Thursday, August 18, 2011
Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa
Whenever people hear that I was born in Scotland, they ask, "Are you here to see Robert Louis Stevenson?" Before I can answer, they tell me why the Samoans love Stevenson "so much."
There is a small, but steady stream of RLS afficionados and experts who make the pilgrimage to his home and resting place on the tall hill overlooking Apia. A consumptive Stevenson, in search of a warmer clime for his bleeding lungs, arrived in Apia in 1889. To him it was "really a noble place."
He bought 400 of the most exquicite acres I have ever seen in Vailima and set about building a "home fit for angels." He succeeded magnificently. My heart ached when I first saw Hemingway's finca in Cuba; it broke with the pain of the beauty of Villa Vailima.
Stevenson was to make it just four years in Samoa before he died - not of the consumption that had plagued him most of his life - but from a brain haemorrhage and a stroke. When word of his death spread, the people of Samoa, led by the chiefs, began arriving at the homestead. Stevenson had let it be known that he had two wishes for when he died: to be buried at the top of Mt. Vaea, below, and to be interred in his boots, the ones that had trodden on Samoan soil.
So the villagers and the townsfolk came, hundreds of them, and began chopping a path to the top - The Road of Loving Hearts, as it is now known. It took them all night and much of the following day, but they managed it and then they took turns carrying his coffin to its final resting place. Today, without a coffin on one's back, it is a steep walk that can take up to 45 minutes.
They did this because Tusitala - the writer of tales - was important to them. Stevenson not only wrote with empathetic clarity about the Samoan culture, but he embraced it. When some of the chiefs who had been motivating against colonialism were locked up by the Germans, Stevenson went to visit them in jail. This brave act of solidarity was never forgotten by the Samoans. Nor was the respect with which he treated the locals, from king to laborer. He became involved in the local politics and gave advice to the many that sought it.
RLS had been a seafarer for much of his life. There in the Trade Winds of the southern seas, "my bones were sweeter to me." His lungs felt fuller.
Traveling was indeed in his bones.
"To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive," he wrote.
Until he made it to Samoa, which put anchors on his feet. He fell in love with Samoa, with its people and customs and with the hard work of clearing his land that he shouldn't have been doing and the peace it afforded him for the work he should have been doing: his prodigious writing.
"If I go out and make sixpence, bossing my labourers and plying the cutlass or the spade, idiot conscience applauds me; if I sit in the house and make twenty pounds idiot conscience wails over my neglect and the day wasted."
He would engage in physical exertions, side by side with the other workers, until he again began to spit blood and was sent to his sick quarters by his formidable wife. Thus ensconced, he would write, though none of his South Pacific works ever rivaled the success of his earlier books, which had made him one of the most famous writers of his time. He was just 44 when he died, having published 16 books, works of poetry and travel writing.
"This is a hard and interesting and beautiful life we lead now," he wrote from Samoa.
Indeed, he was in Samoa during turbulent times. A civil war between various factions was complicated beyond most understanding, but Stevenson wrote of it with blinding insight in "A Footnote to History." This was a work of such outrage at the incompetence of the European officials appointed to rule the Samoans that two of them were recalled. (Half of his royalties for this work was given to the Samoan people.) He viewed his new mission in life as explaining the glories of Samoa to his vast audience.
"No part of the world exerts the same attractive power over the visitor, and the task before me is to communicate to fireside travellers some sense of its seduction and to describe the life, at sea and ashore, of many hundred thousand persons, some of our own blood and language, all our contemporaries, and yet as remote in thought and habit as Rob Roy and Barbarossa, the Apostles or the Caesars."
The house itself has been nicely restored. After Stevenson's death, his wife sold it and it soon became the German Governor's residence after they took over Samoa. While it was a logical choice for the Germans, there was probably a certain, "Leck mich am arsch" sentiment in taking it over, given Stevenson's stance against their presence on Samoa. It remained a government building until being damaged by a cyclone in the 1990s. It had been constructed elaborately. The fireplace at right was never used - this is Samoa, after all - but was built to remind the family of Scotland.
His wife, Fanny, was from California. Her bedroom was built using Redwoods from her home state. The home, with many verandas cooled by the ever-present breeze, is a place of great peace. The verandas were his favorite resting places. The home today is filled with many of RLS's original possessions.
It is a testament to a life well-lived. An important life. A writer's life. But also to a man who could accept that different cultures saw things different ways and that those differences were to be embraced, not ridiculed or overrun by brute force.
And on his tomb are the words of Stevenson's that are most famous to Samoans, many having studied them at school. It was translated into Samoan and is still sung as a song of grief.
"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 sea,
And the hunter home from the hill."