Thursday, April 23, 2009

Get Some Schmaltz Right Up Ye

(Note - written and saved ages ago for publication earlier this month - forgot about it until now)

By 1890, Robert Louis Stevenson was wealthy and famous, living well on the profits of his bestsellers Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Nonetheless, Stevenson was still struggling with severe bouts of tuberculosis, and had spent many years searching for a climate more beneficial to his health than the horizontal sleet of his homeland. Despite his spells in the south of England, the French Riviera and the United States, he was still restless and sickly.

On 11th April the Stevenson family set sail from Sydney for the South Sea islands, settling on the Samoan island of Upolu. With much work to be done making a new family home on top of a hill in sight of the sea, his health steadily improved, and the Stevensons were soon able to maintain the lavish and typically eccentric lifestyle of the colonial gentry, dressing for dinner in starch-collared formality and bare feet.

The author of adventure and horror yarns was a huge hit wth the locals, who quickly forgave his oddball habits and dubbed him Tusitala - "Story teller." The more time that Stevenson spent with the islanders, the more he came to resent the policies of their British rulers, divining - quite accurately, I imagine - that the Samoans were merely an afterthought in the Empire's plans for the region.

The Samoans, he believed, were people capable of extraordinary cultural and economic achievements, but were being hindered by the policies of their distant rulers. Stevenson became a prolific letter-writer on their behalf, making himself enough of a nuisance to the colonial administration that he began fear deportation.

Becoming a man of some small influence with his neighbours, Stevenson once interceded in a dispute that had culminated in one local tribe capturing members of another, and eventually managed to secure their release. In gratitude, and seeing the toll which the long climb up the narrow path up to his house took upon Stevenson, the freed men set to work building a road to his door. Being a soppy bunch, they named it "The Road of Gratitude" or "The Road of Loving Hearts" - it probably depends on inflection, or something.

Stevenson had battled with writer's block for much of his time in the South Seas, but sudden inspiration had helped him pour many, many hours into a new novel - Weir of Hermiston. He considered it his finest work, and wrote to an acquaintance...

"...sick and well, I have had splendid life of it, grudge nothing, regret very little ... take it all over, damnation and all, would hardly change with any man of my time."

Not long after, while Stevenson was opening a bottle of wine at dinner, he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died within hours, Hermiston still unfinished.

His neighbours stood watch over his body through that night and carried him to be buried on nearby Mount Vaea the following morning. The Road of Loving Hearts has been maintained to this day, still curling around the hill towards the spot where the Stevenson family house once stood.

A relief memorial was placed over Stevenson's final resting place a decade later and, as he had wished, the text of his poem Requiem was inscribed upon it.

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.

Source - A Samoan Memorial of R.L. Stevenson

(Pictures - Stevenson in 1887 by John Singer Sergeant; stock photo of Samoa; Stevenson's grave on Mount Vaea, Samoa)

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