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After embarking from San Francisco on 26 June 1888, and cruising on their chartered yacht, the Casco, in the South Sea Islands, the Stevensons left Tahiti on the Christmas Day of 1888 and arrived in Hawaii on 24 January 1889. It had been a dreadfully rough passage, and they were relieved to be at anchor at last. They were a party of five: Stevenson himself, his widowed mother Margaret (or Maggie), his wife Fanny, her son Lloyd, and their maid, Valentine Roch. They stayed on the Hawaiian Islands until late June that year.
Honolulu, the Capital of Hawaii, was in those days an admixture of native life and civilisation. The Stevensons were located a little out of the town, at Waikiki, in a kind of pavilion and two smaller buildings, all on native lines, between the high road and the beach.... It was in these surroundings that The Master of Ballantrae was finished — the final pages being laboriously accomplished up to time, for the novel was already appearing in Scribner's Magazine, part by part, before it was actually completed. [Masson 288]
He also finished The Wrong Box here (in collaboration with his step-son) and the poems of Ballads, and started work on another piece of fiction, The Ebb-Tide, although that would not be published until 1894. As A. Grove Day points out, two of Stevenson's best-known short-stories, "The Bottle Imp" and "The Isle of Voices," are set in Hawaii as well (viii).
Left: Statue of the founder of Hawaii, King Kamehameha (a recasting of the original, thought to have been lost at sea but later recovered). It stands in front of the former seat of government, Aliʻiolani Hale. The statue was expected to be placed in King Kalākaua's new Iolani Palace. Right: The Iolani Palace.
They Stevensons were desperately short of money: soon after arriving in Honolulu, Stevenson wrote home to a close friend, Charles Baxter, "No money, and not one word as to money!" (qtd. in Masson 291-92). Nevertheless, they were received as honoured guests on the islands. As well as his own celebrity as an author, Stevenson had another entrée into royal circles: Fanny's daughter Isobel (Belle) and her husband Joseph Dwight Strong were already settled there, and Strong was an artist in favour at court. Only two days after arrival, Stevenson and his stepson were received at Iolani Palace.
During their stay at Honolulu, the Stevenson party saw much of the native royalties. King Kalakaua and his sister. Princess Liliuokolani, and there were many Hawaiian feasts. It was at one of these, soon after their arrival, that Stevenson presented the King with a yellow pearl, and the poem he had written; —
The Silver Ship, my King, — that was her name
In the bright islands whence your fathers came;
The Silver Ship, at rest from winds and tides.
Below your palace in your harbour rides.
And the seafarers, sitting safe on shore
Like eager merchants count their treasures o'er;
One gift they find, one strange and lovely thing,
Now doubly precious, since it pleased a King;
The right, my liege, is ancient, as the lyre
For bards to give to Kings what Kings admire;
'Tis mine to offer, for Apollo's sake,
And since the gift is fitting, yours to take;
To golden hands the golden pearl I bring.
The ocean jewel to the Island King.
This feast, probably typical of all, was held with native ceremony and much elaboration. The guests of honour and the native sovereign sat on fine mats, while great plumes of black and white feathers mounted on carved ivory handles were waved over their heads, and native maidens in grass skirts danced before them to the music of a native band. They ate native dainties made of pork and chicken, of cocoanut and edible seaweed, and they drank champagne. Indeed Stevenson, in the confessional of a letter to Charles Baxter, calls these feasts "champagne parties," and adds that "Kalakaua is a terrible companion; a bottle of fizz is like a glass of sherry to him; he thinks nothing of five or six in an after several weeks afternoon as a whet for dinner. You should see a photograph of our party after an afternoon with H.H.M. My! What a crew!" [Masson 288-89]
Left: (Queen) Lilioukalani Protestant Church on the north shore of Hawaii, constructed on the site of the wooden one of 1890, to a design echoing the older one (especially in the kind of tower). Right: Sunset on Waikiki Beach (the last sunset of 1999).
Money arrived at last, but, despite the reception he received in Hawaii, Stevenson was still unsettled. In retrospect it may have seemed like "a romantic interlude in the life of a cherished master of the English language" (Day viii), but at the time it was not quite so perfect. "Even Honolulu is too cold for me," he wrote to another close friend, the critic Sidney Colvin, telling Colvin that "the world whirls to me perceptibly, a mass of times and seasons and places and engagements, and seas to cross, and continents to traverse, so that I scarce know where I am" (qtd. in Masson 292). He and his mother, wife and stepson left Honolulu on 28 June on another cruise, which took the family to Samoa. Here, on 10 January 1890, he purchased the Vailima estate. After further travels, he did return to Hawaii in late September 1893. But the political situation there had changed, and after a stay extended by misadventure (a bolting carriage-horse) and illness, he left for Samoa again, for the last time, in late October. He would die there in the following year.
Day, A. Grove. Preface and Introduction. In Robert Louis Stevenson's Travels in Hawaii. Pbk ed. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1991. i-x and xi-xlv.
Masson, Rosaline. The Life of Robert Louis Stevenson. Edinburgh and London: W. R. Chambers, 1923. Internet Archive. Contributed by the Digital Library of India. Web. 13 August 2021.
"Our History." Lili'uokalani Protestant Church. Web. 13 August 2021.
Created 15 August 2021