Louis Becke (1859-1913)

A Biography
by Dirk H.R. Spennemann

George Lewis ('Louis') Becke was born on 18 June 1855 in Port Macquarie on the New South Wales North Coast, where his father, Frederick Becke, was clerk of Petty Sessions. Becke received little formal education before 1867 when the Becke's moved to Sydney and where he attended the Fort Street Model School.

Louis Becke in 1896 (From the frontispice to Pacific Tales)


At the age of fourteen he accompanied his brother Vernon to San Francisco on a trip lasting nineteen months, returning in July 1871. At sixteen he stowed away on the barque Rotumah bound for Samoa where he took a job as book keeper in the store of Macfarlane and Williams.

While in Apia, Becke met notorious blackbirder, buccaneer, swindler and general hell-raiser "Bully" Hayes. In late 1873 Becke was asked by his employers to sail the ketch E.A. Williams to Mili Lagoon in the Marshalls, where the vessel was to be handed to Hayes for onwards sale to a local chief. Becke sailed with Hayes for three months as Supercargo on the Leonora. Boxed in between whalers the vessel sank during a typhoon on Kosrae in March 1874. Becke survived the shipwreck, and after altercations with Hayes, found refuge in Leasse. When the British warship H.M.S. Rosario arrived in pursuit of Hayes, Hayes could evade arrest on a technicality. Becke, among others, was arrested and taken to Brisbane for trial. For lack of evidence and because he had managed to salvage a copy of the power-of-attourney by Macfarlane and Williams, he was acquitted of the charges of piracy. Staying in Queensland, he took part in the Palmer River gold rush, lived at Charters Towers, worked at Ravenswood Station (1877) and as a bank clerk in Townsville (1878-79). In early 1880 he took up a position as trader for Tom de Wolf on Nanumanga, in Kiribati, opening his own store in February 1881 on Nukufetau. He married Nelea Tikena of that island. He lost all his belongings in August that year in a shipwreck of the Orwell on Beru Island, Kiribati, departing from there in October, hoping to gain employment with Henderson & Macfarlane.

Instead, after a short period in Sydney, he worked in New Britain in February 1882 and worked for the German firm of Hernsheim & Co. in Majuro later that year. He returned to Australia in 1885. On 10 February 1886 he married Elizabeth ('Bessie') Maunsell of Port Macquarie. Land-based he worked as a contract draftsman in the Land Department in Sydney until the family moved to Townsville in 1888. Unable to deal with Australian life he again took a position as a trader in 1890. In January 1892 he returned to Sydney from Noumea. Unable to find regular work Becke and unable to get another trading station, turned to writing.

Becke in the Bulletin of 1895

Literary tradition has it that Becke was discovered by Ernest Favenc in a pub and took him to see J.F.Archibald, editor of The Bulletin. His first signed story,'tis in the blood' appeared in The Bulletin on 6 May 1893. As a result of his knowledge he was commissioned by T.A. Browne ('Rolf Boldrewood') to write autobiographical material in a narrative form to be used as background material for a novel Browne was writing. In the event Brown used much of this verbatim and unacknowledged in the central portions of 'A modern Buccaneer,' which appeared in 1894. Following the publication of this novel Louis Becke brought charges of plagiarism against Browne. The legal action argued by Becke's lawyer A. Banjo Patterson forced Browne to acknowledge Becke's part of the novel (from the one-volume edition onwards).

In 1894 Becke's first collection of stories, 'By Reef and Palm' was published in London and immediately went through several editions. A number of other collections soon followed. Despite his success, Becke was not wealthy. Rather, he was declared bankrupt in April 1894. He lived at Port Macquarie and worked on short stories, as well a several fiction and semi-fiction books collaborating with Walter James Jefferey. Two years later he separated from his wife Bessie, who twice attempted to divorce him (in August 1903 and 1910), and left for England, accompanied by his daughter Nora and Fanny Sabina Long (1871-1959).

Becke, despite his slight stutter the born raconteur, instantly became a celebrity on the British literary scene and was regarded, rightfully, as an authority on South Seas life. The Becke's were close friends with a number of colonial adventurers, such as Sven Hedin and Lieutenant Boyd Alexander, the later of Gobi Desert fame. In Suffolk, where two of his daughters were born, the Becke's had Rudyard Kipling for a close and friendly neighbour. Becke lived in Ireland in 1901 and in the north of France on 1903-1906. In mid 1902 he visited Jamaica and toured the east coast of the USA.

Becke in Jamaica 1902

He had already been partially involved in ethnographic research, having worked as the secretary of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia for several months in 1890. In 1908 he raised finance for an ethnographic expedition to the South Pacific, which collapsed because of personal disagreements in Fiji in 1909. On 22 July 1908, just prior to leaving for the South Pacific, he went through a form of marriage with Sabina Long at St. Pancras Register Office. In 1910 he was elected a member of the Royal Society of New South Wales.

By 1909 Becke had returned to Sydney. He again took up writing for the Bulletin, but continued to be short of pocket. Hounded by his creditors, with his fame gradually diminishing as the literary audience grew tired of the stories, Becke took to drinking heavily. Having spent the last two years of life ill and largely alone Louis Becke died of cancer on 18 February 1913 in his lodgings at the York Hotel, King Street. The contemporary press had it that he died at work, with the pages of a started manuscript scattered at his feet. Friends at The Bulletin arranged for a funeral at Waverly Cemetery.

Becke as a writer

Most of Louis Becke's work deals with the South Pacific. There he writes about the islanders and their interaction with the Europeans, traders as well as missionaries. Overall he takes a dim view of the 'civilising' influences of the European settlers, adventurers and traders. Many of his characters live a life freed from the conventions of their own society and often indulge in crime, cruelty and adultery.

Most his stories are printed yarns, dropping into a scene, telling the story, and fading out again.

A number of his stories have partly autobiographical character. A.Grove Day compiled all those stories in which the central figure is a 'Tom Denison', Becke's literary alter ego.

Becke's Oevre

Louis Becke commenced writing on a serious level as a means of supporting himself and his family. He published his short stories in a weekly newspaper (such as The Bulletin, The Town and Country Journal) or a literary magazine (such as Cassell's Family Magazine or The Strand) in the United Kingdom and, whenever possible, simultaneously in literary magazines in the United States. These stories were then collated into book form. Always in need of cash, Becke sold the copyright of his books to the publishers or to his agent, A.P.Watt. his works outright. His first and main publisher was T. Fisher Unwin, who put the volumes through many editions, both for the British and the Colonial markets, and then let the volumes be reprinted by other, smaller presses. In the U.S. market the distribution was predomianntly handled by J.B. Lippincott of Philadelphia with the exception of the volumes Becke co-authored with Walter James Jefferey. However, not all were also published in the USA.

Becke in London

In total, Becke published 35 books, six of which in collaboration with Walter James Jeffery (see Bibliography of Becke's works).

Several of his books, especially By Reef and Palm, The Ebbing of the Tide and the two books published by the Religious Tract Society (Tom Wallis and The Settlers of Karossa Creek) went through a number of editions. His main publishers, T. Fisher Unwin in the United Kingdom and J.B. Lippincott in the United States, joined for the occasion by Thomas Allen of Toronto, began to re-issue his books in 1924-1926 in a uniform style but did not complete the reprinting.

In addition to his fiction, Becke's oevre encompasses a large number of non-fiction items on the Pacific as well as book reviews of colonial subject matter, written for British papers such as the Pall Mall Gazette and the Westminster Gazette.

Becke in the non-Anglophone world

Unlike his contemporaries Joseph Conrad (also first published by T. Fisher Unwin in the same year as Louis Becke) or Rudyard Kipling, with whom he had often been compared, Becke had only limited appeal on the European continent. 'By Reef and Palm' was translated into German in 1901 and into French in 1903. Part of the lack of appeal to the German audience was the negative protrayal, if not stereotyping of German traders, against a background of German population engrossed in Imperial colonial ambitions. 'Pacific Tales' was translated (in part) into Swedish in 1898. Other Swedish editions followed in 1922 and in 1933 with two separate translations of 'Edward Barry', which was also translated into Finnish in 1927. In 1920 'Helen Adair' was translated into Dutch. More recent translations into German occurred in 1969 and into Portuguese in 1975 (both 'By Reef and Palm'), demonstrating that Becke still has appeal.

Selected publications about Becke and his work

Day, A. Grove (1966)
Louis Becke. Twayne's World Authors Series, no. 9. New York: Twayne Publishers.
Day, A. Grove (1967)
Louis Becke. Melbourne, Vic: Hill of Content.
Day, A. Grove (ed.) (1967)
South Sea Supercargo. Brisbane, Qld: Jacaranda.
Fitzgerald, John Daniel (1924)
Account of Becke's Arrest on a Charge of Piracy. Studies in Australian Crime. Series 1; Sydney, NSW: Angus & Robertson. P.115.
Gilbert, Mark (1977)
Literary Buccaneering: Boldrewood, Becke and The Bulletin. Adelaide, Australian Literary Studies Working Papers vol.2 no.2, p.23-35.
Ingram, Margaret Anne (1937)
Louis Becke, a Study. A thesis submitted for the graduate division of the University of Hawaii in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts, August 1937. Unpublished thesis no.159, Honolulu: University of Hawaii.
Lindsay, Norman (1955)
Louis Becke The Bulletin 7 September 1955; p.2.
Maude, Harold E. (1956)
Louis Becke, 1855-1913. The Writer Who Lived His Own Pacific Romances. Pacific Islands Monthly XXVII (3), 87; 111-113.
Maude, Harold E. (1967)
Louis Becke: the trader's historian. Journal of Pacific History 2, 225-227.
Michener, James A. and Day, A. Grove (1957)
Louis Becke, Adventurer and Writer. Chapter 8 of Rascals in Paradise. New York: Random House.
Miller, Edmund Morris and Macartney, Frederick T. (1956)
Entry 'Louis Becke' in Australian Literature. A bibliography to 1938 extended to 1950. Sydney: Angus and Robertson. Pp. 56-58.
O'Neill, Sally (1979)
George Lewis (Louis) Becke (1855-1913) in Bede Nairn and Geoffrey Serle (eds.) Australian Dictionary of Biography Vol. 7: 1891-1939. A-Ch. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press. Pp. 23-239.
Pembroke, Earl of (1894)
Preface to By Reef and Palm. London: T. Fisher Unwin.
Sturma, Michael (1997)
By Reef and Palm: sexual politics and Sea Seas Tales. Journal of Australian Studies 53, 108-119.

[Louis Becke Home Page]

Bibliographic citation for this document

Spennemann, Dirk H.R. (2000). Louis Becke (1859-2000). A biography.
URL: http://life.csu.edu.au/LouisBecke/Bio.html

Dirk H.R. Spennemann The Johnstone Centre, Charles Sturt University, P.O.Box 789, Albury NSW 2640, Australia.
e-mail: dspennemann@csu.edu.au