(From The Wrecker by Robert Louis Stevenson and Lloyd Osbourne, Chapter XIII, Published 1892)

Passage 208

I could not hold still whether in hand or foot; the slowness of the men, tired as dogs after our rough experience outside, irritated me like something personal; and the irrational screaming of the sea-birds saddened me like a dirge. It was a relief when, with Nares, and a couple of hands, I might drop into the boat and move off at last for the Flying Scud. “She looks kind of pitiful, don't she?” observed the captain, nodding towards the wreck, from which we were separated by some half a mile. “Looks as if she didn't like her berth, and Captain Trent had used her badly. Give her ginger, boys!” he added to the hands, “and you can all have shore liberty to-night to see the birds and paint the town red.”

We all laughed at the pleasantry, and the boat skimmed the faster over the rippling face of the lagoon. The Flying Scud would have seemed small enough beside the wharves of San Francisco, but she was some thrice the size of the Norah Creina, which had been so long our continent; and as we craned up at her wall-sides, she impressed us with a mountain magnitude. She lay head to the reef, where the huge blue wall of the rollers was for ever ranging up and crumbling down; and to gain her starboard side, we must pass below the stern. The rudder was hard aport, and we could read the legend—



On the other side, about the break of the poop, some half a fathom of rope ladder trailed over the rail, and by this we made our entrance.

She was a roomy ship inside, with a raised poop standing some three feet higher than the deck, and a small forward house, for the men's bunks and the galley, just abaft the foremast. There was one boat on the house, and another and larger one, in beds on deck, on either hand of it. She had been painted white, with tropical economy, outside and in; and we found, later on, that the stanchions of the rail, hoops of the scuttle butt, etc., were picked out with green.

What does painted white with tropical economy mean there? The word tropical reminds me of sumptuousness and lavishness but economy of thriftiness and stinginess. So, in this context tropical seems to mean just the contrary, it seems to be a sneer actually - especially if you consider the last sentence.

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    'Tropical' here probably just implies 'typical of the tropical zone of the world', where, in the 1890s, European or American fancy decoration and painting would have been seen as a waste of money. Oct 20, 2023 at 13:04
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    In 1892 (and since) British ships sailed, and were based, all over the world, we had the largest merchant fleet in the world, and many spent most of their lives thousands of miles away from the United Kingdom, Hull ('Kingston Upon Hull) is just the port of registration. Many ships never see their port or country of registration. Oct 20, 2023 at 13:46
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    @MichaelHarvey - and today some ships can even be registered in totally landlocked countries that have no ports at all, such as Chad, which is literally in the middle of Africa/the Sahara
    – Billy Kerr
    Oct 20, 2023 at 15:15
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    @BillyKerr - In modern times a ship's owners may elect to register a ship in a foreign country so as to avoid the regulations, safety standards, taxes, labour and wage laws of the owners' country. Oct 20, 2023 at 15:20
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    The phrase "tropical economy" in the sense of a level of thriftiness only seems to appear in that one book, so I don't think a verifiable answer is possible, only opinions and conjecture. You'll have to guess at how the boat is painted, which seems limited to either very thinly, or lavishly -- and probably the first one.
    – gotube
    Oct 20, 2023 at 16:03

1 Answer 1


This phrase appears to me to make use of a degree of stereo-typing - "tropical economy" shows a degree of snobbery from the narrator, and implies that in more affluent areas something more complex would have been done.

There is a possibility, that the narrator is also/alternatively implying that the quality of the work is a bit low - again saying that it is typical of the area.

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