Samoa: Tales of the teller live on

By Robyn Yousef

Robert Louis Stevenson chose Apia as his last home, writes Robyn Yousef.

Vaillima, restored as the Robert Louis Stevnson Museum.
Vaillima, restored as the Robert Louis Stevnson Museum.

Requiem

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.

It's not often that museums move me to tears, but I wasn't the only tourist pulling out the tissues at Robert Louis Stevenson's Museum in Apia, Samoa. When the guide read the famous Requiem and then sang it in Samoan I noticed even some chunky Ocker males were tearing up.

We were standing in the room Stevenson used as his hospital ward in the beautiful plantation home called Vailima where he spent his last days.

The Scottish-born writer, who ranks among the 26 most translated writers in the world and is famous for works such as Treasure Island Kidnapped and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, spent the last four-and a-half years of his life on the hilltop property where he died in December 1894 at the age of 44.

I was celebrating a significant birthday in Samoa and, always intrigued by "Tusitala" (the name the Samoans gave Stevenson, meaning teller of tales), I was determined to visit the museum, located directly below Stevenson's Mt Vaea burial site.

In failing health, Stevenson searched for a suitable place of residence for some years before he bought 161ha in Upolu, Samoa, in 1890 to build his home.

A century after his death and burial, the Robert Louis Stevenson Museum/Preservation Foundation dedicated the completely restored building of Vailima and opened it to the public as the Robert Louis Stevenson Museum.

Faithfully recreated by Mike McDaniel, an American interior designer, Vailima, looks very much as it did during the years the author lived there, with a few additional rooms.

Fortunately I arrived just as a very charming and eloquent Samoan guide, Margaret Silva, had begun her tour of the house including the Great Hall, author's library, the smoking room and numerous bedrooms.

Like the legendary Tusitala, Margaret told some wonderful tales. With her colourful commentary it was so easy to imagine R.L.S. lying in that hospital room (the Stevensons called it the Medicine Room) where he was tended by his American wife, Fanny - often using traditional Samoan medicines.

Although many of the pieces of furniture on display are not the originals, there are some pieces the family owned - such as a big travelling trunk marked R.L. Stevenson and a chintzy armchair in the writer's mother's room.

There is also a major collection of photographs of the Stevenson family throughout the house, including many of the writer at work and around the property with the local staff.

Pictures of Fanny show her in full Victorian garb with a flowing white gown and buttoned-up boots. Her Samoan name was Aolele - meaning "flying clouds", because of the long white dresses she always wore.

Also on display are some paintings by Stevenson's stepdaughter and secretary, Isobel, who did many drawings for his books. She spoke fluent Samoan and was named Teuila by the locals after the Samoan native flower. Her portraits show her trussed up in velvet gowns - it can't have been easy in the balmy Samoan weather.

The original safe where the writer kept all his manuscripts (it was the first safe in Samoa) is still on show in the Great Hall. Stevenson used to keep the local children away by claiming spirits lurked inside the American-made safe.

He wrote 13 books during his Samoan sojourn, but, apart from his literary successes, you need only a few minutes in the very evocative atmosphere of the museum to know how well loved and respected he was by the locals.

As our guide explained, Stevenson believed in the Samoan way and was very involved in Samoan politics.

He always said he wanted to be buried on Mt Vaea with "his boots on", which was understood to mean to be there with the Samoan people.

He referred to the Samoans as "one of God's sweetest creations".

Margaret pointed out across the beautifully manicured gardens up to his burial site. She described how when the news of his death went out across the islands of Samoa, the locals poured in to clear the Road of the Loving Heart to the site. They worked through the night by the light of kerosene lamps to clear the dense rainforest so he could be buried within 24 hours. They then took turns carrying Tusitala's coffin up the Road of the Loving Heart for his burial.

His tomb is inscribed with his famous Requiem and faces his homeland of Scotland.

His wife Fanny died in California in 1914 and the following year her daughter brought her ashes back to be interred next to Stevenson on Mt Vaea.

It takes about 45 minutes to climb that Road of the Loving Heart, which should be done in the cool of the morning or late afternoon.

It's a road I intend to climb when I next visit Samoa because I'm captivated by the place and the magic of Robert Louis Stevenson.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand usually (seasonal changes) flies between Auckland and Apia six times a week. Visitors can take a taxi or one of Samoa's famous buses from the centre of Apia to visit the museum.

Details: The Robert Louis Stevenson Museum is a non-profit organisation. It is open Monday-Friday from 9am-4pm and Saturday from 9am-noon and closed on Sundays.

- NZ Herald

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