Deciding to remain in Samoa

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The schooner Casco was fast, built for racing, and they made landfall in the Marquesas, the north-east extremity of French Polynesia, after only a month, on 28 July 1888. The voyage from San Francisco was a time of “glad monotony” that Stevenson found stimulating. He felt “delightedly conscious”. Day after day the air had the same indescribable liveliness and sweetness. I was aware of a spiritual change; or perhaps, a molecular reconstitution. My bones were sweeter to me.”

That autobiographical intimacy he put into The Wrecker, a novel set primarily in the Pacific that he began to write the next year in collaboration with his stepson Lloyd Osbourne. The tone of In the South Sea, the travel book compiled partly from his articles for McClure’s paper The Sun, and laboured over for three years, is even more personal. It is a strange and surprising book from the start, for it opens with a farewell. Summarizing his three Pacific cruises, Stevenson then states unequivocally that “I decided to remain”. He enthuses about the pleasure and interest, the “attractive power” and “sense of seduction”, of a part of the world then almost unknown in Europe or America, and associated mainly with storms and savagery. This prologue makes it clear that the much-missed famous author will have no happy return in the near future to New York or Edinburgh.

His cruises are for the time being completed, but the literary journey is still in process. “I must learn to address readers from the uttermost parts of the sea,” he tells them. It is an unexpected and challenging way to begin a book of travels.

For nearly ten years my health had been declining: and for some while before I set forth upon my voyage, I believed I was come to the afterpiece of life, and had only the nurse and undertaker to expect. It was suggested that I should try the South Sea; and I was not unwilling to visit like a ghost, and be carried like a bale, among scenes that had attracted me in youth and health.

I chartered accordingly Dr. Merrit’s schooner yacht, the Casco, seventy-four tons register; sailed from San Francisco towards the end of June 1888, visited the eastern islands, and was left early the next year at Honolulu. Hence, lacking courage to return to my old life of the house and sick-room, I set forth to leeward in a trading schooner, the Equator, of a little over seventy tons, spent four months among the atolls (low coral islands) of the Gilbert group, and reached Samoa towards the close of ’89. By that time gratitude and habit were beginning to attach me to the islands; I had gained a competency of strength;

I had made friends; I had learned new interest; the time of my voyages had passed like days in fairyland; and I decided to remain. I began to prepare these pages at sea, on a third cruise, in the trading steamer Janet Nicoll. If more days are granted me, they shall be passed where I have found life most pleasant and man most interesting; the axes of my black boys are already clearing the foundations of my future house; and I must learn to address readers from the uttermost parts of the sea.

That I should thus have reversed the verdict of Lord Tennyson’s hero is less eccentric than appears. Few men who come to the islands leave them; they grow grey where they alighted; the palm shades and the trade-wind fans them till they die, perhaps cherishing to the last the fancy of a visit home, which is rarely made, more rarely enjoyed, and yet more rarely repeated. No part of the world exerts the same attractive power upon 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 or Barbarossa, the Apostles or the Caesars.