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RLS in the South Seas

From Saranac Lake to the Marquesas and beyond

Schooner Casco at sea — Robert Louis Stevenson in the foreground

“On the 16th of April, 1888, Stevenson and party left Saranac Lake. After spending a fortnight in New York, where, as always in cities, his health quickly flagged again, he went for the month of May into seaside quarters at Union House, Manasquan, on the New Jersey coast, for the sake of fresh air and boating. Here he enjoyed the occasional society of some of his New York friends, including Mr. St. Gaudens and Mr. W.H. Low and was initiated in the congenial craft of cat-boat sailing. In the meantime, Mrs. Stevenson had gone to San Francisco to see her relatives, and holding that the climate of the Pacific was likely to be better for the projected cruise than that of the Atlantic had inquired there whether a yacht was to be hired for such a purpose. The schooner Casco, Captain Otis, was found; Stevenson signified by telegraph his assent to the arrangement; determined to risk in the adventure the sum of two thousand pounds, of which his father’s deathbed had put him in possession, hoping to recoup himself by a series of letters recounting his experiences; and on the 2nd of June started with his mother and stepson for San Francisco, and thence for that island cruise from which he was destined never to return.”

“Letters and Miscellanies of Robert Louis Stevenson, Vol. II,” Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1899

The vessel found for the proposed voyage was the Casco, a 94-foot schooner-yacht out of San Francisco. Wanting to charter such a boat for six months wasn’t an unusual request, but in this case, the people making it were. The owner agreed to the venture but on the condition that he choose the captain.

The sun rose on June 28, 1888, to shine down on the Casco as it was towed out to sea by the tug Pelican. The 12 people aboard represented seven nationalities. Casting off the towline and spreading her canvas, the Casco sailed into literary legend. Land was not seen for 22 days and 3,000 miles.

A culture divide had been crossed by July 20, when the schooner’s anchor splashed into the turquoise waters of Anaho Bay in Nuka-Hiva, largest of the Marquesas Islands. There the Stevenson expedition lived among recently retired cannibals for a month. Captain and crew must have hoped that was true when 20 of them came aboard “led by,” said RLS, “old chief Koomamua, a great cannibal in his day … and he is a perfect gentleman.”

Mixing with the island folks became routine followed by dressing like them to lessons in the preparation of socially approved native cuisine. “It is a strange, irresponsible, half savage life and I (Stevenson’s mother) wonder if we shall be able to return to civilized habits again.”

Robert Louis Stevenson had always dreamed of life as a rich vagabond in the sub-tropics. Who hasn’t? The prosperity that came to him in Saranac Lake gave him the means to go do it, but RLS was hardly the typical tourist. The author of “Island Nights’ Entertainment” set about learning the language as a beginning to immersing himself in this steamy new water world where he would live out the six years and three months he had left. His observations culminated in a semi-anthropological study first published as articles and later condensed into two books. “In the South Seas” and “A Footnote to History — Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa” remain useful contemporary references about culture conquest by Western colonial powers.

Bloody Jack comes back

In late September 1888 at an atoll called Fakarava, Bloody Jack returned to spoil the party. Long ago had Louis so named his nemesis, the sickness that had stalked him from childhood.

When I was sick and lay abed

I had two pillows at my head,

And all my toys beside me lay,

To keep me happy all the day.

— “The Land of Counterpane,” RLS

Medically speaking, Bloody Jack was a life-threatening flow of blood from Stevenson’s lungs. Today, with medical hindsight, some experts give plausibility to the possibility that Stevenson may have had a rare, then unknown disease called Hereditary Hemorrhagic Telangiectasia or HHT.

RLS seldom spoke or wrote about his condition. “My illness is a thing outside of my life,” he said, and that was that. Fakavara Atoll wasn’t a good place to get sick. The nearest doctor was days away in Tahiti, and bad weather delayed their departure. Upon reaching Papeete, chief town of Tahiti, RLS was critical. A French doctor warned that one more hemorrhage would be fatal. Louis already knew that and had summoned the yacht’s skipper, Captain Albert Otis, to his cabin. Otis was a practical seafaring man not prone to lionizing celebrities. At the outset of the voyage he had thought the whole scheme balmy, but sharing a boat for months with strangers can bend attitudes. Otis had developed a high regard for his quizzical employer, and his meeting in the author’s aquatic sickroom raised it to a new level.

Therein Louis discussed calmly and with dedication to detail the captain’s instructions to return the Casco to California, in total compliance with the charter contract. That is, in the event of his apparently imminent death. To the captain, Stevenson’s lack of self-concern and matter-of-fact manner in the face of extinction was mind-boggling. What Otis didn’t know was how often this man had been there before; maybe the novelty had worn off.

The fatal hemorrhage never came, and RLS had more borrowed time. Five weeks were spent recovering in Tahiti in the home of new friends while repairs were made on the Casco, including replacement of a dry-rotted main mast. On Christmas Day, 1888, she finally weighed anchor and set course on the last and longest leg of the cruise of the Casco, from Papeete, Tahiti, to Honolulu, Hawaii.

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