Stevenson in the Pacific

This is the continuation of the long-delayed “In Hawaiʻi” series, which includes posts on Mark Twain, Herman Melville and John Coltrane. I called this one Stevenson in the Pacific because Sāmoa features so centrally in his story.

When I was nine years old, I visited Sāmoa (then called Western Sāmoa) on the way to Tonga. My family was at the Tusitala Hotel, and in the lobby was a picture of Robert Louis Stevenson that has always stayed with me in memory. Tusitala was a Samoan name for Stevenson, meaning “teller of tales.” The hotel was in Apia, below his hillside home of Vailima – five waters. (We visited another great writer in Apia, Albert Wendt.)  Vailima was described by the great writer Henry Adams:

a two-story Irish shanty with steps outside to the upper floor and a galvanized iron roof … squalor like a railroad navvy’s board hut …

And so was Stevenson himself:

…a man so thin and emaciated that he looked like a bundle of sticks in a bag, with a head and eyes morbidly intelligent and restless…

robert_louis_stevenson_c

Stevenson painted by John Singer Sargent

Stevenson sought a climate that would restore him to the health damaged from cold British winters, but I always wondered why he chose Sāmoa, as Pago Pago is, to this day, the most humid place I’ve ever been.

Thinking myself an adventurous nine-year old in 1981, I marveled at Stevenson adventuring to what was at the time an incredibly remote place. This was, in fact, what attracted him; he had considered living in Hawaiʻi:

Honolulu’s good – very good … but this seems more savage

I fancied myself following in his footsteps, moving to Tonga, but looking back, more likely, it was his stepson Lloyd’s footsteps I was following. I was familiar with his novels Kidnapped and Treasure Island, and of course Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde, and saw the difference between them and Sāmoa, a testament to his versatility. It was perhaps the insights in Jeckyll and Hyde, of “man’s” dual nature that gave him the ability to accept, then embrace Polynesian people and culture. The Biographer Rice said of his arrival in Sāmoa:

…at first … he is extremely nervous about their menacing appearance. ʻThere could be nothing more natural than these apprehensions’ he wrote for The Sun, ʻnor anything more groundless.’

(Rice, 1974, 109)

He was a vocal critic of Victorian hypocrisy, and “was not afraid to live as he wished,” marrying a woman ten years older than he who was probably part African American.

Stevenson took four trips with his family to the Pacific, and two to Hawaiʻi at auspicious moments; one before (1889) and one immediately after the overthrow of the monarchy (September 1893). And unlike other Europeans, Stevenson was a royalist and his sympathy was with the Queen. Upon landing in Honolulu he went directly to her and expressed his sympathies. He had already written at length about colonial activities in Sāmoa, criticizing Western powers right at the moment that Germany and the US were dividing Sāmoa in two.

On his first trip, Stevenson became friends with Kalākaua and Princess Liliʻuokalani. He also met another famous writer of his age who had visited Hawaiʻi, Mark Twain. He wrote to Twain from Sāmoa as it descended into civil war:

I wish you could see my ʻsimple and sunny haven’ now; war has broken out…

But his closest association was with his fellow Scot Archibald Cleghorn and, famously, his daughter Princess Kaʻiulani. He wrote to a friend, “how I love the Polynesian!” and seemed particularly fascinated that one of them, heir presumptive to the throne, was an Edinburgh Scot, like himself, on her “worse half.” The poem he wrote her before she left for an English education is fairly well-known:

Forth from her land to mine she goes,

The island maid, the island rose,

Light of heart and bright of face:

The daughter of a double race.

Her islands here in Souther sun,

Shall mourn their Kaiulani gone,

And I, in her dear banyan shade,

Look vainly for my little maid.

But our Scots islands far away

Shall glitter with unwonted day,

And cast for once their tempests by

To smile in Kaiulani’s eye.

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