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The Cruise of the Janet Nichol, April-September 1890

The third voyage of Robert Louis Stevenson was a meandering voyage in the trading steamer Janet Nichol. The voyage set out from Sydney, Australia and followed a very wandering course, extending as far as Penrhyn in the eastern to the Marshall Islands in the western Pacific.

Oxford Hotel

The Oxford Hotel, Sydney, Australia, where Robert Louis Stevenson
and his wife, Fanny, stayed before their third voyage.

The literature on the voyages of Robert Louis Stevenson refer to the trading steamer the Janet Nichol. The steamer in question is understood to be the Janet Nicholl owned and operated by Henderson and MacFarlane of New Zealand. However in order to be consistent with the literature, I have continued to refer to the vessel as the Janet Nichol.

Henderson and MacFarlane had gradually sold off their sailing ships and reduced the fleet to a few small vessels among the main trading islands as the steamship trade spread into the Pacific Ocean. Harry Henderson bought the 600 ton, iron screw, topsail rigged steamer, the Janet Nichol which carried a crew of nine and was under the command of Captain Henry with orders to make a final round of the island posts to collect the cargo waiting there. The vessel was made ready to sail from Sydney on the 11th April, 1890 bound for the Pacific Islands.


The route taken by the Janet Nichol.

Seven days later she berthed at Queen's Wharf, Auckland, to take on provisions, coal and passengers. Harry Henderson and Mr. Hird joined the ship as supercargo, together with Jack Buckland, a trader for the firm returning to his island post. Robert Louis Stevenson together with his wife Fanny and son Lloyd, who was a keen amateur photographer, joined the ship with about forty islanders from the Solomon Islands, New Hebrides (now Vanuatu) and eight from Niue, all returning to their island homes.

The Janet Nichol

The Janet Nichol.

The Janet Nichol sailed on the evening tide from Auckland and as the journey progressed Mrs. Stevenson compiled notes on the voyage in her diary, later to be written as a book published in London, entitled, The Cruise of the Janet Nichol in the South Seas.

It is the diary of Mrs Robert Louis Stevenson that provides a permanent record of her impressions of Funafuti in the 1890's. I have reproduced below the essence of an extract of Mrs. Robert Louis Stevenson's diary of a South Sea cruise.


27th May 1890 - We expect to make Funafuti, the first of the Ellices by daybreak. At nine o'clock, there were no signs of the island. "Bad steering," growled the Captain. "We've run past it and now we have to turn around and run back." At about 2 we anchored in the lagoon. Two traders came aboard. One was a half-caste from some other island with elephantiasis, very bad, in both legs. The other trader (Restieaux) was described as not thin but very pallid; his face, hands, legs, and feet were without sunburn, smooth, and of a curious transparent mixture like wax. It seemed an over-exertion to raise his large heavy eyes when he spoke to us.

I asked him if he liked the island. "Not at all," he answered and went on to describe the people; he said he could not keep chickens, ducks or pigs; no one could, for their neighbours, jealous that another should have what they had not, would stone the creatures to death. The same with the planting of fruit trees; the soil was good, and there were a few breadfruits and bananas, but any attempt to grow more is frustrated. The young trees are torn up and even the old ones are occasionally broken and nearly destroyed.

bridge of the Janet Nichol

Robert Louis Stevenson and his wife Fanny
on the bridge of the Janet Nichol.

The half-caste could remember when a poisonous fish was a thing unknown; now all outside the reef are poisonous and many inside. The worst of it was that a fish, one day innocuous, may the next become deadly.

As for Restieaux, I fear this poor man is simply dying of starvation. A steward on board the Missionary's ship, who knew a little bit about medicine had told him that he only needed iron and good food. "They gave me a bottle of iron," he said, "and I got better on that, or I'd be dead by now, but how could I get the nourishing food?" I suggested his leaving the island, but the loyal soul replied that, though he knew he could save his life by doing so, he would not desert his native wife and children.

It was the half-caste who told us about the Peruvian blackbirders. In 1886 when he was away from Funafuti, a large number of locals were kidnapped by Peruvian blackbirders. At the time of our visit, there were not more than 150 inhabitants altogether.

Restieaux had sailed with both Bully Hayes and Ben Pease, two somewhat picturesque desperados of the South Seas who were now fortunately dead.

Louis and I went with Mr. Henderson over to the island where we met the wives and children of the traders. Handsome, healthy, and with excellent manners; two young girls were quite beautiful. Restieaux's wife had but one eye and was a plain kindly old body. After awhile, Louis and I stroll across the island, becoming more and more amazed by what we saw. Everything that one naturally expects to find on a low island is here reversed. To begin with, the fact of the poisonous fish are outside the reef is contrary to what one has reason to expect.

The soil is very rich for a low island, with ferns and many shrubs and flowering plants growing. We saw a little taro and quite a large patch, considering, of bananas. There was much marsh and green stagnant pools, and the air was heavy with a hothouse smell. The island seemed unusually wide, but when we pushed through the bushes and trees to find ourselves not on the sea beach, as we had expected, but on the margin of a large lagoon emptied of its waters almost entirely by the low tide.

I found Louis bending over a piece of the outer reef that he had broken off. From the face of both fractures innumerable worms were hanging like a sort of dreadful, thick fringe. The worm looked exactly like slender earth worms more or less bleached, though some were quite earth worm colours.

The two traders dined with us and I was glad to see that Restieaux ate a large double helping of meat. Lloyd, fortunately, thought of giving him some stout and asked Mr. Henderson if the man were the sort to give stout to. Mr. Henderson thought it a good thing to do, and Louis explained to the trader that it was given him as a medicine, not as a beverage to be handed down to others asking him to promise that he would drink it all himself. He readily enough gave the promise but said in that case Mr. Henderson would have to smuggle it to him, as he must drink it in secret. I also gave him a large and small bottle of iron, all that we had, telling him when that was done to put nails in his drinking water.

Not long ago the George Noble called at this island, her destination being the island of Piru (pronounced Peru). The natives who were on board heard the word and fled incontinently, nor could they be persuaded to go back; the dread word "Peru" was enough.

May 28th 1890 - we left Funafuti early this morning.


Footnote: It has been well documented that Alfred Restieaux left Funafuti in 1888 to trade on the island of Nukufetau where he remained until he passed away in 1911. In view of the navigational difficulties experienced by the Janet Nichol in reaching Funafuti one would have to keep an open mind to the possibility that the Stevenson party may have, in fact, landed on Nukufetau rather than Funafuti.


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 By Jane Resture
(E-mail: -- Rev. 24th February 2003)