‘A Footnote to History: Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa’ is a chronicle of the Samoan Civil War as seen through the eyes of Robert Louis Stevenson, who witnessed the events while living on the island of Upolu.
After cruising the Pacific Ocean, Robert Louis Stevenson decides to settle in Samoa. He becomes immensely interested in the country’s political situation, so he devotes his attention to the battle of three Western nations – Germany, Great Britain, and the United States – over control of the archipelago. As he observes the often tragic happenings, he shares his views on the colonial powers and their roles in the conflict.
This is not quite a memoir, not quite a detailed analysis, and not quite a history book. It’s something in between. It’s an unsentimental, a very matter-of-fact account penned by a man who was an eyewitness to what we would call a great demonstration of power in the not-so-golden era of colonialism. It’s an ample explanation of the past, undeniably worthy of note. However, and you should keep this in mind, it teaches more than it entertains.
Although extremely informative, the book won’t be to everyone’s taste. If you are a history enthusiast, you will most definitely love it. If you are a Pasifika aficionado, you may like it. But if you are just a literature fan, you will probably get bored with it after finishing the fifth page. This volume certainly wouldn’t win an award in ‘The Most Engaging’ category. This time, Stevenson’s writing style simply isn’t convincing; it is diffuse, unnecessarily prolix. His prose is overly formal, sentences winding, and lengthy descriptions more frustrating than enlightening. All these things make the whole book quite tedious and mundane. It’s not light-hearted literature that can be read for pleasure or enjoyment. Unless you take pleasure in broadening your historical knowledge, that is.
Of course, it would be unjust to focus on the negatives only. ‘A Footnote to History’ is an insightful account of the dramatic events, full of facts and details that are tremendously interesting. As a foreigner, someone from ‘the outside’, Stevenson acted as a partially neutral observer. Partially, because he openly sided with the Samoans. He was a fierce advocate for the archipelago’s independence from the colonial empires and never hesitated to criticize German, American, and British interests. Over 100 years ago, the book served as the author’s silent protest against the diplomacy of involvement; today, it is a reminder of what a dangerous game imperialism can be.
Apart from being a valuable history lesson, the volume is also a fascinating journey into the culture of Samoan people. Stevenson not only records the times of the war, but he also describes the attitudes and behaviours of the native inhabitants. He emphasizes their heroism, honesty, and amiability, contrasting these with the Westerners’ devious actions. As he reveals what fa’a Samoa really means, he encourages readers to learn from the Polynesians, giving their etiquette and moral values as examples to follow.
I must say that this book is one of the most underrated works from the Scottish author. It is by no means an easy read but well worth the effort. And although it may be quite challenging to get through all the eleven chapters (don’t give up!), I can promise you – sooner or later – you’ll get your reward.