‘Wide and Starry Sky’

If you travel to the British Isles in search of the grave of the author of Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, you will be disappointed. You won’t find it in the coastal town of Bournemouth, where Robert Louis Stevenson lived for a time, nor in London, which he visited frequently, nor in his native Edinburgh. Rather, it’s in the South Seas, on the slopes of Mount Vaea, a three-mile hike outside the town of Apia on the Samoan island of Upolu. How Stevenson ended up in Samoa—and not only stayed but became deeply involved in the lives of the native islanders and politics of the region—is the story of Joseph Farrell’s excellent book Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa.

When Stevenson arrived in Samoa on December 7, 1889, with his American wife, Fanny, they had no plans to stay. They had left San Francisco a year and a half earlier with Fanny’s son, Stevenson’s mother, and a Swiss maid for a long cruise around the Pacific. The sea air would be good for Stevenson’s health, and he would write articles on the region and collect material for a book on the South Seas.

On his way to Samoa in December, he wrote his literary agent Sidney Colvin that he planned to stay only long enough to learn about the recent war. His first impression upon landing confirmed his intention: “I am not especially attracted by the people; they are courteous, pretty chaste, but thieves and beggars, to the weariness of those involved,” he wrote his friend Charles Baxter.

Yet a month later, he had bought a 314-acre plot and arranged for an estate called Vailima (“five streams” in Samoan) to be built on it. In March, a mere three months after he first visited Samoa, he told Baxter that he was sure he would “never come home except to die.” In the end, he didn’t even do that.

Why did Stevenson stay, and what was his life like? The answer to the first question is various and complex. Farrell shows that his lukewarm view of the locals quickly changed. As he learned about their history and way of life, he developed an affection for their joie de vivre and what he called in an earlier correspondence the “simple dignity” of the Polynesian village. Tribal rule in Samoa reminded him of Highland clans, and he enjoyed taking on the role of chief at Vailima. He loved the sea and came to regard Samoa as far enough away from civilization to retain something of its primordial vitality but still within easy reach of London or Sydney by the steady stream of ships that stopped at its port. “Altogether,” he remarked, “it is a life that suits me but it absorbs me like an ocean.”

The other reason Stevenson stayed in Samoa, hinted at in the line above, was the sense of purpose he felt in defending the Samoan people. The situation in Samoa at the end of the 19th century was unique. Officially it was an autonomous country ruled by the highest-ranking chief. But in practice most decisions about land and trade were made by German, British, and American consulates in concert with trading companies, who were interested in Samoan coconut oil, which was used in soap, cosmetics, medicine, and other products.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s tomb.

Why a frequently ill writer of adventure stories and lifelong Tory felt compelled to write furious letters to London against the actions of German and British agents, risking, at one point, deportation, was as hard to understand then as it is now. Farrell rightly notes that the history of Scotland played a role in Stevenson’s siding with the locals but only hints at how his conservative sensibilities, particularly his high view of individual liberty and local responsibility, might have informed his decision.

Still, Farrell provides a nuanced and stimulating account of Stevenson’s actions and assiduously avoids forcing them to fit this or that political agenda. After all, while Stevenson was calling on Western powers to stop interfering in Samoan affairs for financial reasons, he was urging Samoans to be more industrious and “make a little more money.” If not, Stevenson told students at a theological college, “you may make all the good laws on earth, still your land will be sold,” and “when your land is sold, your people will die.”

In a letter to the British artist Trevor Haddon, Stevenson wrote that “no man can settle another’s life for him. It is the test of the nature and courage of each that he shall decide it for himself.” Samoa tested Stevenson’s courage, and he certainly passed, even if he also achieved far less than he had hoped.