Mr Peacock’s Possessions started life as a book in the Robinsonade tradition about a wandering 19th-century family who become the sole inhabitants of a small and incredibly remote South Pacific island, Raoul. It’s the stuff of Victorian juvenile fiction: the story of the Bells, a family of settlers of English origin who claimed an uninhabited Pacific island and made it their home for over 30 years.
It could’ve been written by R M Ballantyne, Johann David Wyss, or Robert Louis Stevenson. Yet remote Raoul is no fiction and Thomas, Frederica and their six small children were not shipwrecked, but became voluntary Crusoes. Raoul seemed to offer what Thomas Bell hadn’t found in several decades of wandering around New Zealand and Polynesia: fertile land that belonged to nobody else, and a chance to become monarch of all he surveyed. He was the ‘King of the Kermadecs’.
One journalist’s account published in the 1950s made the Bells sound like a real-life Swiss Family Robinson. The story I heard was less sanitised. The idea of family became the heart of Mr Peacock’s Possessions, and I began to think hard about the blinding effects of favouritism and obsession, the strengths and failures of sibling relationships, and the notion that every family is perhaps an island. I knew I wanted to see the island for myself.
Then called Sunday Island, Raoul (‘Rangitahua’ in Maori) is the largest of an isolated arc of tiny islands lying along the ‘Ring of Fire’ about halfway between New Zealand and Tonga. In February, I set sail for the Kermadecs on the HMNZ Canterbury, part of a Young Blake expedition organised by the Sir Peter Blake Trust, as part of the research for my book. We joined the New Zealand Defence Force’s Operation Havre, a resupply and repair mission for the handful of Department of Conservation workers who live on Raoul now, weeding out invasive species introduced by earlier settlers.
As Raoul came into sight, a masked booby hovered like a good omen: white body, yellow beak, black-edged wings. Terns and petrels swooped with impossible elegance over waves of ultramarine more intense than any of us had ever seen. And then we saw it. Cabin fever gave way to awe. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the flat blue silhouette barely visible on the horizon grew into something darker, greener, and more solid — the shape of a bumpy old crocodile. I began to make out ravines, high cliffs, and finally vegetation. Some hours later, the contours of Raoul’s central caldera revealed themselves.
For three years this island lived in my head. Solipsism now struck. I pictured ‘my’ island’s clifftops and beaches inhabited by my invented characters. Suddenly, it all felt wonderfully and terrifyingly real, and I recognised that my imagination could no longer lead this story. Now I’d visited it, I had a responsibility to honour and pay respect to this place, and the people who lived on it.
I had consistently imagined how a 19th-century child might feel seeing this wild, isolated and inhospitable place for the first time, after weeks on open sea. And as our ship veered closer and closer and the island’s magnitude and colour overwhelmed me, I no longer had to rely solely on my imagination. I felt as though I’d arrived at another planet.
Although we never set foot on the island, the vision I had of it from the boat seeped into me, and upon returning to writing the novel, I had a renewed conception of this story. I shared the Bell family’s vision of a new life, and some of their experience of this new world. Their courage astounded me, yet I was haunted by the silent fear that must have burned inside them all. Without my journey to Raoul I don’t think this book would’ve come alive. Staring into blue depths, shadowy greens and stormy skies, I shared something with this family, and they no longer lived purely in my imagination.
The story I told was not a Robinson Crusoe fantasy, but rather their unsanitised, astonishing truth.
Lydia Syson’s new novel, Mr Peacock’s Possessions, is published by Bonnier Zaffre (RRP: £12.99)
Published in the January/February 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)