• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

Novelist Robert Louis Stevenson's strange New Zealand connection

An 1887 portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson. Image/Getty Images

The global celebrity author of Treasure Island and other famous titles, Robert Louis Stevenson, made his final home in Samoa and survived an explosive visit to New Zealand.

When Robert Louis Stevenson slipped into Auckland one Friday night in 1890 – lank-haired and incognito – he was already a global literary celebrity, the JK Rowling of his day.

The author of Treasure Island, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Kidnapped was in the middle of another long and languid Pacific cruise. He and his American wife, Fanny, had just bought land for a house on the earthly paradise of Samoa, on the island of Upolu.

RelatedArticlesModule - Robert Louis Stevenson novelist nz

But rather than doze under a palm tree, Stevenson threw himself into island politics, buying into a newspaper, and agitating against what he saw as incompetent British, German and American control of the big Samoa archipelago.

He’d come to Auckland keen to talk politics with, and in search of direction and support from, seasoned colonist and former New Zealand Premier Sir George Grey, then elderly and retired in leafy Parnell.

Unlikely as it may seem, it was a Wellington civil servant who’d first alerted Stevenson to the wonders of the South Pacific. In 1875, as he prepared for his final law exams in Edinburgh, Stevenson met senior public servant (and distant relative) William Seed, who had visited Samoa, at his parents’ house.

Chief Tuimalealiifano with Stevenson. Photo/Getty Images

His journal recalled how the pair talked until 4am: “Awfully nice man here tonight … telling us all about the South Sea islands till I was sick with desire to go there: beautiful places, green for ever; perfect climate; perfect shapes of men and women, with red flowers in their hair; and nothing to do but to study oratory and etiquette, sit in the sun, and pick up the fruits as they fall.”

The 24-year-old graduate soon fled the professional career his respectable parents always expected. Instead, he became a bohemian writer and global wanderer. By 1876, he was involved with divorcee Fanny Osbourne, whom he later married in San Francisco. He would write Treasure Island for her son, Lloyd.

Stevenson’s fragile health stymied his first attempt to meet Grey. On April 19, 1890, he steamed into the Waitematā on board the trader Janet Nicoll and checked anonymously into the Star Hotel on Albert St. A receptionist recognised the guest with the long hair and magnetic eyes from a newspaper drawing.
Stevenson with Fanny, her daughter Isobel and his mother, Margaret, in Sydney in 1893. Photo/Alamy

Grey was due to call on the Saturday morning. But the world-famous author in the wide-brimmed straw hat and stained white suit collapsed after an hour’s Queen St shopping. He was returned to his shipboard bunk on a stretcher wrapped in blankets.

Stevenson had yet to turn 40, but was burdened with a lifetime of illness caused by weak lungs. Claire Harman’s 2005 biography postulated that he was a victim of Osler-Rendu-Weber syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes chronic respiratory diseases and recurrent lung haemorrhages.

From his bunk, he scribbled out an apology to Grey, which he had delivered to him along with a copy of his latest book. The wizened old political grandee sent back his sympathies along with some of his choicer writings on the rare dialects of Polynesia.

Sir George Grey. Image/Alexander Turnbull Library

Stevenson’s bad experiences in the Queen City didn’t end there. As the Janet Nicoll steamed out of the harbour, a stock of fireworks and cartridges secretly stashed by a fellow passenger somehow ignited, creating what were described as “gorgeous flames and the most horrible chemical stench”.

According to one account, Stevenson stood muddled with the smoke, and Fanny fought to prevent a crew member from tossing overboard a smouldering trunk full of her husband’s manuscripts. Items including photos and clothes were lost.

News of the below-the-radar visit leaked within days, the NZ Herald noting that “only two or three people in Auckland” knew of Stevenson’s presence. The renowned author was said to be “the most wonderful storyteller of his time”.

Three years passed. Stevenson’s health had deteriorated when he returned to Auckland on February 27, 1893, on board the Mariposa and en route to Sydney. Yet he still managed to spend much of a day with Grey at the city’s Northern Club, the pair glimpsed later walking arm-in-arm along St Georges Bay Rd in Parnell, talking animatedly.

Stevenson, flanked by Fanny and her son Lloyd, next to Stevenson’s mother, and household at Vailima in 1894. Photo/Getty Images

At home in Samoa, the Scotsman had been laid low by influenza, to the point where he lost his voice and had to use sign language. Fanny was said to be in worse shape mentally and physically, her paranoia and mood swings turning her into what one observer called the embodiment of a female Jekyll and Hyde.

Heading to sea aboard Mariposa cheered the Stevensons and their companion, Fanny’s daughter Isobel: “Already, though we only sailed yesterday, I am feeling as fit as a fiddle. Fanny ate a whole fowl for breakfast, to say nothing of a tower of hot cakes. Belle and I floored another hen betwixt the pair of us … If you think this looks like dying of consumption in Apia, I can only say I differ from you.”

Stevenson’s continuing fury at incompetent island rule by the three colonial powers compelled him to publish, in 1892, a long, grumpy non-fiction tract: A Footnote to History: Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa. He now feared deportation for making seditious remarks.

Yet, he was happy to talk politics with a Herald reporter in Auckland, attacking regulations aimed at muzzling critics such as himself. “If certain officials down there are to continue to rule, and to exercise their powers as they have done lately, life to a British resident in Samoa will soon cease to be worth living.”

Stevenson in 1890. Photo/Getty Images

The Scotsman railed against corrupt administrators, calling for peace between colonial powers and militant – and armed – indigenous factions. He didn’t want to leave Samoa: “Certainly not – that is, unless I am deported.”

In Auckland, Grey, no less infirm, provided a sympathetic and wise sounding board: “What a wonderful old historic figure to be walking on your arm and recalling ancient events and instances! It makes a man small, and yet the extent to which he approved what I had done – or rather have tried to do – encouraged me. Sir George is an expert at least, he knows these races: he is not a small employé with an ink-pot and a Whittaker.”

From Auckland, the Stevenson party steamed on to Sydney. During a three-week stay, he gave a series of public talks, and was photographed and generally feted. Fanny, however, lurked in her hotel room, depressed, as he noted: “Poor Fanny had very little fun of her visit, having been most of the time in a diet of maltine and slops – and this while the rest of us were rioting on oysters and mushrooms.”

Within two years, Stevenson was dead, aged 44, felled by a cerebral haemorrhage on the verandah of his modest red-roofed home on a plateau outside Vailima, at the foot of Mt Vaea. Samoan locals famously carried Tusitala (storyteller) to the 472m summit overlooking Apia, where his tomb bears the famous poem Requiem.
Vailima. Photo/Getty Images

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.
This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.

In 1899, five years after Stevenson’s death, the three colonial powers carved up the islands without consulting locals. Germany acquired the western group until the outbreak of war in 1914, when 1400 New Zealand troops invaded as a “great and urgent Imperial service”. Western Samoa remained under New Zealand trusteeship until it gained independence in 1962. The US still holds the eastern islands.

This article was first published in the February 9, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.