Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa Review

By Will Barber Taylor

Almost every adult and child is familiar with Treasure Island, but fewer know that Robert Louis Stevenson lived out his last years on a similarly remote island, which was squabbled over by colonial powers as Captain Flint’s treasure was contested by the mongrel crew of the Hispaniola.

In 1890, Stevenson settled in Upolu, an island in the Samoan archipelago after two years sailing around the South Pacific. He was given the name Tusitala – Teller of Tales- and became a fierce critic of the interference of Germany, Britain and the USA in Samoan affairs. This stance earned him Oscar Wilde’s sneers and bought him into conflict with the Colonial Office, who regarded him as a menace and threatened him with expulsion from the island.

Joseph Farrell’s pioneering account of Stevenson’s twilight years stands apart from previous biographical studies by giving as much weight to Samoa and the Samoans, their culture, their manners and their history, as to the life and work of the man himself. For it is only by examining the full complexity of Samoa and the political situation it faced as the twentieth century approached that Stevenson’s lasting and generous contribution to its cause can be appreciated.

Robert Louis Stevenson, author of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Treasure Island is a Scottish legend. His work is also imbued with a strong sense of the country he loved and like Blackpool Rock, Scotland goes through the centre of all his work. Yet, not as well known, was Stevenson’s devotion to another nation that began with S – Samoa.  Stevenson’s connection to Samoa is one that has been for too long unexamined within the complexity of the period in which it occurred. Farrell, however, corrects this.

By delving into both Stevenson’s life in Samoa as well as Samoan politics and culture of the period, Farrell reveals Stevenson as a man ahead of his time – willing to stand up to imperial powers who simply wanted to use the island and its people for political and profit-making purposes. Farrell’s look at Samoan life helps reinforce the clash between British and Samoan culture that saw Stevenson caught in the middle – between a deep love and respect for Samoa and attempting to not be forced from the island by the Foreign Office.

The photographs that are in the centre of the book are fascinating and are some of the most unique photos I’ve seen in books written about the Victorian period – they present a completely different picture of Victorian colonialism. They also fit perfectly with Farrell’s excellent illustration of the world in which Stevenson was living.

Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa is a fascinating and detailed book which focuses on a period of the great writer’s life that is sadly overlooked but one which highlights why he was so special. It clearly defines Stevenson’s belief in justice and forward thinking that characterises so much of his work. Farrell’s work is also excellent because it highlights Samoan culture and politics and thus presents a two-sided story – what Samoa meant to Stevenson and what Stevenson meant to Samoa giving us a full and vivid picture of a fascinating chapter in literary history.

With thanks to MacLehose Press. You can buy Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa from Amazon here. 

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