They called him “Tusitala”, which means the “Writer of Tales”.
When Robert Louis Stevenson, a Scottish author, and his family arrived in the South Pacific in 1889/90 he encountered a paradise in Samoa which must have been unlike anything he had ever seen before: a warm, tropical climate, friendly and hard-working people, beautiful gardens and peaceful and quiet surroundings.
For as long as he could remember, Stevenson had been struggling with the ill health of his lungs. The climate in Samoa seemed perfect, so much better than his native Scottland or his wife’s native America. So he set out to buy an estate right outside of Apia, in Vailima, and moved in with his wife, her children from her first marriage and his mother.
If you think that life in the South Pacific is quite different to what you experience in your urban world today, think how it must have felt for the Stevenson family. Oh, I think Robert must have been alright – he is after all the world famous author of Treasure Island – but his elderly mother definitely struggled in the climate and with the strange food.
When visiting the wonderful Robert Louis Stevenson Museum in Samoa you will see how these “white people” have tried to adapt to the different environment of Samoa.
Right in the first room you will see a fireplace – probably the first and only one ever built in Samoa. Even if it has probably never been used, it reminded the author of his home country and it allowed him and his family to feel right at home in this cosy little room.
A curious mix – on the one hand the fireplace, on the other hand collectables and souvenirs from all around the world on the mantelpiece and along the walls, which in turn have been covered with elaborate and delicate tapa cloths – a speciality of the Samoan islands.
Upstairs, Stevenson’s writing room which doubled as his personal bedroom. Easily the best room in the house thanks to the elevated position, the great views of the gardens, and the constant breeze coming in through the big windows. It is in this room that Stevenson finished some of his finest works including The Beach of Falesa and The Ebb Tide, The Wrecker and Catriona.
His wife’s room next door is completely covered in dark American timber panelling, again a reminder of home back in the day when there was only a telegraph service to connect you with the outside world.
The other bedrooms you can visit at the Robert Louis Stevenson Museum in Apia include the mother’s bedroom, the step-daughters bedroom (with her own sketches along the wall – she studied the arts in Paris), and the step-son’s room which is complete with bow and arrows from South Africa and old children’s toys.
Downstairs, the big family room gives an impression on how the family passed their time, with a big dinner table, classical instruments and smaller gaming tables. There is also an impressive safe where Stevenson kept his valuables and manuscripts.
Stevenson was a sick man, and even thought the Samoan climate must have been beneficial to his health, he was taken ill quite a few times and required nursing by his wife. The museum shows a dedicated room with the sick bed and a number of medications and nursing equipment.
Despite all good intentions, Stevenson passed away prematurely in 1894, aged only 44. He was a well-loved member of the Samoan community, very active in politics and friend to all influential citizens and the royal family, and when he passed away his neighbours arranged a funeral procession with all honours to his final resting place up on Mount Vaea, overlooking the Pacific.
It’s funny how the Samoans claim that they cannot sing and then they “give it a try” and manage to mesmerise their audiences with the most angelic tunes. Our lovely museum guide did exactly that by reciting a melancholic requiem that Stevenson had written before his death, partly sung in Samoan and partly in English. A wonderful, heartfelt tune that make it very apparent how much this Scottsman was loved by the Samoan people.
Stevenson’s family did not stay in Samoa after his death. The house had a number of changes to ownership, including the Samoan government, until eventually it was bought by an American who is a huge fan of the author. It is thanks to his generous investment and dedication, that the legacy is not forgotten in Samoa and can be enjoyed by all tourists and visitors today.
If you plan a visit, think about taking a copy of a Stevenson book, for example Treasure Island or Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde from your home country to add to the museum’s collection.
Entry is reasonable and absolutely worth it, at around $15 tala for adults and $5 for kids. Please be mindful that you will need to take off your shoes and that is eating inside the house is not allowed.
There is also the opportunity to visit the gravesite, I am sure a wonderful experience that will complete a visit to this extraordinary museum in Samoa.