Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa

by Fiona McFarlane

RLS in Samoa

It’s family lore that, on my paternal grandmother’s side, we had an ancestor who lived in Samoa at the same time as Robert Louis Stevenson. The name of this ancestor – my great, great, great grandfather – was George Pratt. Or, more correctly, the Reverend George Pratt, who was born in Portsea, England, trained with the London Missionary Society and, with his wife Mary, set out for Samoa in 1838, calling at Hobart, Sydney and Tahiti along the way. Pratt lived at a mission station in Matautu on Savai’i Island. Mary died five years after their arrival in Samoa; Pratt remarried one year later. He had either twelve or fourteen children (records differ) and is notable for being the first person to document the Samoan language. My parents have a reproduction of the Samoan Dictionary he completed in 1861, along with a ‘Short Grammar of the Samoan Dialect.’ He died on November 25, 1894 at the age of 77.

Robert Louis Stevenson was born in Edinburgh in 1850 and, after years of ill health in Scotland, England, Europe and America, travelled the southern Pacific with his wife, Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne, finally settling in Samoa. He became a critic of colonial rule and an advocate for Samoan independence, donated his birthday by deed of gift to the daughter of the American Land Commissioner (she suffered from the malady of having been born on Christmas Day), cleared land and built a house that is now the Robert Louis Stevenson Museum, and took on the Samoan name Tusitala, which means “teller of tales.” He died of a brain hemorrhage on December 3, 1894 – a week after George Pratt. Stevenson was 44.

So Pratt and Stevenson both lived in Samoa, and were both white men with an interest in language and involved in local life. They might not have approved of each other – as a young man, Stevenson had dismayed his parents by declaring himself an atheist, and the missionary character in his fable ‘Something In It’ is described as living ‘upon one pin-point of the truth.’ But surely they knew each other, even if they weren’t friends? My father, looking into the connection, found a photograph of Stevenson and companions out at a picnic and we pored over it, trying to identify which of them might have been George Pratt. We have a photo of George – long-faced, white-bearded. Did he translate into any of these solemn revellers?

The combination of Samoa, Stevenson, and Pratt was pleasing to my family for a few reasons, the most obvious being literary celebrity. It’s hard to imagine a more delightful writer than the author of Treasure Island and Kidnapped to feel connected to in some way. I felt a personal thrill because of my own reading history – A Child’s Garden of Verses was one of my favourite books as a little girl, and ‘Windy Nights’, which I recited to myself during bedtime storms, is the first poem I can remember paying conscious attention to the rhythm of. The family also enjoyed the fact that Stevenson was Scottish – my paternal grandfather’s line was Scottish (not surprising, with a name like McFarlane), so it seemed like a delicious joke that the family connection to Stevenson came from the other side. And then there was my family’s own religious faith (although I, too, have dismayed my parents), which appreciated a missionary ancestor. I’m not sure if my interest in the islands of the southern Pacific, and particularly the missionary presence in those islands, began before or after I learned about George Pratt – I’ve been interested in both for so long. Ruth, the main character of my novel The Night Guest, grew up in Fiji as the daughter of missionaries, so it seems likely that Reverend Pratt was her ancestor, too.

The difficulty with all this is that Stevenson and Pratt, as we recently discovered, were never in Samoa simultaneously. We thought for a long time that Pratt died on Savai’i – but it turns out he died in Sydney, a resident of Woollahra, where he’d lived since 1879, ten years before Stevenson’s arrival in Samoa. Back in Sydney, Pratt translated a collection of Samoan songs and myths – Some Folk-songs and Myths from Samoa was published in 1891, but it’s unclear if he collected this material himself, or only some of it. The tales and songs aren’t transcribed directly from the Samoan, either. They’re full of anthropological commentary, and we don’t know if this came from Pratt, from another collector, or from a Sydney man, John Fraser, who describes himself in an introduction to the book as Pratt’s ‘amanuensis’ but is also credited as a writer of notes (according to Fraser’s introduction, Pratt’s eyesight was failing). Later editions of Pratt’s dictionary included a Samoan syntax which, he wrote, began as a personal amusement when he observed, ‘while reading Nordheimer’s Hebrew Grammar, that the Samoan, in many points, resembled the Hebrew.’ Some Folk-songs and Myths includes an extraordinary section called ‘Samoan Custom: Analogous to those of the Israelites’ – surely the work of the same man who noticed a similarity between the two languages

So George Pratt was busy in Sydney while Robert Louis Stevenson was busy in Samoa, and that’s the end of that particular family myth. Except that actually, there is a connection between the two men, and it’s far more interesting, to me, than the possibility that they might have attended the same picnics (though that would have been fun). And that is that Stevenson, of course, read George Pratt and used his dictionary. Stevenson writes of it A Footnote to History, and here is my favourite part:

‘But the gem of the dictionary is the verb alovao, which illustrates the pages like a humorous woodcut. It is used in the sense of ‘to avoid visitors,’ but it means literally ‘hide in the wood.’ So, by the sure hand of popular speech, we have the picture of the house deserted, the malanga [travelling party] disappointed, and the host that should have been quaking in the bush.’

And I know this feeling: the quaking, the stillness required after an unwelcome knock at the door. In my parents’ copy of the dictionary, the definition of alovao is ‘one who gets out of the way of visitors.’ The same page is full of translations for ‘a branching kind of coral,’ ‘a cluster of stars,’ ‘filthy talk,’ and ‘to speak thick (as the voice of a dying person).’ All languages are full of metaphor and all dictionaries are full of beauty, and it’s good to be reminded of that when you’re someone who builds things out of words. It’s also good to learn that people in your family came before you in this task.

But George Pratt didn’t only translate from Samoan to English. He was also the author of O Faataoto Ma Tala Faatusa Mai Atunuu Esecse Ua Faa-Samoaina E Palate, or Fables from Many Lands Translated into Samoan Dialect, which was published in 1890. Stevenson was also interested in fables. He wrote his first at the age of twenty-three, and an incomplete collection was published after his death. His fables – or ‘counterfables’, as they’re sometimes called – influenced Borges, who translated them into Spanish. When asked for fable recommendations, it was George Pratt he praised as ‘the best and most literary version of the fables known to me. I suppose I should except La Fontaine, but L.F. takes a long time; these are as brief as the books of our childhood and full of wit and literary colour.’ And even though he also called George ‘an old missionary of the unpromising name of Pratt,’ this is, for me, the very best kind of connection.

Photo: The last portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson, taken in Samoa in 1894. Photograph: Bettmann/Corbis.