In The Heathen, by Jack London, the narrator speaks of some Kanaka man, Otoo, whom he had met on a schooner:

And this I know: I lived a straighter and better man because of Otoo. I cared little for other men, but I had to live straight in Otoo's eyes. Because of him I dared not tarnish myself. He made me his ideal, compounding me, I fear, chiefly out of his own love and worship and there were times when I stood close to the steep pitch of hell, and would have taken the plunge had not the thought of Otoo restrained me. His pride in me entered into me, until it became one of the major rules in my personal code to do nothing that would diminish that pride of his.

Naturally, I did not learn right away what his feelings were toward me. He never criticized, never censured; and slowly the exalted place I held in his eyes dawned upon me, and slowly I grew to comprehend the hurt I could inflict upon him by being anything less than my best.

For seventeen years we were together; for seventeen years he was at my shoulder, watching while I slept, nursing me through fever and wounds--ay, and receiving wounds in fighting for me. He signed on the same ships with me; and together we ranged the Pacific from Hawaii to Sydney Head, and from Torres Straits to the Galapagos. We blackbirded from the New Hebrides and the Line Islands over to the westward clear through the Louisades, New Britain, New Ireland, and New Hanover. We were wrecked three times--in the Gilberts, in the Santa Cruz group, and in the Fijis. And we traded and salved wherever a dollar promised in the way of pearl and pearl shell, copra, beche-de-mer, hawkbill turtle shell, and stranded wrecks.

Now I found that "blackbird" can mean "to engage in the slave trade especially in the South Pacific", but he has said that "had to live straight"! So how can this be a straight act?

  • 1
    Why is this question receiving downvotes? It would be helpful if the downvoters could comment to explain how the question could be improved. Commented Jun 4 at 8:06
  • The Wikipedia article on the story says "It is noteworthy, for example, that the two friends are involved for much of their career in Blackbirding and feel no moral compunction about this activity." Commented Jun 4 at 9:02
  • @KateBunting I'm not sure if that's a reply to my comment, but if it is, how would you improve the question? The Wikipedia article says that this feature of the story is "noteworthy" but does not go on to provide an explanatory note. Commented Jun 4 at 11:52
  • @GarethRees - No, the comment was intended for the OP. I don't know when the story is set, but it's well-known that slave trading was regarded as a legitimate business for many years. Commented Jun 4 at 12:10

1 Answer 1


Literature, especially good literature, does not always tell you everything in a straightforward way. Sometimes the writer and the characters are not telling you the whole truth. Also literature is very much a product of its time. You have to think about the context. As well, sometimes the fun is working out the answer to questions like this for yourself. As such I won't give a definitive answer (which I don't know) but instead give some possibilities and let you sort out which you think is the real case.

  1. Consider that in 1910 when London was writing "blackbirding" might not have been seen as very immoral - or perhaps that London didn't see it as immoral. It wasn't actually slaving and so not technically illegal. London's works contain a certain amount of "rugged individualism", and some of them are literally dog eat dog.
  2. By having Charlie say that he was "getting straight" but also get involved with blackbirding might be London trying to tell you something about Charlie, and the morality he is espousing.
  3. In particular consider that principles that Otoo imbues into Charlie, i.e. what he means by "straight", might not be "virtue" (morality) but something else - discipline, courage, hard work? Those might be admirable traits, but are they the same as morality? Is the story about morality? Blackbirding clearly doesn't contradict Otoo's principles - and remember Otoo is himself a "native" of the people's who would have been blackbirding victims.
  • 2
    There's a description in the story of what "blackbirding" entails for the characters, which you might reference here. See the section starting, "Of numerous instances, let me give one." Commented Jun 4 at 8:01

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.