Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Legacy of Robert Louis Stevenson

Robert Louis Stevenson came to Samoa on the recommendation of its climate being potentially therapeutic for his tuberculosis.  He came for a visit and stayed until his death four years later in December of 1894. These were his best years as an adult, having suffered from his childhood with the constant illness and weakness of the disease. They were also the most productive of his writing career. He wrote thirteen booksduring his years in Samoa.

We have visited his home, Vailima, twice now since we arrived, and I’m sure we will visit there again before we leave. There is a wonderful spirit there. It is beautiful, peaceful, and full of history. Mt Vaea rises abruptly behind the home, or rather off to the side. It is visible from RLS’s study on the second floor where he did his writing. In the early ‘70’s, our young family in tow, we climbed the steep path to its crest where he is buried.  From the front veranda, looking across the groomed landscape, the sea is visible through the trees which surround the 350 acre estate. When the estate was new and being developed, Stevenson, his family and his host of Samoan help, had a clear view of the sea as the trees were not yet grown to maturity.

Stevenson put his heart into Vailima and into the nation of Samoa and its people. They gave him the name Tusitala, meaning story teller.  He was a true friend of Samoa, an advocate for the independence of her people from foreign rule, and an understanding and appreciative observer of their culture. It seems more than coincidental that the few short years he lived there were pivotal years in Samoan history, when Germany was entrenched politically and economically, and England and America were more than silent observers.  Two rival chiefs (matai) each with legitimate ties to the throne by lineage and both with large and loyal followings, had positioned themselves for war. Germany had sided with and exercised great influence over Maleatoa Laupepa who sat as king, while Mata’afa stood for the traditional Samoan way of selecting their kings and governing their country. RLS supported the rebels and considered Mata’afa a friend.

Following a bloody battle between these two factions, the Germans deported Mata’afa to the Mrshall Islands and took approximately 20 chiefs of Mata’afa’s camp prisoner.  Within a week they built a prison to contain them. Confined to 6 dark cells, these chiefs who knew nothing but freedom, were terribly despondent.  When Stevenson saw their conditions and realized what little food they were subsisting on, he pressed the European powers to allow them to build 8 fales to house themselves , and to allow their families to feed them and visit them. The prison commander, himself appalled at their conditions, went further and allowed some family members to live with their men in prison. Stevenson continued to petition the foreign government to release the chiefs, who he maintained were no threat to the government. Eventually his untiring efforts in their behalf were rewarded by their release.

By way of thanks, the chiefs built a road to Vailima, which Stevenson named, The Road of Loving Hearts. These high-ranking chiefs normally would not themselves be about road building. This was a gift born of gratitude that would endure as a symbol of their love for their Tusitala. They would take no pay, neither expect nor accept any food or supplies while work was underway.

On the Sunday following Thanksgiving in that same year of 1894, surrounded by family and his beloved and devoted Samoan staff, Stevenson offered this prayer at evening vespers:
“We thank Thee and we praise Thee. We beseech Thee, Lord, to behold us with favor. Be patient; suffer us yet a while longer-with our broken purposes of good, and our idle endeavors against evil. Suffer us a while longer to endure, and help us to do better. Bless to us our extraordinary mercies, be with our friends, be with ourselves. Go with each of us to rest. If any awake, temper to them the dark hours of watching. And when the day returns, return to us, our sun and comforter. And call us up with morning faces and with morning hearts, eager to labor, eager to be happy, if happiness be our portion. And if the day be marked for sorrow, may we be strong to endure it. Amen.” 

December 3rd, 1894 was to be his last day at Vailima. Surrounded by family, he passed peacefully into the next world. The diagnosis of the doctor was a blood clot to the brain. Sorrow settled on Vailima. High-ranking and ordinary Samoans came from villages far and near to pay homage to their friend, Tusitala. His oft expressed wish to be buried at the top of Mt Vaea  was honored.  Throughout the night the sound of machete and ax could be heard as those same chief’s who built The Road of Loving Hearts, chopped and slashed a path 500 vertical feet to the crest of the mountain. The next day his coffin was carried on the shoulders of his loving Samoan staff, up the steep mountain side, where he was buried by these adoring friends and servants.  As requested, he died with his boots on. The following verse was written by Stevenson years before, but seem prophetic.

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.
Here may the winds about me blow;
Here may the clouds come and go;
Here shall be rest for evermo
And the heart for aye shall be still.
This be the verse you grave for me
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from the sea
And the hunter home from the hill.

~ Robert Lous Stevenson

Vailima (Five Rivers)

The bed (with original mosquito net) where he rested and did some of his writing.

The Great Hall where mourners came to view his body.
This room was the scene of many happy celebrations and gatherings while he was yet alive.

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