May 15, 2021

Robert Louis Stevenson and Samoa

With rain splashing against my hotel window in the middle of a British winter I was engrossed in reading Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, the Victorian bestseller about the horrors that can happen with a split personality. After finishing the book I researched a little more into the author, Robert Louis Stevenson, a Scot who I imagined had lived and worked in a lonely garret in his native Edinburgh. 

How wrong could I be? Stevenson was an adventurer, he was not just writing about it but living it. Lured by the romance of far-flung places, he explored remote locations and embraced their cultures, while also enjoying that it enabled him to escape the bitter cold of the Scottish winters and the ailments that they brought him. 

He wrote that “I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake.”

After wandering through Europe and the US he set off in a boat to explore the South Pacific, reaching the distant islands of Samoa in 1890. He immediately fell in love with the country and its people, living there until his death in 1894, when he was buried atop a large hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean. 

Samoa now featured high on the list of places I wanted to travel to. 

It took a few years but finally, I made it to these distant tropical islands. Stevenson’s residence Vailima is on the outskirts of Apia, the capital, and is situated within beautifully kept gardens. 

The fireplace. Vital for Samoa's cold 28C (82F) winters

The home itself has been designed for the tropics, with wide-open balconies surrounding the house, although the Scot endearingly added fireplaces to some of the rooms. Not out of necessity, the climate of Samoa is incredibly consistent and warm being 28C (82 F) all through the year but as a reminder of his Scottish home. 

The house is preserved through a joint effort of the Samoan government and a US charitable trust and contains many of the writer’s possessions, furniture, as well as his published works.

Most people will have come into contact with Robert Louis Stevenson’s work either through reading his most popular books; whether that is Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Kidnapped or Treasure Island, or through TV and film adaption’s of them.  Copies of the books, translated into most of the languages of the world, are displayed on the bookshelves.

Over the gardens and to the ocean. The view from the authors chair at Vailima

There was a tremendous feeling of peacefulness as I sat on the balcony, looking across the large lawn fringed with tropical flowers, to the ocean beyond. An ideal writer’s home, the views being inspiring, and the tranquillity allowing concentration. 

Although tempted to spend the rest of the day there, I wanted to visit Stevenson’s grave, on the top of Mount Vaea behind the house.

The walk up is not for the faint-hearted. There is a fast way, an almost vertical track, of 500 metres, or a longer 2 km hike. It was the wet season and the fast route was almost impassable due to the mud and lack of footholds, even the longer slow track was challenging at times. Streams washed over the path in places and the mud caused me to lose my footing and slip several times.

A map showing the routes up to the grave

Easier in the dry season (March to September) but still doable if you take care, and have the time, after rain, although avoid the fast route then. I left the car park beneath Mount Vaea at the same time as an adventurous local family, they took the fast route and despite me ambling along the longer track, stopping to take many photos, we arrived at the top at the same time.

The white tomb sits alone on a small patch of grass, with glimpses of the Pacific Ocean through the trees.  A requiem, written by Stevenson fourteen years before his death, is inscribed in Samoan and English on one side.

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.

The grave of Robert Louis Stevenson

The gravesite is a place of solitude and beauty. It is easy to see why Stevenson chose it as his final resting place, although I did feel for the locals who carried his coffin up here on their shoulders. 

The writer was a strong supporter of the Samoan culture and their rights under the often incompetent colonial rule.  In return, he was held in great respect by its inhabitants, and given the name of Tusitala, Samoan for ‘writer of stories’.

On the way back down I stopped at Stevenson’s swimming pool. Freshwater from Mount Vaea tumbles over a small waterfall into an idyllic basin shaded by trees.

Even when the writer was in poor health he would slowly make his way down to the pool and swim in it for hours. I could clearly see the attraction of jumping into its cool waters, particularly after the climb.

The shady, and enticing, Stevenson Pool

Robert Louis Stevenson fell in love with Samoa and seeing the life he made for himself in the beautiful Pacific island it is easy to see why. His wealth allowed him to live anywhere in the world, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde alone sold over 250,000 copies in the US.  

He chose to live in Vailima, the magnificent house and grounds were a fitting place, perfect for writing. The sad part was that it was only to be for four short years before his untimely death at the age of 44.

Robert Louis Stevenson (centre-seated) and his family.  (The original is the London National Portrait Gallery)

Far Flung Tips

* Robert Louis Stevenson’s House and Museum are open Monday to Friday from 9 AM to 4:30 PM, and Saturdays from 9 AM to 12:00 AM. 

* A tour is required if you wish to go inside the house. Adults cost $ST 20, Students $ST 10 and Children $S5.  

* A Taxi from the centre of Apia is approximately $ST20 each way. As there are few taxis available for a return journey get the drivers phone number and call him when you are ready to return. He will be very happy to do this and get another good fare!

 * The gardens, swimming pool and the walk up to the grave are all free. The walk to the grave can be slippery, even in dry weather, so wear suitable shoes. Avoid after heavy rain unless you want to get very muddy and enjoy slipping and sliding in mud.

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