IN THE WAKE OF ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON | Tara, a schooner for the planet

IN THE WAKE OF ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON

© Crédits Henry Walter Barnett

2 December 2016

Pacific sunrise: the island appeared as if escaped from a novel, a black silhouette against a red sky. Two days after leaving Niue, in the early morning Tara reached the coast of Upolu, the main island of Samoa. A territory with sharp reliefs where the ghost of literary giant – Robert Louis Stevenson – hovers.

 

This is the same vision of the coast that the author of Treasure Island describes in his travel books. Stevenson went to the Pacific in search of a mild climate for his fragile lungs. In 1890 he settled with his family in Samoa where he spent the last 4 years of his short life. When he built the house in Vailima at the foot of Mount Vaea, he was a world famous author but totally unknown to the inhabitants of the island. Born in Edinburgh in 1850, the novelist had suffered from extremely fragile health since his childhood. This didn’t prevent him from breaking away from the family heritage (engineering lighthouses) to devote himself to writing. After getting a law degree in Scotland, he spent several years traveling, publishing essays and articles about his adventures, which included hiking across the Cevennes with a donkey. His novel Treasure Island (1883) was a huge success, followed by others: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and The Master of Ballantrae.

 

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House of Robert Louis Stevenson in Vailima © Pierre de Parscau / Tara Expeditions Foundation

 

When he arrived in Samoa, Stevenson quickly took up the defense of the islanders, caught up in colonial conflicts between Americans, Germans and English. This proximity with the local population inspired the islanders to call him “Tusitala”, the storyteller. Though Stevenson did not yet speak the Samoan language, islanders quickly observed the exuberant imagination of the writer: Pacific legends inspired him to embark on new writing projects, some of which remained unfinished. His house seems to have withstood the weather and hurricanes that battered it for many years. Constructed of wood by an Australian architect, it was for a long time the largest building on the island and welcomed illustrious visitors who came to salute the famous writer.

Mustache, emaciated face and feverish glance – in photographs hung on the turquoise paneling of his house (transformed into a museum) Stevenson looks like a character from one of his novels. Margaret Silva, curator of the museum, speaks about the author who wrote several pages of the island’s history. “Robert Louis Stevenson did a lot for our country and got deeply involved in local politics. He helped our founding fathers gain independence and was almost deported because of his commitment. He was the first European to go to the prisons to deliver food, clothing and cigarettes. That’s why Samoans had so much affection for him”.

 

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Robert Louis Stevenson poses with family & neighbors in front of his house © Pierre de Parscau Tara Expédiitons Foundation

 

On December 3, 1894, Stevenson collapsed on the floor of the grand salon, victim of a cerebral hemorrhage. The doctor did not have time to come from Apia. Contrary to the Samoan tradition whereby people are buried close to their homes, the author requested in his last wishes to be laid to rest “under the immense and starry sky” at the top of Mount Vaea. The steep path that still leads there today in itself tells of the Samoans’ attachment to Tusitala. Baptized “the path of loving hearts”, it was cut through the forest with enormous effort by the islanders, in order to transport Stevenson’s coffin. By the light of torches, 200 Samoans climbed the mountain to accompany the writer to his final resting place. No foreigner had ever been so celebrated on the island: the funeral ritual was that of a royal burial and the body placed on a bed of coral surrounded by volcanic stones. “Before he died, Robert Louis Stevenson expressed 2 last wishes,” explains Margaret Silva. “The first was to be laid to rest at the top of the mountain, and the second was to be buried with his boots on his feet. When the Samoans asked him why, he replied that the boots he had worn to explore this island were the ones he wanted to take with him. This meant that he wanted to die with the people of Samoa.”

 

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Tomb of Robert Louis Stevenson at the summit of Mount Vaea © Pierre de Parscau Tara Expediitons Foundation

After a difficult hour climbing the mountain in the blazing sun, the pilgrim arrives at a simple white tomb overlooking the bay of Apia. Engraved on a bronze plaque is the epitaph written in 1884 by Stevenson himself as his last words:

Under the wide and starry sky
Dig the grave and let me lie
Glad did I live and gladly die
And I laid me down with a will
This be the verse you grave for me
Here he lies where he longed to be
Home is the sailor, home from sea
And the hunter home from the hill

Pierre de Parscau

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