To the Gilberts: Part I
“Robert Louis Stevenson and party leave today by the schooner Equator for the Gilbert Islands…It is to be hoped that Mr. Stevenson will not fall victim to native spears; but in his present state of bodily health, perhaps the temptation to kill him may not be very strong.”
— The Honolulu Pacific Commercial Advertiser, June 24, 1889
One might be tempted to guess that this notice was penned by a journalist representing American interests in the future of Hawaii which could be described with one word–annexation. At least there were no massacres this time while politically, over time, the Hawaiian monarchy was demolished. It had started before RLS arrived on the scene and the powers to be had already forced King David Kalakaua to sign a more liberal constitution which the king’s consort, his sister Liliuokalani, called a “Bayonet Constitution.” It was well known that the British celebrity author had joined the doomed cause of the so-called ‘Royal Set’ when Stevenson befriended the King at his Iolani Palace on January 26, 1889, only two days after his chartered yacht Casco arrived in Honolulu from its arduous voyage north from Tahiti.
And so it was that when the time came for the Stevenson expedition to sail out to sea again, five months later, King Kalakaua was there to see him off, aboard the 62-ton trading schooner Equator. As usual, there is no better eyewitness account to the RLS story than his stepdaughter Mrs. Isobel–“Belle”–Strong. When she wrote her autobiography many years later called This Life I’ve Loved, Belle was in her second marriage as Mrs. Isobel Field:
“The Equator was a trading schooner on her way to cruise among the Gilbert Islands. When we (her son Austin) went on board to say good-bye I was dismayed to find it so small. My brother’s assurance that it was 62 tons didn’t make it seem any larger.”
Enter the Equator, a fairly new “pigmy” trading schooner belonging to Wightman Brothers, San Francisco. She was on the high seas when she rode out the infamous typhoon which had recently swept through southern Polynesia, including Stevenson’s ultimate destination, Samoa, on 15-16 March, 1889. The Equator was the first surviving ship to enter Samoa’s harbor, Apia, in the storm’s aftermath, a sight that featured wrecked warships from Germany, Britain and the United States scattered all over the place. The crew would bring the first eyewitness accounts of the devastation to reporters waiting in Honolulu.
Belle continues: “The King was already there when Austin and I came on board, and when we all crowded into the tiny cabin to drink to success to the voyage in champagne, we were packed together like sardines. I was introduced to Captain Reid, an alert friendly young man who was pleased and excited over the venture and evidently charmed with his new passengers.”
Belle’s mother, Fanny, described Captain Dennis (Denny) Reid, 23, as “a small fiery Scotch-Irishman, full of amusing eccentricities, and always a most gay and charming companion.”
Belle again: “There were 15 men on board, counting the crew, and my mother was the only woman. If the boat had been an ocean liner with every luxury, she could not have looked more pleased and serene. Much later she told me no trained lady’s maid could have taken half such good care of her as the efficient and devoted Ah Fu.”
Who is Ah Fu? Ah Fu is a colorful figure who joined the Stevenson expedition during its voyaging in the schooner-yacht Casco, Captain Otis, out of San Francisco. They were in the Marquesas Islands for a month when Ah Fu came aboard. He had replaced the cook, Antone Cousina, a Chinese who for some reason pretended to be Japanese. Arrested for drunkenness in Nuka-Hiva, the capitol, he was discharged by Capt. Otis for insolence. Ah Fu couldn’t have had a clue that his new job as the Casco’s cook and all-around handyman would bring him immortality as the newest member to join in the exploits of Robert Louis Stevenson and his entourage. Ah Fu came from unusual circumstances if a Chinese boy being raised by Polynesian cannibals seems unusual. Belle takes over again:
“Then they told how Ah Fu by his quick intelligence had rescued them from destruction during a storm at night (during the Casco’s voyage from Tahiti to Hawaii) when all hands were bewildered by a sudden squall. Here was someone I had seen on the yacht and I begged to know his story.
“A consignment of Chinese laborers had been sent to the Marquesas some years before, and among them a child had been substituted to fill the quota. He was too small to work, and fortunately for him, was thrown out indignantly by the contractor. The kindly natives adopted him and Ah Fu grew up among them, staying on when the older Chinamen were returned to their native land. Owing to the good food, the outdoor life, swimming, canoeing, and fishing with native boys of his own age, he grew to be a tall, muscular man, unlike any Chinaman I had ever seen, though he wore the queue and shaved his head in the fashion of his countrymen.”
Belle’s artist husband Joe Strong was one of the 15 men aboard the Equator. When RLS and Sam McClure were planning this Pacific voyaging in front of Andrew Baker’s flaming fireplace in Saranac Lake less than two years past, their plans included a lecture tour when it was all over. Joe’s job would be to paint transparencies for lantern slides as visual aids. Joe also brought his accordion, Fanny had her guitar, her son Lloyd had his ukulele, some unknown came with a portable organ while the leader of the expedition, Robert Louis Stevenson, carried his ever-present penny whistle, the one you can still pay to see on Stevenson Lane. They also brought guns and ammunition, cigars, alcohol, vegetable seeds, potassium, permanganate and a magic lantern. Crew members of the British warship HMS Cormorant handmade their hammocks.
The Equator sailed away from Hawaii on 24 June, 1889. Belle remembers it well: “The family all lined up on deck to be photographed as Austin and I climbed on the wharf. They were still standing there waving to us as the schooner slowly moved away. Out in the bay she looked a tiny cockleshell among all the big liners and men-of-war then in port–such a little speck to be carrying away every member of my family. I did not see or hear from them again for six months.”