In case you don’t know him, Robert Louis Stevenson was a Scottish writer from the nineteenth century who wrote many poems, travel books and novels, including Treasure Island. He loved language, and his poetic turn of phrase is obvious even in his fiction. He also loved adventure, and this combination of a love of language and adventure made his books quite popular in their time. He travelled to beautiful places in France and America in a time when a British gentleman travelled in style, and there were some very stylish places to travel to. Travel was also a more serious undertaking in those days; as he writes on chartering a ship accross the Pacific: the vessel ‘ploughed her path of snow accross the empty deep, far from any hand of help’.
Stevenson was a small man with a big nose, and long dark hair. At the age of forty or so Stevenson moved with his wife and her children to Upolu, the main island of Samoa, just up the hill from where I’m writing now. He built a lovely white, wooden-boarded, two-story house next to a steep hill which overlooks Apia. He had health problems throughout his life, and he died in this house four years later. The house has in the last ten years or so been restored to more or less how it looked when the family lived in it over a hundred years ago. Walking through it you could imagine blinking and having Robert or Fanny stroll into the room to proffer a gin or a port, depending on the hour of the evening. I have to admit that I appreciated the light elegance of the stylish English nineteenth century after being in the chaotic downtown Apia just down the road.
In some parts of this island there really is a Treasure Island aesthetic. Look for yourself.
On the south side of the island there are secret coves which could be approached over the fringing reef, beneath billowing cumulus clouds.
Here I and a couple of friends found an ocean trench, a deep hole in the ground close to the shoreline into which the ocean ebbs and flows under the ground through caves and tunnels.
This open roofed cave is like a ten metre deep and thirty metre wide natural bath tub, with a sandy bottom beneath a couple of metres of fresh sea water. After climbing down a ladder into the water, with a slightly cooler temperature, ferns hanging off the dark rock walls, one’s voice bouncing off the surfaces with an errie echo, and then having a couple of errant coconuts bobbing by in the lambent blue twilight, I truly felt like a character out of an R. L. Stevenson novel. This would have to be my best moment so far in Samoa, and it was a moment when I said to myself ‘no wonder Stevenson settled on this island for the last few years of his life.’
This is the man’s study, on the second story of his house, surrounded by a spacious verandah over which refreshing sea breezes would flow to cool the brow of a toiling scribbler.
Doesn’t Upolu’s southern coast just look like a scene out of a pirate-festooned book or film?
This is the room of Austin, the son of Fanny, Stevenson’s wife. Stevenson’s fiction is adept at imaginatively performing the struggle for survival in the wilds of nature, and maybe in this way it speaks to that aspect of the young adventurer inside of many men. On the little mountain besides the house the man is buried and on his tomb reads the inscription: ‘Home is the sailor, home from the sea/ And the hunter home from the hill.’
Young boys have this spirit of adventure in nature – I know I did – and in this way I found Austin’s bedroom to be, ironically, the most R. L. Stevenson room of any room in the house.