In an edited extract, Joseph Farrell describes his 2016 visit to the Samoan home and burial place of Robert Louis Stevenson

THE first sight of Vailima, the home Robert Louis Stevenson built for himself and his family on the Samoan island of Upolu, cannot fail to cause a rush of blood. Among the most attractive features of Stevenson’s writings are his child-like sense of wonder and his ability to arouse feelings of awe in readers who have long since allowed that capacity to atrophy. On his cruise around the South Seas, he saw much that excited him. “The first love, the first sunrise, the first South Sea island, are memories apart and touched by a virginity of sense,” he wrote movingly.

“Virginity of sense” is not a sentiment readily voiced in a cynical age like ours, but not even the prior knowledge that RLS spent the last four years of his life on Samoa and is buried on Mount Vaea which looms above Vailima house can undo, except in the most unfeeling, the sheer incredulity that the author of such quintessentially Scottish works as Kidnapped or Master of Ballantrae should have walked and worked in these magical surroundings.

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It was not planned that way. RLS’s travels in the Pacific islands were prompted not by a quest for adventure but by a search for an environment suitable for a man of chronic ill health. He set off from San Francisco in 1888, and in all sailed on three vessels with an international crew and members of the extended Stevenson family. At varying times, the group consisted of his wife Fanny Osbourne, her son Lloyd, daughter Belle and her husband Joe Strong, their maid Valentine, and, most incredibly of all, Stevenson’s widowed mother, Maggie.

RLS and Fanny were a most unlikely couple, and there have been countless examinations of the conflicts and mutual dependence that made up their married life, as well as of the complex personality of Fanny, who was probably an impossible personality but who was devoted to RLS and nursed him selflessly. Little attention paid to the remarkable woman who was Stevenson’s mother.

In Edinburgh she had been a staid, Presbyterian, Victorian bourgeois wife, but on being widowed she followed her son to America and to the Pacific. In portraits of the group in Vailima, she appears dressed in stern widow’s weeds, looking not unlike Queen Victoria herself, but she shuffled off her puritan past and had no compunction in savouring the good looks of Polynesian males and of engaging in relaxed conversation with near-naked, native kings on the islands where the schooner put in. In Vailima, she wished to surround herself with her own possessions, and when she took up final residence, had her furniture shipped out from Heriot Row, all thirty-seven packing boxes of it, hauled up from the port in bullock carts. Sadly it was dispersed when the house was sold after RLS’s death.

The group cruised around the islands of the South Seas, already painted in imaginary mythical colours well before Paul Gauguin disembarked in Tahiti, stopping slightly longer in Hawaii than elsewhere. He disliked Hawaii, which seemed to him too deeply polluted by the grubby civilisation he had come to compare unfavourably with the supposed incivility of the native ways.

He made friends with the extravagant King Kalakaua, who had a wild, or visionary, plan to resist the encroachment of colonialist power by establishing a federation of Pacific islands. A task force dispatched to Samoa turned into a floating fiasco, but Stevenson was intrigued by the story and outraged by the plight of Samoa, disputed by the main colonialist powers in the area, Britain, Germany and the USA, and riven by a succession of internal wars. He planned a book on the South Seas, and decided to stop off in Samoa to gather material. The visit was to be brief, just the time for some interviews and an eye-witness account and then back to Britain.

The American trader, Harry Moors, was instrumental in persuading RLS to make Samoa his home. A shrewd businessman, he sold him at a stiff price the estate known as Vailima, a name which means “five streams”, although seemingly there never were five streams flowing there. No matter. For a tropical island, Samoa has plenty of water. The estate was an uncultivated waste of 314½ acres for which RLS paid $4000. The upkeep of it and of his family, or clan, was a burden and a worry to him all his days. Aware of the parallels with Walter Scott, he referred semi-jocularly to Vailima as sub-Priorsford.

Louis and Fanny oversaw the construction of the grand house which, in slightly modified form, still stands as a museum to his memory.

No expense was spared. Fanny was not given to parsimony. The wood was imported from California and local craftsmen employed.

The view from the balcony gives on to a lawn, circled by frangipani, bougainvillea and eucalyptus trees, the scene topped by coconut palms with the ocean in the distance. There was once a tennis court and when his health permitted it, RLS was a keen player. There were even cricket matches on the grass, although Samoan cricket could involve up to 100 players in each side.

The land around the house was tamed by the Stevensons, mainly by Fanny, who always prided herself on her green fingers. She was an inventive gardener, even if she was profoundly offended when her husband told her she had “the soul of a peasant”. She aspired to be an artist.

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If there are more romantic or picturesque items on display in Vailima, none is more arresting than the two fireplaces, one on each level of the house. The temperature in Samoa ranges between 25 to 35 degrees all year round, and there are only two seasons, the wet and the dry. None of the inhabitants of any of the Pacific Islands had seen a fireplace, but his insistence of having one is a perfect image of RLS’s split mind and heart. Famously given the title Tusitala, the Writer of Tales, by the Samoans, his mind was engaged with Samoan life, politics and culture, but his imagination’s natural habitat remained Scottish history. The works he produced on the island included both the unfinished Weir of Hermiston but also the brutal novella, The Beach of Falesa, which is set in the South Seas.

The upstairs fireplace was never used, although the downstairs one was lit on a very few occasions since, as RLS said, “what is home without a fireplace?” Vailima was his home, not his place of exile. He learned Samoan and was able to write in the language, but he dressed his Samoan servants in Royal Stewart tartan.

The standard male and female dress was the lavalava, not a loincloth but a garment tied around the waist and stretching to the knees, and which he translated as kilt. He was aware that he had recreated a clan with himself as clan chieftain, and gloried in the position. After initial doubts, he came to love Samoa and the Samoans, “a gentle people, more gentle than any European people.”

HE stood up for their interests in the heyday of imperialism, and railed against “the horrid white mismanagement” of Samoa. He made such a nuisance of himself that he was threatened with deportation by the British colonial administrator. Samoa’s foremost historian, Professor Malama Meleisea, agrees that “his presence was benevolent. At Vailima, he was geographically outside the centre of activity, but he defended Samoa against imperial power. He warned Samoans and settlers about threats and power struggles.”

The Samoans regarded him as an inspiration and even an oracle, to be consulted on village and family matters. The mother of one of his serving maids came to request his permission for her daughter to marry. Once the elders of a village came with funds they had collected to roof their church, asking him to keep it for them. He agreed and in recompense they returned with the embarrassing gift of a white bull. The money was put in the safe, another object of amazement. The story The Bottle Imp, a fable of a genie in a bottle and the power it bestows on its owner but the doom that awaits him if he cannot dispose of it at a price lower than he paid, was translated into Samoan, the first literary work in that language. The belief spread that Stevenson’s own abilities derived from the powers of the imp, kept in the safe.

Stevenson tried to live a disciplined life to give him time for writing. He and Fanny no longer shared a bed, one of the few topics he did not explain to his correspondents, and he had his own room, “part of the twelve foot verandah sparred in, at the most inaccessible part of the house.” He was up by sunrise, which he “valued as a tonic, a look of God’s face once in a day.” By six he had his breakfast brought to him, and then set to work, latterly dictating to Belle, a relationship which aroused jealousy in her mother. Mid-morning he would bathe in a natural pool on Vaea, kept cool by the trees and created by a waterfall as it fell into a rock formation.

Life at Vailima was anything but secluded or joyless. RLS was convivial host, even if sorely tried by uninvited guests. Varied occasions, birthdays, American Thanksgiving, the docking of British or American ships, the arrival of a group of Samoans provided the opportunity for feasts at which, seated on the floor Samoan-style, intimidating quantities of Samoan and European food was served. Marie Fraser, an actress who was a guest, gives an awed account of “the gigantic quantity of food spread out – dozens of pigs, quantities of chicken and ducks, every kind of native fruit and vegetable and before each guest a leaf of large pink prawns.”

In spite of all his efforts to ensure peace, in 1893 war broke out between rival factions, and Mataafa, the man favoured by Stevenson as king, was defeated and imprisoned with his followers. Stevenson provided for them while they were in detention, and in gratitude the chiefs and men built a road connecting Vailima with the nearby track leading down to the island capital. He suggested calling it The Road of the Loving Hearts, but they insisted on the singular, since the loving heart was his. It remains the most romantic road in the world, lined on either side by hibiscus, and by perpetually flowering, brightly coloured gardenia, jasmine and roses.

The final section of the road winds up Mount Vaea, and had to be built overnight on December 3 1894, after Stevenson’s sudden death. He had chosen the peak of the mountain as his last resting place, and the Samoans took it on themselves to cut a path and then carry the coffin up the steep slope, roped to one another as they pulled and tugged. The tomb, given the traditional Samoan form, is an unlovely construction in cement in the loveliest of surroundings. The forest was once filled with flying foxes and with birds which “chatter with rich throaty voices.” The flying fox has been hunted almost to extinction, but the birds still chatter since the local chieftains imposed a taboo on hunting them so that birdsong would always be heard around his tomb. And it is.