Robert Louis Stevenson: Vailima

Posted by on Oct 12, 2019 in Unmowed Blog | 0 comments

Did you ever have the experience of coming to a place for the first time, and feeling like you belonged there? Like that great line in the song Rocky Mountain High: “He was born in the summer of his twenty-seventh year, coming home to a place he’d never been before.” That experience happened to a very unlikely person—a tall, lanky Scotsman in 1889. A life-long frail invalid, he was taking a long ocean voyage for his health. After weeks spent crossing the South Pacific, he came one day upon the tiny South Pacific island of Samoa. Robert Louis Stevenson took one look and knew he had come home.

Stevenson wrote that when he dropped anchor in Apia harbor, his heart took anchor too. He instantly loved everything about Samoa—the hot sun, the rainbow fish of the coral reefs, the tropical fruit, the palm trees, the orchids. He made many friends among the Samoans and was fiercely involved in their politics.

Until he got to Samoa, he had been ill all his life. He suffered from a strange ailment that was thought to be consumption, but no one really knows what it was. Racked by coughing and spitting blood, desperate for a cure, he had tried the seaside, the moors, the mountains. He lived in a cabin in the Adirondacks in upstate New York—in the winter! When that surprisingly failed to mend his health, he tried a villa in Italy, a cottage in France, but nothing worked, no place could cure him–until he took to the sea. Once on board ship, his ailment vanished as if by magic. Was it the fresh sea air, the lack of smog and pollution that eased his fragile lungs, or was it just that he thrived on the freedom of escaping out to sea? No one knows.

Samoa was the one place he could live on land and not feel ill. In Samoa he ran around barefoot, wore a sarong, and spent whole days riding, gardening, or vigorously whacking brush with a machete. He and his wife bought some land and built a large house they named Vailima, with airy balconies and open rooms. He also had a cozy fireplace installed, to remind him of Scotland, although in the humid warmth of Samoa it was never actually used.

I’ve always made a hobby of visiting the homes of authors, and this home is one of the jewels of my collection. I travelled all the way to Samoa to visit Vailima.

Here Stevenson lived for the rest of his short life. He would write sitting on the breezy open porches that surrounded the house, looking out over the beautiful island. He was working on a book he considered to be his best, The Weir of Hermiston, when he unexpectedly died, probably from stroke.

Perhaps he realized his time was limited, because he had often expressed a wish to be buried on the top of the nearby Mt. Vaea, a beautiful hill covered with palms, tree ferns, and orchids, and alive with birds. His grieving friends hacked a pathway through the dense rainforest and carried his body to the top of the mountain.

As he wished, the epitaph he had written years before is inscribed on his tomb.

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.

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