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Oceania - The Final Voyages of Robert Louis Stevenson

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By the flashing light of torches, 200 Samoans hacked a path up the side of Mount Vaea, Upolu, Samoa, while the men of the household dug the grave on the summit. Then up the steep path, with the ensign of the Casco laid over it, came the coffin, carried shoulder high by powerful Samoans. The Samoan chiefs forbade the use of firearms on the mountain, after Robert Louis Stevenson was laid to rest on its summit, so that the birds, undisturbed, might sing about his grave.


On the 26th June, 1888, the Robert Louis Stevenson's party went on board the Casco in San Francisco Harbour. The Casco was a 95' fore-and-aft topsail schooner of 70 ton. The Stevenson party comprised Stevenson, his wife, Fanny, his mother and the French maid, Valentine Roch. On the 28th June, 1988, the beautiful yacht was towed across the bay and through the Golden Gate where the sails were unfolded and the vessel began its southward voyage through the Pacific. It was a voyage only intended to be a health and pleasure excursion of a few months' duration but turned into a voluntary exile prolonged until the hour of his death.

The Casco

The Casco sailed for the Marquesas 3,000 miles away and a month from the day they sailed on the 28th July, 1888, the Casco dropped anchor in Anaho Bay in Nukahiva (Nuku Hiva). They lay there for three weeks during which time they made friends with the natives noting that there was one white trader living among them.

After leaving Nuku Hiva, the Casco party cruised among the coral atolls of the Paumotus (Tuamotus). They spent four weeks at Fakarava, a low atoll, 80 miles in circumference and 200 yards in width shaped like a horse shoe. Here, they spent their time bathing in the warm shallow lagoon and gathering the wonderful seashells.

They made Papeete, in the Tahitian group, during the first week of October, 1888, and it was here that Stevenson became ill with the cold and had to go to the other and milder side of the island to Tautira. It was here that Stevenson formed a friendship with Princess Moi who called upon the Stevensons the day after their arrival, having heard of a white man being ill. She herself made Robert Louis Stevenson a salad of raw fish, which was the first thing he was able to eat. It was to this Princess Moi, ex-Queen of Raiatea, that Robert Louis Stevenson wrote the following verses:


"To an Island Princess"

"Since long ago, a child at home
I read and longed to rise and roam,
Where'er I went, whate'er I willed
One promised land my fancy filled. ...
Till, Lady, to your isle of sun
I came, not hoping; and, like one
Snatched out of blindness, rubbed my eyes,
And hailed my promised land with cries. ...
Yes, Lady, here I was at last;
Here found I all I had forecast:
The long roll of the sapphire sea
That keeps the land's virginity;
The stalwart giants of the woods
Laden with toys and flowers and food; ....
I threw one look to either hand,
And knew I was in Fairyland ...
It was not long I waited; soon
Upon my threshold, in broad noon,
Gracious and helpful, wise and good,
The Fairy Princess Moe stood."
For the complete poem, click here.   

The Casco went back to Papeete for repairs, and this meant that the whole party had to remain on at Tautira until she was remasted. It was during this time that Stevenson and his wife gave a great feast to the natives in return for the wonderful hospitality they had received. The Casco however did not immediately return and the locals began to share in the anxiety of the Stevenson party. It was Rui, a sub-chief who went to Papeete and brought back the news that the Casco needed more repairs, and it might be a long time till she returned to Tautira for them. The Stevenson party were most concerned as they had used up all the yacht's stores and had only a few dollars left. It was Rui who told them that they must stay as his guests and that he would look after them until the Casco returned. So they stayed on as Rui's guests during which time Stevenson worked hard at The Master of Ballantrae which he almost finished.

By Christmas, 1888, both masts on the Casco had been repaired and the Stevenson party said goodbye to their friends that they had made at beautiful Tautira, and embarked once more, this time for Honolulu. The Stevensons went to Honolulu to get their mail, but along the way, they had met bad weather and, in Samoa, rebel chief, Tamasese, had risen against King Malietoa. This led to the first of Stevenson's letters on Samoan politics.

Honolulu, the capital of Hawaii was, in those days, an admixture of native life and civilization. The Stevensons were located a little out of town, at Waikiki, in a kind of pavilion and two smaller buildings built along native lines. It was in these surroundings that The Master of Ballantrae was finally completed. During their stay at Honolulu, the Stevenson party saw much of the native royalties, King Kalakaua and his sister, Princess Liliuokolani, and there were many Hawaiian feasts.

Mrs. Robert Louis Stevenson

Early in May, 1889, Stevenson's mother left, returning to Scotland via America. Later in May, 1889, Stevenson visited the island of Molokai and, by special permission, stayed for a week in the leper colony, the scene of Father Damien's work. This visit made a profound impression upon Stevenson.

On his return to Honolulu, Stevenson was immersed in preparations for the year's voyage on board the schooner Equator with Stevenson paying in advance for a cruise of four months, or longer if desired. This time the party was a different one to that on board the Casco. Stevenson's mother, having returned home, was not present nor was Valentine Roch, who were replaced by Stevenson's step son.

On the 24th June, 1889, Robert Louis Stevenson, his wife, Fanny, and his step son bordered the Equator. At the last moment, King Kalakaua drove up with the party of native musicians to bid farewell. The schooner sailed, leaving the mighty brown monarch waving his hand from the shore and his native musicians sending strains of farewell music over the widening expanse of sea.

The Equator was bound for the Gilbert Islands (Kiribati), and for the next six months Stevenson was lost to civilization and to his friends. They landed at Butaritari and moved to Abemama in October, 1889. For the first and probably only time in his wanderings, Stevenson was in real danger of violence from the local people for it was here that King Tem Binoka had the power of life and death and allowed no white man on his island. After an inspection of the Stevenson party, and two days' consideration, he admitted them as his guests, and provided for them four houses and a cook.

When the time came for Stevenson's departure, King Tem Binoka was very depressed and miserable at the parting. He sat on his mat, disconsolate, and often sighed. He took Stevenson's party on board in his own gig, refused refreshments, shook hands silently, and went ashore. Early in December, the Stevenson's party arrived in Samoa. In February, 1890, Stevenson departed from Apia, Samoa, to Sydney, Australia, on board the S.S. Lubeck, after a six-week stay in Apia during which time he purchased 300 acres of land and wrote The Bottle Imp, his first Polynesian story.

Whilst in Sydney, Stevenson once again exhibited all his old symptoms of illness, mental and physical. They sailed from Sydney on 11th April, 1890, on the steamer, Janet Nichol. (See The Cruise of the Janet Nichol).      

Vailima, before the extension

Eventually, the Stevensons returned to Samoa and settled at Vailima where Stevenson was the head of the household of five whites and twelve Samoans. In the first summer at Vailima, Stevenson was very busy with his own work - The Wrecker, and in preparation for the serial publication of The South Sea Letters.

Towards the end of 1892, Stevenson yielded to persuasion and added to and enlarged the house at Vailima. The enlarged house was by far the most imposing on the island.

Vailima (today)

In February, 1893, Stevenson again journeyed to Sydney where he was given a most encouraging opinion on his health. In the autumn of 1893, the Samoan war broke out and after the war in September, 1893, Stevenson again left home, this time on a voyage to Honolulu. On this, his second visit to Honolulu, the conditions were different for King Kalakaua was now dead, his sister, Princess Liliuokalani, had been deposed and a Provisional Government was now in power. Before he left Honolulu in September, 1893, he made a new will which retained the same trustees but made various different dispositions. This will was his last.

Stevenson became ill with pneumonia and his illness and recovery lengthened the stay in Honolulu after the completion of his business there and it was not until November that he and Mrs. Stevenson were able to make the voyage back to Samoa. The following year, 1894, was his last. On the 3rd December, a blood vessel burst in his head and he never regained consciousness.

A rare picture of the body of Robert Louis Stevenson, laying at rest, Vailima, Samoa

The Union Jack that flew over Vailima was brought and laid over him, and the Samoans passed in solemn processions, each kneeling and kissing the hand of their friend and master. The next day, Samoan chiefs came and spread fine mats on him till the Union Jack was hidden beneath them. The chiefs remained all night beside him, in silence.

By the flashing light of torches, 200 Samoans hacked a path up the side of the mountain, while the men of the household dug the grave on the summit. Then up the steep path, with the ensign of the Casco laid over it, came the coffin, carried shoulder high by powerful Samoans. The Samoan chiefs forbade the use of firearms on the mountain, after Robert Louis Stevenson was laid to rest on its summit, so that the birds, undisturbed, might sing about his grave.

Oceania Portraits - The Robert Louis Stevenson Collection

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