Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Robert Louis Stevenson, writer, rich man, political activist – by Gary


Most people my age know of the author Robert Louis Stevenson (1850 - 1894); creator of romantic adventure books for young people such as his famous Treasure Island. Perhaps less well known; Stevenson spent considerable time living in the South Pacific, dying here in Samoa. His house and grave are on that island's tourist trail. But I'm guessing most know little of his active role in the politics of his day, taking on the might of large nations in defense of the rights of indigenous Samoans.  Of this latter I knew nothing until I saw a presentation by a high school student in US Samoa, it was a wonderful, startling eye opener.

Stevenson traveled the Pacific extensively, as he wrote in a letter to a friend:
“I have already visited upwards of forty islands in the South Seas; I have resided for a considerable time in no less than four different groups....”

Combined with his breadth of reading and liberal education, it gave him a keen appreciation of traditional Polynesian cultures, as well as the damage being wrought by European avarice.  As he wrote in his book A Footnote To History:
“More than a hundred years ago, and following closely on the heels of Cook, an irregular invasion of adventurers began to swarm about the islands of the Pacific.”

Arriving in Samoa he found greater cultural 'intactness' than in other parts of Polynesia.  Writing to another friend he says:
“[I]f you could live, the only white folk, in a [traditional] Polynesian village; and drink that warm, light [wine] of human affection and enjoy that simple dignity of all about you.....”

So falling in love with the islands and peoples of Samoa he decided it was a good place to settle and write novels.  Together with his wealthy wife Stevenson purchased land above the town of Apia, built a beautiful house, named it Vailima and moved in with assorted members of his extended family .  But he quickly discovered all was not well in his corner of paradise.  The three big powers with keen interest in that part of the Pacific, England, United States and Germany, were all circling, looking to take advantage of the island's high agricultural potential with good rainfall and high soil fertility.

In his warnings to the local Polynesians of the dangers they faced Stevenson spelt out four key practical ideas. In putting forward these ideas Stevenson was aware of the paradox.  If the Samoan way of life, the Samoan people were to survive, then the very definition of that way of life – fa'a Samoa – must itself adapt to new conditions.  His ideas are as follows:

  1. First that Samoans must recognise the present day for what it was – a time of crisis – a turning point, a time for determined, practical action.
  2. That Samoa, till then a clan/village based society with a long history of inter-clan fighting, must quickly develop a sense of national identity and unity to meet this crisis
  3. That Samoans must adopt white man ways, work harder and develop a national economy based on their own land resource, either that or others would do it for them – stealing their land resource in the process.  
  4. That Samoans must recognise the genocidal threats posed by European diseases and do what they can to protect themselves from it.

Stevenson was also very publicly scathingly of what he called the 'horrid white mismanagement' of Samoa's highest European officials and they in turn reciprocated, heaping scorn upon his meddling ways.  Her Majesty's High Commissioner of the Western Pacific (for Britain) became sufficiently concerned to issue the Sedition (Samoa) Regulation in an attempt to silence Stevenson.

Never a healthy person, Stevenson died suddenly at the young age of 44.  His advice to Samoans was at the time mostly un-taken.

Stevenson, his family, staff and friends at 'Vailima'.  Stevenson had previously written of an experience on a Hawaiian island:
“I have ridden there the whole day along the coast... and I saw the face of no living man... the villages had disappeared, the people were dead and gone; only [deserted church buildings stood] like tombstones over a grave, in the midst of white men's sugar fields."
Stevenson's house stood in a 300 acre estate.  Paradox upon paradox.

The beautifully restored Vailima of today, with Mt Vaea atop which he is buried behind.  Most of his estate has been returned to public ownership.

A rare copy of a Samoan translation of the novel Treasure Island.  Stevenson wrote it, Kidnapped and Black Arrow while living in Vailima as well as non-fiction works including A Footnote To History: Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa.

The interior of his house is quite beautiful and features Californian Redwood paneling.  His wife Fanny was a native of California.

The elegant bed chamber occupied by Fanny.

We were chuffed to make the connection with the framed picture on left, found displayed on a wall at Vailima. Stevenson's great grandfather was a famous Scottish engineer who designed the mighty Bell Rock Lighthouse (pictured under construction).  The book on the right, observed as a 'prop' in Stevenson's study, apparently proclaims another member of his clan a more contemporary writer.

Samoans turned out in large numbers to observe and participate in the burial of their beloved Robert Louis Stevenson. He was buried atop Mt Vaea above Vailima looking out across Apia.

A bronze plaque on the memorial includes his epitaph, self written:
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 gave 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.
_ _ _

No comments:

Post a Comment