Tag Archives: Robert Louis Stevenson

‘A FOOTNOTE TO HISTORY: EIGHT YEARS OF TROUBLE IN SAMOA’ BY ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON

‘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.

A FOOTNOTE TO HISTORY

Summary

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.

Review

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.

‘IN THE SOUTH SEAS’ BY ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON

‘In the South Seas’ is an account of a journey undertaken by Robert Louis Stevenson and his wife Fanny in June 1888. The book, which was published posthumously, describes their experiences in the Marquesas, the Paumotus, and the Gilbert Islands.

IN THE SOUTH SEAS

Summary

Due to his declining health, Robert Louis Stevenson decides to take his family on a voyage to the Pacific Islands. In the Marquesas, their first destination, the group becomes acquainted with local customs and traditions. They quickly discover that white people and the natives share as many differences as similarities. They also notice that the islands, however beautiful they are, hide some very dark secrets of the past…

After their stay in the Marquesas, the Stevenson party sets sail for the Paumotu Archipelago. They rent a magnificent villa on Fakarava atoll and spend their time exploring the surroundings and socializing with family-oriented and hard-working Paumotuan people. On one occasion, they attend a traditional funeral of an old man. This sad occurrence leads Mr Stevenson to trace the history of religious beliefs in the South Seas.

From the Paumotus, the group travels to Hawaii and then to the Gilbert Islands. They visit Butaritari atoll, where they witness a wild and boozy celebrations of the 4th of July, and attend a five-day long festival full of music and dancing. Afterwards, the family heads to Apemama to meet King Tembinok’ – a tyrant ruler surrounded by female wardens. Although the monarch does not accept the presence of foreigners, he makes an exception and grants the Stevensons a permission to live on the island, in their very own Equator City.

Review

I should be honest here, this book is not an easy read. Despite being very informative and interesting, it may not suit everyone’s tastes.

Stevenson’s travelogue is first and foremost an accurate and in-depth description of certain Pacific islands and their native inhabitants. As a keen observer of nature and people, the author paints a very real picture of what we often call ‘a tropical paradise’. And, let me tell you, this picture is not a rosy one but always full of respect for the Islanders. Because in Stevenson’s eyes the natives weren’t cruel cannibals, though he knew exactly that some of them had enjoyed human flesh. He didn’t treat them as savages either, even when their behaviour was far from the commonly accepted norms. Such attitude makes his South Sea tales very believable and convincing. As a reader, you simply trust everything the author says.

The book is exceptionally well written. Depictions, even if long in some parts, are second to none. They capture attention, they appeal to the senses, they make you want to be in that particular place – on the beach in Kiribati or in the warm waters of French Polynesia. Stevenson’s words leave you longing for an adventure. With every page your desire to experience the island life grows stronger. And then, suddenly, when you put the book down, you are forced to get back to reality while Pasifika slowly fades away.

The author’s style definitely delights, however some readers may struggle with the language. You are probably aware of the fact that it is quite archaic, so understanding Stevenson’s thoughts can be a challenge. But if you are prepared for the 19th century prose and not afraid of a few uncommon words, give it a try. I’m sure you won’t be disappointed, especially when you bury yourself in that magnificent atmosphere of the Pacific region.

I must say I enjoyed this book very much. It is a true classic and can be regarded as one of the most valuable pieces of literature that addresses the Blue Continent. It’s a must-read for those who are truly interested in the South Seas.