Vailima – Robert Louis Stevenson’s Samoan Home

Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant.

Robert Louis Stevenson

The Stevenson clan: Robert, his wife Fanny and her son Lloyd, and Robert’s widowed mother settled on the island of Upolu in Samoa in 1890. RLS had a house built at the foot of Mt Vaea, which he called Vailima, and he continued to write, but also became an advocate for the Samoans.

Vailima, a beautiful island plantation home has been restored and is now a world-class museum set in a national nature reserve and botanical garden. A tour in its coolness a welcome relief when I descended Mt Vaea via the Road of the Loving Hearts. In the house, there are many photographs of life at Vailima with the Stevenson Family.

The home and grounds have been restored to reflect the comfort expected in colonial times, but also the use of many Samoan building products. It is easy to imagine RLS writing here and filling the spacious rooms with many visitors.

The tasteful restoration as accurate as possible and the house repaired and reinvented as a museum by American benefactors who set up a foundation to raise money. Tilafaiga Rex Maughan, its primary benefactor, chairs the Foundation. Two board appointees represent the Government of Samoa. The Board oversees the fiscal, regulatory and policies of the not-for-profit entity.

The Vailima estate was purchased in 1900 as the official residence for the German governor. After British/Dominion confiscation, it served successively as the residence for the New Zealand administrator and the Samoan head of state after independence before being reclaimed as important national heritage.

It is a golden maxim to cultivate the garden for the nose, and the eyes will take care of themselves.

Robert Louis Stevenson

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The guides giving the tours of the house are extremely well-versed in all things RLS. As you walk through the Great Hall, RLS’s Library, his Smoking Room,  five bedrooms and numerous nooks and crannies they share anecdotes from the life of the famous author. They point out what is authentic and what is a reproduction.

The tour at $20 tala ($10 Aus) superb value. The highlight being the guide singing the Requiem from RLS tombstone – a spine-tingling moment. The Samoan’s have a reputation for memorable voices like the Welsh. Tips are not expected but considering how poor most Samoans are (an average wage of $150 tala per week) this would be the moment to be generous.

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RLS wanted fireplaces and a Smoking Room to remind him of Scotland. The fires were never lit!  Throughout the house, the darkness of the beautiful polished wood softened by large windows and French doors letting in the wealth of Samoan sunshine. The Great Hall restored with Californian redwood and replica furniture.The Tapa Room has the local wall covering called siapo or tapa from the original cultural pattern.

Tapa is a cloth made of vegetable fibre and stained in various striking patterns. Widely used by the Samoans for clothing, curtains, beds, and many other purposes, today any clothing from tapa is ceremonial or for the tourists.

Upstairs the bedrooms reflect the various personalities of the household. A photograph of RLS’s mother could be a slimmer Queen Victoria a la the dark dress and crocheted cap.  Mrs Stevenson senior didn’t cope with the heat, disliked the house and complained daily about its gloominess – even the view of a tranquil garden from her window couldn’t console her.

There are no foreign lands. It is the traveller only who is foreign.

Robert Louis Stevenson

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Fanny and RLS slept in separate rooms because he liked to write at night, but he had a secret door/hatch installed in the wall so they could talk to each other when lying in bed. RLS was often ill, and Fanny became his nurse as well as looking after everyone else in the household plus many of the local Samoans. The sick bed and medicine chest often used according to Fanny’s biographer:

A disease of the tropics, said to be transmitted by the bite of mosquitoes, which causes enormous enlargement of the parts affected. Mrs. Stevenson cured this boy, Mitaele, of elephantiasis by Dr. Funk’s remedy of rubbing the diseased vein with blue ointment and giving him a certain prescribed drug.

As I walked through the rooms and examined the photographs and paraphernalia, it was easy to imagine the scents and sounds of a busy household. The Stevenson’s hospitality matched the welcome and friendliness the Samoans are famous for so there would have been laughter, chatter and music.

Talk is by far the most accessible of pleasures. It costs nothing in money, it is all profit, it completes our education, founds and fosters our friendships, and can be enjoyed at any age and in almost any state of health.

Robert Louis Stevenson

One of the ways the RLS Museum and grounds are able to remain for posterity is by generous donations, entry fees and also hiring out the grounds for celebrations. It has become popular for weddings, but the stipulation is ‘no alcohol’, the wedding must be dry to minimise damage to the heritage property.

The day I visited, the final preparations were being added for a wedding that evening. One of the guides urged me to look inside the marquees and confided the wedding planner was famous in Samoa. Perhaps I’d seen the advertisement on television, ‘You know about Fa’afafine?’

I smiled away my ignorance as I went to have a look at the preparations that had taken two days and vowed to look up Fa’afafine later.

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Fa’afafine of Samoa are Samoa’s 3rd gender – the term  fa’a means ‘to be’ and fafine means ‘a woman’. Fa’afafine are not just cross-dressers nor are they males reared as females (a myth often believed by foreigners). Mostly they see themselves as female despite the gender markers, and they grow up choosing to identify with the female rather than the male gender.

Acceptance levels of fa’afafine are at an all time high with the Samoan Prime Minister patron of the Fa’afafine Association. However, some villages and districts treat fa’afafine differently although I didn’t see any evidence of this in my short time in Apia. In fact whenever fa’afafine were mentioned or seen around Apia everyone seemed proud.

Samoan culture treats and respects fa’afafine. Western culture through religious influences does not so the fa’afafine entrench themselves in their culture in order to be accepted into the community, with resounding and remarkable success.

My day at Vailima and Mt Vaea was a resounding success too – increasing my knowledge on so many aspects of Samoan history and modern day culture. I left the gorgeous surrounds to the tinkling laughter of the ‘celebrity’ wedding planner and helpers.

I reflected on Samoa, RLS and life in general and agreed

That man is a success who has lived well, laughed often and loved much.

Robert Louis Stevenson

Samoa – Paradise Found

We are all travellers in the wilderness of this world, and the best we can find in our travels is an honest friend.

Robert Louis Stevenson (13/11/1850- 3/12/1894)

I love this quote by Scottish author, Robert Louis Stevenson whose life and writings have inspired me since childhood. In fact, I became so fascinated that I determined to visit Samoa where he spent the last four years of his short life and pay my respects at his graveside.

The trip moved to the top of my ‘bucket list’ after being diagnosed with breast cancer in October 2010. Last week during the September holidays, I gifted myself a trip to Samoa to celebrate what I hope will be my fifth anniversary cancer free.

I’m a traveller, not a tourist. I enjoy learning about different cultures and places,  making an effort to befriend locals who reveal insights and knowledge about their homeland. A love of travel one of the many things husband John and I shared.

However, my obsession with Samoa goes back to a younger self, leafing through the ten volumes of Arthur Mees Children’s Encyclopaedia Dad purchased for the family.

In 1961, I dreamt of being like RLS:

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I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.

The stories of  Stevenson’s final years in Samoa enthralling because he arrived at a significant period in the country’s history ( in the midst of a civil war) and yet established good relationships with the people. He was called Tusitala, the Teller of Tales. So revered by the Samoans that when he died, they carried him to his chosen resting place, to the top of 472m Mt Vaea. They created a trail significantly named “The Road of the Loving Heart”! 

comprehensive information English/Samoan comprehensive information

the tomb of RLS

After arriving at Apia’s Faleolo Airport at 4.20am and having to adjust to the well-known, constant heat and humidity, I chose to visit  RLS’ tomb on day two of my holiday.

I ordered a taxi for the 3km trip up to the Vailima National Reserve, and Tai arrived at 8.30am so I could climb before the heat of midday. At $10 tala, taxis are a cheap, reliable alternative to the often crowded local buses costing  $2.00 tala.

Mt Vaea is a volcano from Samoa’s origin 2 million years ago, but the crater rim has almost eroded away. The original lava rock is now rocky soil although many large rocks remain, especially near the summit. There are warnings of landslides after heavy rain. A slippery trail is not the only hazard: – jutting tree roots, steps made for giants and steep gradients are a few more! This trek is not for the faint-hearted or unfit.

notice at foot of mountain

There is a choice of trails – I chose the short, steep trail on the way up and the longer ‘more gentle grade’ (debatable) on the way down. The vertical climb to the beginning of both trails is 200m from the car park.

My daughters had bought me a ‘selfie stick’ so that I could take photographs as proof of reaching the tomb and for other outings in Samoa. Unfortunately, my mobile is too old and incompatible with the thoughtful present.

“You see Mum, I told you to upgrade your phone!” Anne and Mary Jane admonished me in unison.

My response, “Well, since your Dad died I’ve travelled a lot on my own and always found someone who’d take a photo of me!”

On top of Mt Vaea, I found half a rugby team – what I thought was a rugby team! The nine young men and one woman were police officers who had come off night duty and were doing a weekly exercise to stay fit. They puffed and panted past me, some struggling more than others, but I wasn’t that far behind, and they cheered when I arrived at the top – red-faced and gasping – but in one piece. They insisted on photos with me, totally amazed I was 62 and celebrating surviving BC.

The view was as magnificent as brochures promised and as described in The Life Of
Mrs. Robert Louis Stevenson:

“Nothing more picturesque can be imagined than the narrow plateau that forms the summit of Mount Vaea, a place no wider than a room and as flat as a table. On either side the land descends precipitately; in front lie the vast ocean and the surf-swept reefs; in the distance to the right and left green mountains rise, densely covered with the primeval forest.”

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“Stevenson’s tomb, with the tablet and lettering, was designed by Gelett Burgess, and was built by native workmen under the direction of a half-caste named George Stowers. The material was cement, run into boxes and formed into large blocks, which were then carried to the summit on the strong shoulders of Samoans, though each block was so heavy that two white men could scarcely lift it from the ground. Arrived at the summit the blocks were then welded into a plain and dignified design, with two large bronze tablets let in on either side. One bears the inscription in Samoan, “The resting-place of Tusitala,” followed by the quotation in the same language of “Thy country shall be my country and thy God my God.” The other side bears the name and dates and the requiem:

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 the sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.

The requiem

Fanny died in America, but her daughter returned her ashes to Samoa:

“When Fanny’s daughter and husband, Mr. and Mrs. Field arrived in Samoa they brought with them a tablet which they carried to the summit of Mount Vaea and had cemented in one end of the base of the tomb. It is of heavy bronze, and bears the name Aolele (Samoan for Fanny), together with these lines:

Teacher, tender comrade, wife,
A fellow-farer true through life,
Heart whole and soul free,
The August Father gave to me.”

“On the tablet for Mr. Stevenson the thistle for Scotland had been carved at one corner and the hibiscus for Samoa at the other. On his wife’s the hibiscus was placed at one corner, and after long hesitation about the other, a sudden inspiration suggested to Mrs. Field the tiger-lily—bright flower whose name had been given to little Fanny Van de Grift by her mother in the old days in Indiana.”

Tiger-lily and Scottish Thistle nestled together under tropical skies enjoying starry nights as of old, far away from their birthplaces. There is  no waving yellow corn or purple heather clad moorlands, but people from all over the world pilgrimage to Samoa and climb Mt Vaea to pay their respects and tenderly pray or leave flowers on their tomb.

Samoan Journey
Haiku by Mairi Neil

A much loved writer
Robert Louis Stevenson
The teller of tales

Inspired childhood dream
To follow loving heart trail
No longer strangers

I traversed The Road of the Loving Heart breathing in the sweet scents of rainforest trees and flowers. I listened to delightful calls from various birds, especially the easily recognised tiny scarlet robin (tolau ula) and Samoan fantail (se’u). I thought of RLS and envied the writing inspiration he must have experienced in such a delightful environment. Imagination fired I realised; I could be the last person on earth – other walkers a rare sight. The serenity disturbed by black and green geckos (miniature dinosaurs!) darting around my feet, abandoning where they basked in sunlight atop rocks or protruding tree roots. Their frantic escape into dry leaf litter sounding more like a possum or fox and disconcerting as I concentrated on not losing my foothold.

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It is not so much for its beauty that the forest makes a claim upon men’s hearts, as for that subtle something, that quality of air that emanation from old trees, that so wonderfully changes and renews a weary spirit.

Robert Louis Stevenson

The climb certainly renewed my weary spirit and the sense of achievement satisfying. Despite the heat, sore muscles and sweat-soaked clothes I had a smile on my face as wide as the Mississippi!

I’ll share further adventures of my week in paradise in other posts and leave the last word to RLS:

Books are good enough in their own way, but they are a poor substitute for life.

A Creative and Cultural Conversation

creative industry strategy logo

“The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.” 

Kurt Vonnegut

This quote is appealing, but why shouldn’t creative people be entitled to ‘make a living’? One of my dreams, and I know I’m not alone, would be supporting myself from my writing, I’ve never had that luxury. I teach in several different places each week and always chase money to pay the bills. I’m fortunate to teach creative writing and be in the company of those who value words, but to be able to spend unrestricted hours writing what I want is an unfulfilled desire.

At the end of each term I publish the work from the class.
At the end of each term I publish the work from the class.

On Friday, I attended a consultation session at the Melbourne Town Hall convened by the new Victorian Government to consult with those in the creative sector to contribute towards developing “a creative industries strategy that increases the benefits that flow to the State from a vibrant creative and cultural sector.

The strategy will take a whole-of-state approach to enabling the creative and cultural industries to thrive and make a major contribution to Victoria’s future as a liveable, inclusive, prosperous and vibrant society.

Those present at one of the many consultations that will be held were invited to contribute views, ideas and aspirations in a spirit of innovation and collaboration with the facilitator adamant Martin Foley, Victoria’s Minister for Creative Industries is open to new ideas and new approaches and wanted feedback on ten themes:

Fostering creative excellence
Building audiences and markets
Enhancing creative spaces and places
Cultivating skills, entrepreneurship and innovation
Harnessing the opportunities of digital technology
Increasing participation and social impact
Supporting Aboriginal arts and culture
Advancing regional Victoria and outer metropolitan Melbourne
Enhancing international engagement
Increasing tourism

In the discussion paper it was noted:

The creative and cultural industries are a broad but interconnected field spanning arts, culture, screen and design. They encompass disciplines as diverse as game development and graphic design, fashion and filmmaking, performing arts and publishing, architecture and advertising, media and music, comedy and craft. They include activities that are commercially-driven and community- based, experimental and export ready.”

In the room, a dozen large round tables accommodated ten – twelve people. Each of us had a piece of butcher paper and coloured Textas and a scribe with a whiteboard sat out the front to collate.

Halfway through the morning some people swapped tables to ensure the maximum mix in discussion time. My table had a theatre director, a theatre/gallery owner, a university lecturer, a costume designer, a freelance HR manager in the arts industry, Federation Square’s arts project manager and her assistant, an arts council representative for City of Yarra, and an arts and sports event/festival organiser for the City of Bass, a youth music organiser, and an independent artist.

All of us agreed that our greatest challenge was having a decent income to support our art; to allow us the breathing space and time to start and finish projects. We lamented the churning out of graduates in the creative industries who can’t get jobs in their field, haven’t the workshop or studio space, and can’t afford the equipment or technology to pursue their artistic endeavours.

The devaluing of art or creativity starts in schools when there is no designated art teacher. It is carried through to art subjects being marked down at VCE and even in government when Martin Foley is the Victorian Minister for Equality. He is also the Minister for Housing, Disability Services & Ageing, Minister for Mental Health and Minister for Creative Industries. (Mr Foley previously served as the Shadow Minister for Water, Shadow Minister for Arts and Shadow Minister for Youth Affairs.) How important is ‘the arts’ if the minister has to multitask between a variety of sectors?

Everyone desired a model for economic security – the time spent chasing, securing and retaining funding a problem, especially if bureaucrats have a concept that creativity can be switched on and off and run to a timetable.

Perhaps we need to look at funding in other sector models like those used by charities and social services, but most of all the Minister for the Arts/Creative Industries needs to speak to the Minister for Education!

The TAFE system is hands, Universities the head – lots of crossover in creative industries, so both systems need to be funded adequately.

A sculpture in RMIT - which has a university and TAFE sector
A sculpture in RMIT – which has a university and TAFE sector
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Mural on wall at RMIT

There needs to be more collaboration between government sectors and artists: the three tiers of government (local council, state and federal governments) make finding and funding resources a nightmare. The lack of affordable space to develop and present new work, whether it is sculpture or performing arts, can be an almost insurmountable challenge for artists who need to meet and engage with an audience.

The discussion and debate made the air thrum and hum with diverse voices, intense exchanges, shared laughter and plenty of storytelling. Archaeologist, historian, writer or industrial designer –  all have a story and ideas to share – although some people took the view of a narrow definition of ‘professional’ artist.

Indeed what is art – a definition could be debated all day! Even referring to creative industries upset some people. How do you identify as a creative person? What label do you wear?

The sustainability of the creative sector recognised as important – presenting a challenge and opportunities. Participants agreed there was a need and often demonstration of entrepreneurial skills, but many in the sector lack business and marketing skills.

The survival and success of independent artists can be a role model for the wider community, however, we need the arts to be considered across all government portfolios like environmental impact is now considered. All government departments need to embrace funding the arts.

Embed creativity in lifestyle just as coffee is embedded.

This comment reminded me of a cafe near Brighton Beach Station where the work of a NZ poet is chalked on the eaves outside the shop!

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Artistic hubs should be encouraged in outer suburbs and regional areas and when infrastructure is considered for new housing estates an arts hub could be included in the design. Art and culture should be part of building a community. Hubs would facilitate this connection. If space can be allocated for parks and gardens why not the arts?

How do you measure the value of art and culture?

Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy.” 

Stephen King

We must stop using the language of economics and business-speak – we have our own language in the arts. Why does there always have to be a dollar value? Is it true if you want to be an artist in the afternoon you must be a business person in the morning?

Isn’t investment in equity, diversity, people, and the community’s wellbeing enough? Celebrating diversity and instilling confidence in the creative community important for society’s progress. As is valuing history and heritage. Victoria must be seen to promote cultural literacy and education – sector funding needs to be appropriate as well as directing support to individual artists.

There should be investment in regular programs that work, but also risk taking to encourage innovative projects. If recurrent funding the programs must be accountable and prove their worth. More cross generational programs and culturally diverse ones are needed for balance.

Should culture be free ?

A gasp went around the room when someone asked: If people pay for attending the Grand Prix, why should White Night be free?

Put a bunch of creative people in a room and you stir up a hornet’s nest!

“The creative and cultural industries are central to our identity, to the liveability of our communities, to our social cohesion and to our productivity. They are an essential part of what differentiates Victoria from other places, and have a role to play across virtually every area of society – from education and health, to justice, science, innovation, business and community development.”

The creative and cultural industries contribute to the cultural, social and economic fabric of societies.

  • What can we do to embed creativity in our everyday lives?
  • What can we do to ensure the next generation will be both consumers of, and practitioners in, the creative industries?

Check out the government’s discussion paper and please have your say. It invites your contribution to the development of Victoria’s first creative industries strategy. You may choose to respond directly to the issues and themes canvassed. Or you may choose to make a general submission that addresses other issues.

Responses close on Friday 17 July 2015

“Why am I compelled to write? . . . Because the world I create in the writing compensates for what the real world does not give me. By writing I put order in the world, give it a handle so I can grasp it…”

Gloria E. Anzaldúa

Have you an opinion or ideas for the future of creativity in Victoria? Please spare a few minutes to let the government know.