Samoa

 

 

In the past, I have occasionally played a thoroughly excellent pub game. The idea of it is for the table to collectively come up with the most famous artist or band that no-one can name a single song by. What usually happens is that someone eventually says Genesis, someone else points out that they did Sledgehammer, and the local pedant points out that Sledgehammer was a Peter Gabriel solo track.  On it goes until I Can’t Dance is recalled, Genesis are exonerated and everyone settles upon Depeche Mode as the definitive answer.

 

To my utter, utter shame, I used to be like that with Robert Louis Stevenson. I knew he was a famous author and I knew he’d written some extremely well-known books. But I couldn’t remember which ones.It would be fair, therefore, to say I was ambivalent towards the Scottish wordsmith. Yet others will make a pilgrimage to the other side of the world to see where he’s buried. And, bizarrely, that place is Samoa.

 

Stevenson (who, of course, wrote the likes of Treasure Island and Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde) was a sickly chap who died at the age of 44. He spent the last four years of his life in Samoa, hoping that the climate would do him a few favours in the health department, but he fell in love with the Polynesian way of life.

 

His grave is a steep trudge up a hill from the house he had built after arriving in Samoa. The house was called Vailima – meaning ‘five streams’ – and it’s a measure of the esteem Stevenson is held in here that the national beer bears the same name. Vailima has been protected and restored, now containing a small Robert Louis Stevenson museum amongst gorgeous gardens. Back in Stevenson’s day, it was a plantation house surrounded by bananas and pineapples. Indeed, we’re told that it was Stevenson who introduced the pineapple to Samoa, possibly in a bid to secure a place in pub quizzes over a century later.

 

The house is a weird combination of Samoan and Scottish. There’s a traditional tapa room, where the walls are lined with tapa (the papery bark of the mulberry tree) and the whole house is generally designed so that cooling breezes can flow through it. Yet it also plays host to Samoa’s first and only fireplace. It was never used, what with it being really hot all the time.

 

Throughout the house are pictures of Stevenson and his family. The old photos, of the author’s funeral and meeting with the Hawaiian king have a wonderful air of innocence. The original clothes and suitcases from the era are on display, whilst there are little culture-clash nuggets that prove fascinating. The Stevenson family sewed their own clothes on an imported sewing machine, while the locals didn’t tend to wear any.

 

But it’s made clear that Stevenson wasn’t seen as some old colonial stamping his mark where it wasn’t wanted. He seems to be seen as a gentle man who made many friends. When Germany annexed Samoa in 1900 and took village chiefs prisoner, Stevenson went to visit them in jail. The chiefs organised for the road to Vailima to be built in his honour.

 

Even for someone whose knowledge of the author’s life and work is somewhat patchy (that would be me, then), Vailima is a warming, mellowing place to visit. It feels like a gateway to a gentler world.