Essays & Images on Cities, Travel and Contemporary Culture. A web journal of James A. Clapp, Ph.D., an UrbisMedia Ltd. Production

Vol.39.7: TREASURED ISLANDS, by Lowell D. Holmes [BR]

V039-07_treasuredislandsIslands have always figure prominently in my readings, or maybe just my “escapist” readings.   I remember the first book I read, and it wasn’t a comic book, but a real hardbound book. I was just a kid and I was sick in bed for a few days. I don’t know how I came by a copy of Smiling Jack Escapes from Devil’s Island. I don’t even remember the author, and the book has long ago disappeared. [1]   I just remember being a little sad when it was over; it hooked me on books.


I have a much better remembrance of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island , the second book I read to completion. I had to ask my father the meaning of a lot of words, I recall, and he taught me how to use the dictionary.  I was young Jim ‘Arkins, as he came to be called in that 17 th Century Cornwall seaman’s argot best spoken by the likes of Long John Silver.  Elsewhere in these pages (Archives No. 23.7, The Call of the Sea) I have recounted my fascination with the seafaring life—mostly from the pages of books—and the exotic and mysterious islands, especially those of the South Seas. Islands and ships go together and are each a little bit of the other. I grew up on fantasies where I was always the young crew member who had to make love to the beautiful daughter of some Polynesian king, or the natives would slaughter all my crewmates.   This was my conception of true heroic selflessness. [2]


Maybe that was Stevenson’s fantasy as a young boy as well, but it appears that as he matured the call of Bali Hai had a different purpose for him.  Stevenson may have been a literary giant, but he was a slight and frail man who had long battled respiratory problems. He apparently had all the classic symptoms of the “consumptive”—low weight (98 pounds), a pasty complexion, and the hacking, an sometimes bloody, cough. He was anything but a robust sailor. Amazingly, he was a chain-smoker of his home-rolled cigarettes. Wife Fanny—she was a divorced woman with an adult son—was supposedly very protective of her husband’s health; but she also smoked, so Stevenson got the “second hand” stuff as well. Fanny was very susceptible to seasickness, but that did not daunt her in assisting and accompanying her husband’s pelagic adventures.


Today, Stevenson might be compared to a well-off executive or sports figure who can charter his own jet to set off when and to where he desires. Without his means from the success of his writings he never would have been able to have the sort of adventure recounted in this book. He was in all respects the exact opposite of the young Errol Flynn setting to sea (Archives 23. 7, The Call of the Sea), and would not have been hired on as an ordinary, much loess “able-bodied,” seaman by the merchant marine. In fact, his adventure was related to his frail health—the South Seas and the clement climes were supposed to be good for his dodgy lungs, the yet to be Surgeon General’s warnings about tobacco more than a half-century away. [3]


Holmes’ account has Stevenson setting out from San Francisco in 1888 in the 94′ schooner-yacht “Casco,” the first of three vessels involved in his three-year voyage.  There was a crew of five, including a captain Otis, and Stevenson’s wife, mother, Maggie, Fanny’s son Lloyd, and the Stevenson maid, Valentine.   It was the longest leg of the voyage, down to the Marquesas, calling at their islands with such exotic names:   Nuha Hiva, Hiva Oa, and Fatu Hiva. After calling at several of the society Islands (Tahiti) it was a wild tour of the South Pacific, a long reach up to Hawaii, where they switched vessels to another schooner, the “Equator,” then on to the Marshalls, Solomons, New Hebrides, switching to another ship, the 186′ steamer-sailor, Janet Nicol, at Tutulia island, then on to Sydney and Auckland.


Stevenson’s health waxed and waned, but on the whole it appeared that it was better than in the drafty climes of England and Scotland. He enjoyed doing manual labor when he was able. There were periods when he was literally down, but he continued to write and file his material to keep cash flowing as well as satisfy his muse. As a visitor he was hardly reclusive; the author took much interest in the various cultures and did not comport himself with the aloofness of an ethnically-superior westerner.  He engaged both common people and the royalty of various island cultures as well as western traders and missionaries. [4]


The Stevenson’s settled in Samoa, whose inhabitants Stevenson felt were “by far from either the most capable or the most beautiful of Polynesians,” but for whom his respect and affection grew.  Eventually, the Stevensons settled down in Samoa, building a house near Vailima, a village not far from the capitol at Apia.   This was a close to tropical paradise as it could get for Stevenson. Their house was the most elegant in Samoa, and well-appointed and suited to Robert’s writing needs and habits. He was very productive in the time he was there, completing the non-fictional works In the South Seas, Footnote to History, and Letters from Samoa, and fiction works Island Nights Entertainments and among others his important Scottish novelsCatriona, St. Ives, finally, Weir of Hermiston .


He was dictating the last of Weir of Hermiston, when he suddenly complained of a severe pain in his head. A few hours later, his doctors unable to prevent it, came his death by cerebral hemorrhage, at age 44. He was a young man by contemporary expectations, but sort of “on schedule” for the type of ailment he had and the extra pulmonary abuse he gave himself.


Stevenson lies in a grave on a site he had selected, on nearby Mount Vaea.   He was not unprepared, having penned his own epitaph, now on a bronze plaque there.


Under the wide and starry sky,

Dig the grave and let me lie.

Glad did I live and gladly die

And 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 the sea,

And the hunter home from the hill.


©2007, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 2.27.2007)

[1] Even a search on the Library of Congress web site failed to turn it up.   So if anybody out there has my copy I’ll pay the postage to get it back.

[2] In actuality those exotic native rites turned out to be a lot less romantic that I grew up believing. See 13.2, Going Native

[3] While most of Stevenson’s biographers appear to agree that Stevensen was tubercular, Holms disagrees, holding instead to a diagnosis of bronchiectasis, an irreversible   dilation of the bronchi.   Symptoms include chronic cough, expectoration of pus, periodic hemorrhage, fevers, weigh loss, which he suffered from for most of his life.   Yet he ended up dying of a stroke, or cerebral hemorrhage, which supports the hypothesis that he was not consumptive.  

[4] There were at least 400 westerners in Samoa at this time, with German, American, and English consulates, and of course, various denominations of missionaries, Catholic, Mormon, and London Missionary Society, respectively competing for commercial advantage and souls in a manner in which it was sometimes difficult to tell the difference.