A colorful, if plodding account of five 19th-century strangers in paradise. Daws has a rich and perennially appealing subject, and he's done his homework on it, but both the individual biographies and the book as a whole meander instead of flowing, and buoy us up agreeably without taking us anywhere. As if groping for a solid unifying theme, Daws styles his characters ""Eminent Victorians of the South Seas,"" but there's nothing like Strachey's cynical indictment of an entire culture here. To be sure, the five lengthy sketches are placed against a broad (and somber) historical background--the foolish, frenzied, tragic age of colonialist adventure. This adequately sets off the pieces on Williams (a restless missionary who worked in Tahiti and Samoa before being murdered in the New Hebrides) and Gibson (a political troublemaker and demagogue active in Hawaii); but it gets only mediocre results with Stevenson and Gauguin, and fails completely with Melville. The Melville chapter, tediously slow-paced and full of irrelevant literary criticism, is by far the weakest. The others are pleasant, fully but unobtrusively documented, and sometimes quite engrossing. Daws ends with a marvelous symbolic encounter between Gauguin and a blind old woman in the Marquesas Islands. The woman, a dried-up, bent-over, tattooed apparition, completely naked, came hobbling up one evening to the artist's house. As he sat transfixed, she ran her clawlike hand all over his body and, grasping his penis, noticed it lacked the scars of supercision practiced by the Marquesans. "" 'Pupa,' she croaked--White Man,"" and scuttled off into the night. Lumpy, but nourishing fare.