Robert Louis Stevenson: novelist, playwright, poet, traveller
Your guide to Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson, author of literary classics The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) and Treasure Island (1883)
Who was Robert Louis Stevenson?
Robert Lewis Balfour Stevenson (1850–94) was born in Edinburgh, son of a noted lighthouse designer. He suffered from respiratory illnesses from early childhood, and his schooling was intermittent. He didn’t learn to read until he was eight – though by then he was already dictating stories to his mother and nurse.
In 1867 Stevenson began studying engineering at Edinburgh University, but soon decided – to his father’s disappointment – that literature was his only real passion. Encouraged by friends at university, he honed his writing craft; adopting Bohemian airs, he grew his hair long and began wearing a velvet jacket.
In his twenties he travelled in France (where he met with Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne, a married American) and Belgium. In 1878 he walked through the Cévennes, a trip that inspired his third book, Travels with a Donkey. In August 1879 he travelled to California to rejoin Fanny, and they married in May 1880.
The Stevensons decamped to various locations in an attempt to remedy his health problems – Switzerland, the south of France, Bournemouth and, in 1887, New York State. Despite his illnesses, he completed Treasure Island, The Black Arrow, Kidnapped and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde during this time.
In June 1888, Stevenson, Fanny and her son travelled to San Francisco, where they boarded the Casco for a cruise of the Pacific islands. Departing Honolulu a year later, they settled in Samoa; here, Stevenson bought a plantation on the island of Upolu, where he lived – aside from visits to New Zealand, Australia and other Pacific islands – till his death on 3 December 1894, probably of a cerebral haemorrhage.
In the Footsteps of: Robert Louis Stevenson’s first South Pacific voyage
Christina Thompson sails in the writer’s wake from San Francisco to the Marquesas, the Tuamotus, Tahiti and Hawaii
In the summer of 1888, Robert Louis Stevenson embarked on a valedictory tour of the South Pacific. His health, never good, was in decline, and he believed, as he later recalled, that he “was come to the afterpiece of life, and had only the nurse and the undertaker to expect”. He was not far wrong: he lived only another six years.
His breakthrough novel, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), had proved a literary sensation, bringing him both fame and fortune. Thanks to that success, in San Francisco he was able to charter a luxurious 94-foot schooner called the Casco, on which he set sail with his mother, his wife, her stepson and their French maid, bound for Polynesia.
The Casco was at sea for almost a month before the first island appeared on the horizon. The moon had set over an hour earlier, wrote Stevenson, and in the east “a radiating centre of brightness” hinted at the coming day. Along the line of the horizon, a bank of morning cloud was building “black as ink”. No one on board the Casco had ever seen these islands, and all gathered on deck to watch as the brooding, beautiful Marquesas loomed into view.
The Marquesas are great masses of basalt that rise hundreds of metres above the surface of the sea
“Slowly they took shape in the attenuating darkness,” Stevenson wrote. First the island of Ua Huka grew visible on the starboard bow, then Nuku Hiva, “whelmed in cloud”; to the south, the first rays of dawn picked out the needles of Ua Pou.
Formed by ancient volcanoes, the Marquesas are what are known in the Pacific as ‘high islands’: great masses of basalt that rise hundreds of metres above the surface of the sea. Over millions of years, these peaks have been eroded by wind and water to create a fantastic array of ridges, buttresses, pillars, and spires, which looked to Stevenson in the opalescent light like “the pinnacles of some ornate and monstrous church”.
The Casco’s first port of call was a bay on the north side of Nuku Hiva. Marquesan coastlines are ferociously rugged, with great cliffs of reddish rock rising directly from the sea. The Casco slipped into Anaho, a rare sheltered cove tucked into the lee of a headland and protected from both wind and ocean surge, as the captain watched for the blowhole that marked the anchorage.
Of his arrival in the part of the world that, as it turned out, would be his home till the end of his life, Stevenson wrote: “The blow-hole spouted; the schooner turned upon her heel; the anchor plunged. It was a small sound, a great event; my soul went down with these moorings whence no windlass may extract nor any diver fish it up.”
Stevenson loved the South Pacific. He loved the ragtag quality of the colonial settlements, and he loved the beauty and vitality – and, sometimes, the absurdity – of the islanders themselves. But there is something elegiac about his description of his first encounter with these islands.
The Casco sailed for the Tuamotus, to scenes so different, wrote Stevenson, they might be 'a new province of creation'
“At all hours of the day,” he wrote, they “strike the eye with some new beauty, and the mind with the same menacing gloom.” It is hard not to read in his account of the Marquesas some sense of his own mortality, and yet death and dying were subjects that no visitor to the islands in 1888 could easily have ignored.
Stevenson recorded a conversation he had with a girl of about 16 years old, a grave, gentle creature already nursing her own child. They spoke together about Britain, Stevenson trying to convey to her a sense of the houses, the crowds and, especially, the cold. This last idea struck her forcefully, and she observed that such a climate must be bad for the health. Then, as if by association, she began to talk about the decline of her own people. “Ici pas de Kanaques,” she said, using the colonial term for islanders derived from kanaka, the Hawaiian word for ‘man’. “Tenez,” she said, holding out her child to Stevenson: “Hold.” “A little baby like this; then dead. All the Kanaques die. Then, no more.”
Of all the Polynesian islands, the Marquesas had been among those hit hardest by the advent of imported disease. Smallpox, dysentery, influenza and measles had all arrived in the Marquesas on European and American ships, along with sexually transmitted diseases, which contributed to the islanders’ decline by destroying their fertility. Having experienced no previous exposure and thus having acquired no immunity, Marquesans died in the hundreds with every new epidemic. So fast did the population decline that, from a high of perhaps 50,000 at the end of the 18th century, by the time Stevenson arrived barely 4,000 Marquesans survived.
Stevenson was strangely fascinated by the omnipresence of death. Songs and dances, he reported, could no longer be performed because there was no one left who knew the words or movements. Gardens went untended; suicides increased; coffins, new arrivals in the islands, became objects of prestige. Fear, he wrote, was also a problem, because the spirits of the dead – whom the Marquesans dreaded – now vastly outnumbered the living. The whole picture prompted Stevenson to imagine a future global extinction: “no more of any race whatever… death coming in like a tide”.
Castaways and vagabonds
From Anaho, the Casco sailed round the island to the port of Taiohae, then, as now, the Marquesas' main colonial outpost. Here, Stevenson encountered a very different crowd: French officials, German clerks, the “shrewd Scot” who ran the local saloon, “agents of the opium monopoly” and a scattering of castaways, runaways, vagabonds, and beachcombers. Together they shared the comforts of expatriates across the Pacific: a billiard table, absinthe, a map of the world and “one of the most agreeable verandahs in the tropics”. Stevenson toured the Residency, the church and the jail, where he learned that almost the only crime in the islands was theft, invariably the consequence of opium-eating.
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From there the ship continued to Hiva Oa in a “dead beat of ninety miles against a heavy sea”. It was a miserable 40 hours: the mate lost his footing and cut open his head, the captain was sick on deck, and the cook was sick in the galley. Sailing past the island of Ua Pou, Stevenson thought that under such conditions the soaring stone needles looked “like a piece of the scenery of nightmares”. Eventually, though, the Casco arrived at the second-largest of the Marquesas.
Hiva Oa is now famous as the last resting place of artist Paul Gauguin and Belgian singer Jacques Brel, but in those days the settlement of Atuona was just another bustling little Polynesian port. On arrival, Stevenson was greeted with a missive in laudatory verse sent to him by one Mr M’Callum, an American ship’s carpenter who had settled in the island and was known locally as something of a bard:
Sail, ho! Ahoy! Casco
First among the pleasure fleet
That came around to greet
These isles from San Francisco.
And first, too; only one
Among the literary men
That this way has ever been –
Welcome, then, to Stevenson.
In early September, the crew and passengers of the Casco said farewell to the Marquesas and sailed south and west for the Tuamotus, bound for scenes so different, wrote Stevenson, that they might be “a new province of creation”. The Tuamotu Archipelago is a labyrinthine trail of islands strung out in a long, broad line running north-west to south-east about halfway between the Marquesas and Tahiti. It comprises not ‘high islands’ like the Marquesas but ‘low islands’ – coral atolls.
An atoll is one of the wonders of the sea. The remnant of an ancient volcano, which has worn away and subsided below the waves, it consists of a ring of coral, rock and rubble, with occasional crescents of the most astonishingly white sand. Within the ring lies a lagoon, a comparatively quiet body of water often of a startling turquoise; outside, the reef is battered by the relentless, unforgiving sea. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about an atoll, however, is its lack of height – at most, three or four metres above sea level. Stevenson described the first atoll he saw as “an inconsiderable islet, flat as a plate upon the sea”.
Taiaroa was 'lost in blue sea and sky: a ring of white beach, green underwood, and tossing palms, gem-like in colour'
Aiming for Takaroa, when the captain of the Casco eventually saw an atoll he concluded that he had missed his mark, and that the island in front them was actually Tikei. Next came Taiaroa, “lost in blue sea and sky: a ring of white beach, green underwood, and tossing palms, gem-like in colour; of a fairy, of a heavenly prettiness”. From there the party sailed on to Raraka and Kauehi, the low-slung shores of which seemed somehow to be facing from them at every turn. It was then, wrote Stevenson, “that I began to be sorry for cartographers” – and also for the Casco’s captain, who had agreed only with the greatest reluctance to make for the Tuamotus at all.
Indweller of the isle
At length, they reached the atoll of Fakarava, the archipelago’s seat of government. Stevenson decided to get off the yacht and take up residence in a house; they would become, for a short time at least, “indwellers of the isle”, a practice he later repeated wherever he could. Yet the difference between being on land and being at sea is less obvious on an atoll, where one feels the constant presence of water – at any time and in any direction, just a stone’s throw away.
“I was never weary,” Stevenson wrote, “of calling up the image of that narrow causeway, on which I had my dwelling, lying coiled like a serpent, tail to mouth, in the outrageous ocean, and I was never weary of passing – a mere quarter-deck parade – from the one side to the other, from the shady, habitable shores of the lagoon to the blinding desert and uproarious breakers of the opposite beach.”
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Despite the insecurity of atoll life – poor soil, inconstant water, the ever-present threat of hurricane and tsunami – the Tuamotuans seemed to be thriving. Unlike on the Marquesas, births here outstripped deaths. This was, thought Stevenson, a remarkable place, and added to his fascination with the region.
Toward the end of September, the Casco departed Fakarava for Tahiti, where Stevenson remained with his family for the next three months. The ménage decamped to various locations around the island, including Tautira on the peninsula of Tahiti-iti, which Stevenson described as “the most beautiful spot… I have ever found”.
On Christmas Day 1888, the party embarked on the final leg of the journey, arriving in Honolulu after a difficult passage lasting nearly a month. The Casco set sail to return to San Francisco shortly afterwards, but without Stevenson and his family. They had elected to remain in the Pacific – and Stevenson ended his days among the jewelled islands of the South Seas.
Christina Thompson is the author of Sea People: In Search of the Ancient Navigators of the Pacific (William Collins, 2019)