Robert Louis Stevenson In Samoa

Joseph Farrell

MacLehose, £20

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Review by Brian Morton

IN 1892, on Tahiti, Paul Gauguin painted the troubling Manao Tupapau. At one level, especially once one knows that the subject is the painter’s 13 year old “bride” Teha’mana, it invites the viewer to share in an enigmatic voyeurism. It’s as widely accepted that Gauguin went to the south seas to escape bourgeois responsibility and restraint, as it is that Robert Louis Stevenson settled on Samoa to be away from the moral haar of Edinburgh. Neither assumption is quite accurate. Gauguin’s painting, known in translation as The Spirit of the Dead Keeping Watch has an allegorical element which suggests that the ancestors might not be content to leave libertinism unchecked, or, with more of a political spin, that the colonial powers are the ravishers of a fading innocence, represented by Teha’mana’s prone and passive position. Gauguin had no truck with such interpretations and wrote to his wife saying that he was “preparing a book on Tahiti, which will facilitate the understanding of my painting”.

The book didn’t happen, but at the same time, on another archipelago in the same vast ocean, Stevenson was writing such a book of his own. A Footnote To History was also finished in 1892, but it might as well have been left as a fragment, since it remains virtually unread, other than by Stevenson scholars and rarely with the insight Joseph Farrell has brought to it and to its background. The preposition in Farrell’s title is the only thing one might change in the whole project, for unlike previous biographers, Farrell has given as much attention to Samoa itself as to its thin guest: Robert Louis Stevenson and Samoa might give a better sense of its content.

Stevenson was not particularly well qualified to write about Samoan politics. In the first place, “Scotch is the only history I know”, though he hinted that in the confrontation between imperial power (“Rome”) and “an ancient barbaric life and government”, there were, indeed, parallels between the south seas and Scotland. Unlike Gauguin, Stevenson was not able to detach himself and muse allegorically on what he found at Apia on Upolu. He fired off long letters to The Times, some of them discursive, some of them full of self-mocking Gilbertian rhetoric that played on the European perception of the islands as backdrops to exotic operetta, all of them unconsciously revealing of his deeper attitudes and prejudices, but also of his genuine commitment to the Samoan people, who were struggling to maintain independence and way of life as the “interested” powers, Britain, Germany, the United States, jockeyed for authority. There was even a suggestion at one point that Stevenson revive his long-lapsed membership of the Faculty of Advocates in Edinburgh in order to speak up in court for the supporters of Mata’afa Iosefo, the soon to be exiled claimant to a toxic chieftanship. This Pacific – or rather not-pacific – Lord of the Isles was one of three rivals to the Malietoa title, each with his own colonial puppet master.

As Farrell patiently lays out, the problem with Stevenson’s political engagement comes at different levels. In the first place, he was a natural conservative and Conservative, instinctively opposed to the islander’s primitive communism and looseness of morality, at least from the Calvinist perspective. Attempts to cast Stevenson as a free spirit – or even as Osric to his friend and correspondent Henry James’s Polonius – simply don’t work. The morality of “the Beach” didn’t impress him. Literary scholar Barry Melnikoff did sterling editorial work in restoring the raw first version of RLS’s The Beach of Falesa from the bowdlerised and normalised revision produced in far-off London by Sidney Colvin, but in the process Melnikoff reinforced an unhelpful impression that Stevenson had somehow “gone native” and was now writing barefoot.

A further layer to the problem of Stevenson’s engagement in Samoan affairs was his natural gift of friendship. Often, he liked the man, even as he disliked the politics. It put him in an awkward stance in an already complex situation which he only partially understood. And, of course, he remained throughout a teller of tales (Tusitala) rather than a wholly committed activist. Stevenson’s Samoa is more than a little shaped by the imagination. Even the name of his last home is built on a fiction. The name means “four waters”, though there were only three; “Vailima” was simply more euphonious.

At one point, it looked quite possible that the house on the slopes of Mt Vaea would be attacked by supporters of Mata’ata’s rival Taupepa. Guns were acquired and the doughty females of the Stevenson party prepared in their use. Back in London, the Colonial Office began to consider Stevenson a nuisance, as Crown passport holders in tricky diplomatic situations often are. Others thought Stevenson’s new persona doubly ridiculous.

Oscar Wilde sneered to a correspondent: “I see that romantic surroundings are the worst possible for a romantic writer. In Gower Street, Stevenson could have written a new Trois Mousquetaires. In Samoa, he wrote letters to The Times about Germans”. In doing so, he might have seemed patriotic, but in the wrong key. Sir Arthur Grimble, author of A Pattern of Islands, described how he had gone to meet a Chief Clerk at the Colonial Office, to discuss his concern about British interference in the lives of distant, island-dwelling peoples. The Chief Clerk, clearly a literary man with a turn of phrase, asked “Do we stake our lives on Stevenson, not Kipling? Do we insist on the dominion of romance, not the romance of dominion?”

Of course, to read Kipling as an uncomplicated supporter of dominion is every bit as naïve as to consider Stevenson an aery adventurer, but the two writers came to represent those seemingly polar differences, and to some degree they still do. Farrell very subtly teases out both the political and the literary dimensions of this rhetorical opposition. He doesn’t resort to theory or to words like “hegemony”, “hybridity”, and “ambivalence” but his argument is subtly inflected with these and related ideas, offering a very profound examination of Stevenson’s Samoa in light of current and present ideologies. One feels that it helps a great deal that Farrell and his wife, unlike most biographers, have actually visited Samoa, overriding their travel agent’s insistence that they go to Fiji (better beaches) instead.

Farrell’s narrative might have had a different resonance if RLS had been given another 10 years and had decided to move on from Samoa, or even, unlikely as it sounds, moved back to Britain. That he is buried there, on the slopes of the sacred mountain, under a weighty slab and marked with one of the great literary epitaphs, somehow confirms the dominion of romance. Stevenson genuinely believed that for all the lapses and foibles of the Samoans, white civilisation was a “process towards the worse” while his own default position was a belief in “an ultimate decency of things”. He lies where he longed to be, a little apart from and above the stramash.

Professor Joseph Farrell will be speaking at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on August 16