Peter Carty

The last great adventure

Joseph Farrell describes how the novelist found happiness and inspiration in Samoa at the end of his tragically short life

Towards the end of his life, Robert Louis Stevenson travelled widely in the central and southern Pacific Ocean. As well as the region’s exotic reputation, he was drawn by hopes that its benign climate would alleviate his chronic bronchial problems. In 1889 he arrived in Samoa and decided to settle there.

He was a hit with the locals. Unlike so many of his peers, he declined to dismiss them as savages. Certainly, he was scathing about their disregard for property rights, which he labelled communism, and he found some of the women’s dancing obscene. But Joseph Farrell tells us that Stevenson was relaxed about extensive tattoos and scanty attire, and that he was a willing participant in kava drinking (kava is a narcotic plant extract, recently banned in the UK).

Stevenson’s arrival coincided with an imperial scramble for territory in the Pacific. Germany, Britain and the US all wrangled over Samoa, lured by the profits to be made from coffee, cocoa and copra (dried coconut flesh). The interlopers’ greed contrasted with the Samoans’ indifference to material concerns. An abundance of natural resources meant that personal possessions and gainful employment were alien concepts to them.

They were woefully ill-prepared for foreign incursions. There was a Samoan king but his powers were largely nominal, and internecine conflict was rife — a gift for colonial powers primed to divide and rule. Stevenson led a busy life on Samoa. Nevertheless, along with building a house and managing his extended family, he involved himself heavily in the Samoans’ travails. He despatched letters to the Times on their behalf and wrote a lengthy tract about the injustices perpetrated upon them, entitled A Footnote to History: Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa.

Unfortunately, Stevenson’s interventions, like so much else in his life, were as erratic as they were dramatic.

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