Friday, September 10, 2010

Graeme Lay on Robert Louis Stevenson

The 21st in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the January 1996 issue.

The intro read:
Graeme Lay visits Vailima, Robert Louis Stevenson’s home in Samoa.

Every time I have a beer in Western Samoa I think of Robert Louis Stevenson. The local lager, Vailima, is named after the Scottish writer’s estate in Samoa, and Samoa being a hot country and frequently a very hot country, it’s important to keep up a high fluid intake. Vailima. But I had extra cause to think of RLS while on a recent sojourn there. I was writing a book about the place, and all lager aside, even a century after his death, RLS still can’t be ignored. His aitu – his spirit – is alive and well and living there.
Robert Louis Stevenson (b 1850) never knew good health, but it did not stop him doing what he wanted to do: write, travel, marry Fanny Osbourne, an American divorcee 10 years older than himself, find a tropical home. The son and grandson of lighthouse builders from Edinburgh, RLS was already one of the world’s best-known authors when he brought Fanny and her children to Samoa to live. A tuberculosis sufferer, RLS needed the islands’ balmy clime to ease his suffering and prolong what he well knew would be a brief life. As a young man he had written:
I should like to rise and go
Where the golden apples grow;
Where below another sky
Parrot islands anchored lie.
RLS, Fanny and family had sailed in a chartered schooner through the Pacific in search of the ideal island refuge: Hawaii, the Marquesas, the Tuamotus, Tahiti. He found them all lovely, but settled on Samoa. Why Samoa? That global know-all and ego-tourist, Paul Theroux, claims with customary cynicism that it was merely because the postal service was more reliable. In Samoa the mail-boat came regularly, via Auckland or Sydney. As a serialised novelist who depended on episodic publication to provide a necessary income, RLS needed those mail-boats.
They arrived in 1889, nine months after a terrible cyclone had destroyed several German and United States warships anchored in Apia Harbour: 146 men perished. Only the British battleship Calliope was saved. While the Germans and Americans didn’t want to lose face by weighing anchor, the British captain did what every capable skipper knows must be done when a cyclone strikes: get back out to sea. The carcasses of the Olger, Adler, Vandalia, Trenton and Nipsic still littered the reef and beach when Stevenson and his entourage sailed into Apia.
They found an archipelago in political turmoil. The three Great Powers, the USA, Germany and Britain, were desperate to gain ascendancy, then annex the islands for their own purposes. The three contending powers have been described as “like three large dogs snarling over a very small bone”. The analogy is only half suitable. The dogs were indeed large and certainly snarling, but the Samoa Islands were more like pieces of prime fillet steak.
There were 13 of them altogether, three – Tutuila, Upolu and Savaii – large. All were fertile and ripe for plantation purposes. Copra and palm oil, found there in abundance, were in great demand in Europe. Apia on Upolu and Pago Pago on Tutuila had fine harbours, the latter perfect for a coaling station to supply naval battleships in mid-ocean.
RLS was quickly apprised of this situation by a man who was to become his soul-mate, one HJ Moors. Moors was a roguish American who had jumped ship in 1875 with a bag of onions and a chest of cloth and with these slender commodities set up a trading store on Savaii. He then moved to Apia, married a local beauty and became a gunrunner for one of the pretenders to the non-existent throne of all Samoa. Moors had read all of RLS’s books and indeed was something of a writer himself, and so he was on the beach when RLS stepped ashore.
Moors made the arrangements for the purchase of the land on which Vailima was built. He selected 300 acres on the flanks of Mount Vaea, a few hundred feet above the sea, where it was cooler. The area was covered in tropical rainforest filled with wild pigeons and other birds, including the lovely blue-crowned lory, which the Samoans called the sega. The writer had indeed found the “parrot islands” of his youthful fantasies.
On the land he and Fanny built the grandest house in the South Pacific islands and named it Vailima after the crystalline rivers which tumbled down the mountainside. Vailima means “five rivers”. The Samoans, many of whom could now read and write through missionary influence, were fully aware of Stevenson’s mana and enormously proud that he had selected them to live among. RLS was also extremely popular with them. He not only had an engaging and generous disposition towards everyone, but he read the Samoan political situation astutely.
In the early 1890s the Samoans as well as the Europeans were engaged in a bitter power struggle. There had never been a single ruler of all the islands, but the Great Powers were determined that there should be one, and one of their preference so they could then pull the puppet’s strings and get their own way. The two contenders for Samoan kingship were Mata’afa and Laupepa. Moors supplied Mata’afa with firearms to fight Laupepa, who was elderly and dispirited. Stevenson also recognised that the locally popular Mata’afa was more up to the job and rallied behind him. This was appreciated by the Samoans but not the European Pooh-Bates in Apia, who were doing all they could to aid Laupepa.
On the eve of one battle between Mata’afa and Laupepa, in 1893, Stevenson and Lloyd Osbourne, his stepson, rode down from Vailima to view the preparations for hostilities. These he later described in vivid detail in his work Footnote To History. It is an unsentimental account: for example, although he greatly respected the Samoans, he abhorred their custom of degrading their foes by decapitating the vanquished and giving the heads to their leader.
Back up on the hill at Vailima, life continued gaily. Stevenson’s health had improved markedly. He was still frail but did not let this prevent him from horse-riding, dancing, beachcombing, kava drinking or smoking. Especially smoking. He smoked constantly from the time he woke until he turned his lantern out at night. He and Fanny entertained lavishly. The house was the largest maota (chief’s house) in all the islands. RLS had a Samoan household staff whom he dressed in lavalavas of Royal Stuart tartan, though whether these included sporrans of coconut shell is not known.
There was also a very Samoan aspect to RLS and Fanny’s household which the locals were not slow to appreciate. They brought their extended family to live with them, Fanny’s two children, Lloyd and Belle, and later Stevenson’s Scots cousin Graham Balfour and RLS’s pious old Presbyterian Mum. It was a clan gathering, a Scots aiga, and the civil war down on the plains below must also have put RLS in mind of the highland clans he romantically admired.
In the evenings the household sang, dined, partied and welcomed everyone except the sour consuls from Germany, the US and Britain. War parties, their faces blackened, would ride up and drop in for some kava, food and political discussion. RLS led a seigniorial existence, but everyone liked him. He was hospitable, generous and courageous. He wrote in the mornings, sitting up in bed, fearing that another haemorrhage would strike before he completed his magnum opus, the novel Weir Of Hermiston. Later in the day he would walk in the nearby forest, listen to birdsongs and no doubt contemplate his life and work.
The Samoans weren’t so sure about Fanny. Of Dutch descent, she had a dark complexion and an enigmatic half-smile which confused them. The Samoans called her Aolele, or Flying Cloud, because of her changeable expression, but she ran the large household efficiently and nursed her husband with great tenderness.
Mata’afa lost the war of 1893, was banished to Micronesia and the chiefs who were his supporters were jailed. RLS took them food, kava and tobacco. When they were released they enlarged the muddy track from Apia to Vailima, in appreciation of his patronage. It was named The Road Of Loving Hearts. When the road was opened RLS made a moving speech - oratory was another of his Samoan-type skills – in which he entreated the Samoans to use their country wisely, to care for its lands and forests, otherwise “others will”. It was a prophetic warning.
Less than a year later, on December 3 1894, while apparently still in better health, RLS died from an aneurism. Weir Of Hermiston was unfinished. The same chiefs who had built the Road Of Loving Hearts cut a path up Mount Vaea and his body was carried by young warriors to a clearing, where he was buried. Later the remains of his Fanny were buried beside him, a tricky piece of interment.
In 1900 the Terrible Trio got their way when, in an arrangement of breathtaking brazenness, Germany annexed the western islands, the US took the eastern group and Britain cried off in exchange for taking over the external affairs of Tonga. The Western Samoans were not to rule themselves again for 62 years.

Two cyclones, Ofa and Val, assaulted Samoa in 1991 and 1992, causing grievous bodily harm to the islands. Vailima, by now the official residence of the Western Samoa Head of State, was also badly knocked about. Enter, in 1993, a group of Mormon businessmen from Utah. They buy the house from the government for a token sum and plan its refurbishment as a literary museum. They also plan to build a cable-car up the slopes of Mount Vaea, to scoop up tourists from Aggie Grey’s and the Tusitala and whisk them up to RLS’s tomb.
Protests are aired at such tackiness and the cable-car scheme is dropped, but radical renovations to Vailima go ahead and are completed by December, 1994, the centenary of RLS’s death and the occasion of much memory-raising. Professional Scotspersons from all over the world make the climb up Mount Vaea and hear “Requiem” read in highland cadences by Scottish actors John Shedden and John Cairney.
July 21, 1995. 1 get out of the jeep and walk across the expanse of sloping lawn in front of the house. It is a very hot morning and Mount Vaea casts no shadow yet across the treeless lawn. The building is almost unrecognisable from the last time I saw it: enlarged, balconied, bracketed, painted cream. Above the front door is a large sign: VILLA VAILIMA. Why villa? For the Mormons to ensure that it wasn’t mistaken for a lager advertisement?
Inside there is the great wainscotted hall, with bare, polished floor boards. There is a long dining table and an open staircase to the house’s upper level. There is a bronze of Tusitala on another table and a portrait in oils hangs from the wall beside his huge iron safe, which the Samoans always eyed apprehensively because they were convinced that therein lived the Bottle Imp. The room is grand, tasteful, imposing. Around the walls hang many framed photographs of the Stevenson aiga. The author with his good mate, Moors, with another friend, King Kalakaua of Hawaii, with prominent matai, with Fanny, Lloyd, Belle and mother Maggie.
In all the photos it is RLS my eyes are drawn to. His frame is wasted but he is elegantly dressed and his gaze is fresh, youthful, penetrating. I’m struck too by his extraordinary facial resemblance to another island-domiciled South Pacific fictioneer, Mike Johnson of Waiheke, and I wonder if by any chance they are related.
The photos also reveal that today’s Vailima is as the German rulers enlarged it, to accommodate their man, Dr Wilhelm Solf, from 1900 to 1914. In the latter year fearless New Zealand soldiers stepped ashore in Apia and seized the colony without a shot being fired. (When they climbed Mount Vaea, though, and were about to destroy the highly strategic radio station, they discovered it had been booby-trapped). RLS’s Vailima was smaller and less ostentatious than that of Dr Solf, the Fuehrer of Western Samoa.
Upstairs there are the family bedrooms and the study where RSL worked. Mount Vaea and the forest where Saumaia, the forest goddess, lived are just a manuscript’s toss away. How often his mind must have dwelt on his own mortality as he lay in bed dictating notes to Fanny. Even as he worked on the plot of Weir Of Hermiston he knew that up there on the mountain another plot awaited him. There are also bookcases filled with his and other works, period furniture, firearms and sundry memorabilia.
I take another look around the lovely hall, then wander into the souvenir shop next door. It’s full of highly overpriced books, pictures and other tourist souvenirs. I come away with a Tusitala teatowel which is so kitsch I can’t resist it.
Everyone knows RLS’s poem and epitaph “Requiem”, but it has a middle verse which is not on the tomb or the gatepost of the Road Of Loving Hearts. The missing verse reads:
Here may the winds about me blow;
Here the clouds may come and go;
Here shall be rest for evermo,
And the heart for aye shall be still
I hope his heart is still. Later that day, with the sun turning Apia Harbour a crimson hue, I stand on the sea wall with beer in hand. Just as “Requiem” is an affecting poem, Vailima is an excellent lager. I raise my glass in the direction of Mount Vaea. Thank you, for Jim Hawkins, Blind Pew and Long John Silver. For David Balfour, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and all the others who will forever seethe in my memory. Ia Manuia, Tusitala!


Little Tinker said...

Thank you for reprinting the Quote Unquote articles for those of us whose attention was elsewhere at the time. I appreciate it.

Stephen Stratford said...

You're welcome, Little Tinker. I'm glad they are still of interest.

There will be many more posted as and when time permits.