Friday, 26 July 2013

Robert Louis Stevenson, at home in Samoa

Vailima, the name of a house as well as the village, and the home for five years of Robert Louis Stevenson and his family in Samoa.


The house is airy and elegant, with high ceilings and wide verandahs. Upstairs, one room leads into another and the sash windows, overlooking the lawn, are wide open to catch the breeze. It must have been a beautiful place to live (although his mother, who apparently dressed like Queen Victoria, never stopped complaining about the climate.)

Robert Louis Stevenson arrived in Samoa in 1889 and died there of a stroke in 1894, but that was long enough to endear him to the Samoans. They held him in high regard, partly because he was on their side in their struggle for independence. I wonder if their affection for him was also connected to the fact that they saw him surrounded by family - his mother, wife, stepchildren and others, all of whom he supported by his writing, despite his ill health. Family is so central to the Samoan way of life. They must have sensed that here was a man who held fast to the same values that were so dear to them.

robert louis stevenson

Robert Louis Stevenson with his family and household on the verandah at Vailima, 11 May 1892.
In the back row are Joe Strong (husband of Belle, Robert's stepdaughter) with a parrot on his shoulder, Margaret Stevenson (Robert's mother), Lloyd Osbourne (Robert's stepson), Robert Louis Stevenson, Fanny Stevenson and Simi the butler.
In front of them sit Elena the laundress, Taloja the cook, Belle (Isobel, Robert's stepdaughter) and Austin Strong (Belle's son), Lafaele the cattleman and Tomasi the assistant cook.
At the front are Savea the plantation boy, Arrick the pantryman and another boy.[/caption]

It is over 100 years since RLS lived and died in Samoa, but the drawings and photographs on display make him seem much closer. You can stand on the lawn, looking at the steps leading up to the house, half close your eyes and imagine the family sitting there.

File:Stevenson vailima.jpg

RLS and family at Vailima. Left to right: Mary Carter, maid to Stevenson's mother, Lloyd Osbourne, Stevenson's stepson, Margaret Balfour, Stevenson's mother, Isobel Strong, Steveson's stepdaughter, Robert Louis Stevenson, Austin Strong, the Strong's son, Stevenson's wife Fanny Stevenson, and Joseph Dwight Strong, Isobel's husband[/caption]

RLS was a man of letters, of many and varied accomplishments, impossible to pigeonhole or categorise. He wrote poetry (A child's garden of verses), classic adventure stories like Kidnapped and Treasure Island, novellas like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and travel stories like Travels with a donkey. He was often in poor health (constantly searching for a better climate because of his tuberculosis), but he worked so hard, wrote so many books, travelled so widely and supported such a big family so uncomplainingly. He was brave, resourceful, funny, enthusiastic and likeable. You can tell that because he once donated his birthday to a 12-year-old girl who was upset that her own birthday fell on Christmas Day. He wrote a letter transferring his birthday to her, saying that he  no longer had need of a birthday and that she would make a much better day of it.

When he died, the local Samoan men cut a path through the bush and carried his coffin to the summit of nearby Mt Vaea. We had been warned to set off early, but the track itself proved to be almost as much of a problem as the sticky heat. A cyclone or two had roared through recently, and tree trunks had fallen and blocked the path. The view from the top, over Apia, was impressive -

View over Apia

but by the time we had scrambled over or under the fallen tree trunks, we were so hot and exhausted that everyone had to lie down for ten minutes before we could raise the energy to look around.


The inscription on one side, in Samoan, uses the special name they had for him: Tusitala, teller of tales. According to the website of the RLS Museum, it says "O Le Oli'olisaga o Tusitala "( "the happy resting place of the Writer of Tales") and contains two verses in Samoan from the book of Ruth ("thy people shall be my people.")

RLS's grave

The other side carries his famous poem, Requiem, which he had had written years before but requested to have on his grave:
Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from the sea.
And the hunter home from the hill.

At one end is his inscription for his wife Fanny, who died in California in 1914. Her ashes were returned to Samoa so she could be buried beside her husband. "Teacher, tender comrade wife," it begins, "fellow-farer true through life."

Both inscriptions are strangely moving. It's true that RLS was here at Home, surrounded by the family he loved, in a land he had grown to love. But he was also such a very long way from Scotland, his other and first Home - almost as far as he could have been, right on the other side of the world.

 We had the site to ourselves for about twenty minutes before anyone else (hot, panting and red-faced) arrived. One of them climbed over the grave while his friend took a photo, and for a moment I felt affronted on RLS's behalf. But later, when we saw children in a village playing on the family graves beside their house, I wondered if it just reflected the Samoan attitude to death and burial, and I was glad I hadn't said anything at the time.

RLS's house and garden

Mt Vaea, looming over Vailima. Both well worth the trip. Robert Louis Stevenson, friend of Samoa and a fine writer.

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