  Food for Thought.



The Cruise of the Snark, by Jack London, published in 1911
Celebrating Jack London: The cruise of the ‘Snark’“, by Clarice Stasz, Sonoma News 6/23/16
On high seas: Jack London’s photography on the cruise of the Snark“, by Philip Prodger, The Magazine Antiques.

Photo Credits:
With the exception of three images noted below, all images pictured above are scans of printed photographs from Jack London’s personal photo albums, now property of the Huntington Library.  I would like to thank Sue Hodson, Curator of Literary Manuscripts for Huntington Library, for her help and assistance as I dug through their digital catalog in an effort to share Jack London’s voyage on the Snark.
1st image in the first photo section of the post of the Snark docked in the Oakland Estuary – Courtesy of the Oakland Public Library, Oakland History Room
2nd image in the first photo section of the post, Jack and Charmian London pictured on board the Snark – Courtesy of the Oakland Public Library, Oakland History Room.
2nd image in the second section of images of the Snark dock in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii – Courtesy of the Oakland Public Library, Oakland History Room

It is important to note that while many of the photographs were likely taken by Jack London himself, it is likely that some may have been taken by Charmian London, or other crew members on the Snark.  In addition, three of the images in the collage at the start of the post are from souvenir postcards which were affixed inside Jack London’s albums.

I would also like to thank Anne Abrams of the Jack London State Historic Park for her guidance.

*In the quoted section from The Cruise of the Snark about surfing, London uses the term “Kanaka” which was a common term a the time which referred to native Hawaiians.  It was also a term used to refer to Pacific Island workers.  While sometimes used in a derogatory fashion, it doesn’t appear that London was using it in such a way.






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