A hard, interesting and beautiful life: Vailima, SAMOA

tusitala family group photo

Back in Britain they tended to blame Fanny for the loss of their famous friend (presumably on the grounds that she was American) but that seems unjust. Her role and skills were always in operations, turning his imaginings into action. His statement that opens In the South Seas (1) is entirely personal, and he was markedly consistent in explaining in his letters the decision to stay. His reasons were medical, financial, temperamental and literary.

Medically, he needed warmth and clear air for his lungs, even in Sydney he complained of the “extreme cold”, cheerfully admitting the incongruity of that for someone from Edinburgh.

Financially, Stevenson needed both the shore and the sea, a sense of secure refuge and also a sense of infinite horizons. The last long paragraph of his letter to James restates in his Pacific context one of the best-known of all his lines, “To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive.” One early poem describes his attraction to Fanny in the image of a sailor approaching a foreign island that offers refuge if he can pass the danger: “the mysterious islet, and behold/Surf and great mountains and loud river-bars/And from the shore hear inland voices call.” He liked to be laird and paterfamilias but also to be something of a bohemian vagabond, an exile, travelling dangerously. A Pacific island like Upolu satisfied all these contrary impulses.

He was writing at the top of his literary game in the pacific, stimulated by the new material, “exulting in the knowledge of a new world”, and the challenge of lifting it above “romance sugarcandy sham epic” (as he put it later). He had at least seven important Pacific Books in the brew that were integral to the decision to live in Samoa.

Mundanely, it is worth remembering that Apia had regular steamer services that kept him globally aware. He kept almost as promptly up to date with new writing by Kipling, Zola, James, Hardy and others as he could have done in Bournemouth. Furniture and friends made the voyage successfully.

Stevenson and Fanny moved into their new home in September 1890, when it was only an unfurnished temporary cottage in a clearing at the end of a rough track through the bush. A letter gives the best insight into his life in the early months, literary, social and agricultural, and into his light, bright, witty dramatic, impressionistic skill at conveying its essence.

In the Mountain, Apia, Samoa
Monday, November 2nd 1890

My Dear Colvin-this is a hard and interesting life we lead now. Our place is in a deep cleft of Vaea Mountain, some six hundred feet above the sea, embowered by forest, which is our strangling work and had at last to confine myself to the house, or literature must have gone by the board. Nothing is so interesting as weeding, clearing and pathmaking, the oversight of labourers becomes a disease, it is quite an effort not to drop into the farmer and it does make you feel so well. To come down covered with mud and drenched with sweat and rain after some hours in the bush, change, rub down, and take a chair in the veranda, is to taste a quiet conscience. And the strange thing that I mark this: If I go out and make twenty pounds, idiot conscience applauds me; if I sit in the house and make twenty pounds, idiot conscience wails over my neglect and the day wasted. For near fortnight I did not go beyond the verandah, then I found my rush of work run out and wear down for the night to Apia; put in Sunday afternoon with our consul “a nice young man” dined with a friend HJ Moors in the evening, went to church -no less-at the white and half white church-I had never been before, and was much interested; the woman I sat next looked a full-blood native, and it was in the prettiest and readiest English that she sang the hymns; back to Moors’, where we yarned of the islands, being both wide wanderers, till bedtime, bed sleep, breakfast, horse saddled, round to the mission, to get Mr. Clarke to be my interpreter, over with him to the King’s whom I have not called on since my return, received by that mild old gentleman, have some interesting talk with him about Samoan superstitions and my land-the scene of a great battle of his (Malietoa Laupepa’s) youth-the place which we have cleared the platform for his fort-the gulley of the stream full of dead bodies-the fight rolled off up Vaea mountain-side, back with Clarke to the mission, had a bit of a lunch and consulted over a queer point of missionary policy just arisen, about our new town hall and the balls there-too long to go into, but a quaint example of the intricate questions which spring up daily in the missionary path.