Stevenson, Robert Louis Balfour

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Stevenson, Robert Louis Balfour

Stevenson, Robert Louis Balfour (1850-1894) Scots novelist and poet

A beloved fabulist and adventure writer at the height of the British Empire, Robert Louis Stevenson harbored a Scots skepticism about the merits of colonialism. A scion of three generations of lighthouse engineers, he deviated from the family career to unleash an active imagination. While immersed in the Bible, WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE’S plays, Sir Walter Scott's romances, and The THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS, he rejected his family’s Church of Scotland teachings and failed—or refused—to seriously pursue civil engineering coursework at the University of Edinburgh. After travels around Scotland with his father, he agreed to a compromise: law school, travel, and a career in fiction. He journeyed to Europe and witnessed the downside of commercial exploitation and Calvinist proselytizing. At age 24 in a personal letter, he summarized the depravities of empire as “tax gatherers, slaves, cheatery, chicane, poverty; suddenly drums and sunlight and the pageantry of imperial violence” (Stevenson 1997, 84).

Like many of his Irish and Welsh contemporaries, Stevenson took an ambivalent view of the colonizer and the colonized. In An Inland Voyage (1878), he commiserated with German imperialists for their loss of Alsace-Lorraine to France by comparing German nationalism to that of the British: “We shall never know we are Englishmen until we have lost India” (Stevenson and Osbourne 1905, 98). He added his personal regret over losing the English colonies during the American Revolution, a defeat that made him “remember what our empire might have been” (68). While treating a persistent cough and respiratory infections in his weak lungs at spas in France, Scotland, and Switzerland, Stevenson entertained his stepson, Lloyd Osbourne, with escapist episodes of TREASURE ISLAND (1883), an adventure story that presaged H. RIDER HAGGARD’S creation of the

“Lost World” genre. When the author serialized the blood-and-thunder tale as The Sea-Cook in Young Folks magazine from October 1881 to January 1882, he developed a new subgenre appealing to young men still innocent of the empire’s profiteering.

Imperialism, Slavery, and Loss

Stevenson employed political intrigue in his next novel, Kidnapped (1886), which casts as the HERO David Balfour, the author’s alter ego. The action, also serialized in Young Folks, features a Jacobite Catholic, Alan Breck Stewart, fleeing from the turmoil in Scotland after 1745 (Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Jacobite rising). Among episodes of lost inheritance, gambling, and regicidal plotting lie character issues—for example, the depiction of Captain Hoseason, “rough, fierce, unscrupulous, and brutal,” and trade in child slaves to plantations in the Carolinas, “unhappy innocents who were kidnapped … for private interest or vengeance” (Stevenson 1921, 43, 44). A star-packed film version in 1971 featured Donald Pleasence, Michael Caine, Jack Hawkins, and Trevor Howard.

A similar plot energizes The Master of Ballantrae: A Winter’s Tale (1889), which Stevenson completed while he lived in the Hawaiian Islands. The story depicts the involvement of the Stewart clan in the Jacobite rising on behalf of Bonnie Prince Charlie, the exiled Stuart pretender. A subplot sets the title character in India, the British adventurer’s Mecca. In 1953, the swashbuckling intrigue suited the screen image of actor Errol Flynn; a 1984 remake for television starred Sir John Gielgud.

During the Stevenson family’s voyage in 1888 aboard the schooner Casco in the Marquesas Islands, Fakarava Atoll, Tahiti, Hawaii, the Gilbert Islands, the Solomon Islands, and Samoa, the author sought relief from his illness. In serious physical decline, he compared his malaise to the colonial threat that England, France, Germany, and the United States posed to the Pacific islands. A dying man viewing a dying paradise, he shifted his focus from masculine romance to proselytism. While surveying the colonial pillage of the islands of Oceania, especially those under German imperialistic rule, he wrote of liberty, his own and that of islanders. In prose and verse, he depicted them by lamplight, in darkness, and under a shadowed moon, all representations of their failure to understand their peril from rapacious world powers. With In the South Seas (1891), Stevenson lauded Samoans for lightheartedness by calling them “the gayest and the best entertained inhabitants of our planet” (Stevenson 1891, 42).

The Writer as Social Critic

In the posthumously published story “The King of Apemama” (1896), Stevenson depicted Tembinok, an island king who resisted after England colonized the Gilbert Islands. He charged the English with narrow-mindedness and blatant discourtesy to a host culture, a slight that islanders shared with highland Gaels. Both Polynesian and Gael suffered the belittling leveled by the English colonizers. Stevenson stressed the accusing eyes and the silent glare that expressed the Polynesian’s outrage. After spotting a sentinel in a palm tree, he remarked, “The thought that perhaps at all hours we were similarly supervised, struck us with a chill. Talk languished on the beach” (Stevenson 1891, 22).

With the diatribe A Footnote to History: Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa (1892), Stevenson grew bolder. The text refutes the British hypocritical belief of freeing the savage from ignorance by drawing European characters revitalized through contact with the Samoan islander. Ironically, the selfcentered imperialist profits from the Polynesian’s natural goodwill and industry.

In the 1890s, Stevenson began translating island folklore for European readers. Reverting to traditional STORYTELLING, he reset the genie-in-the- lamp motif from Scheherazade’s The Thousand and One Nights stories as “The Bottle Imp,” featured in Island Nights’ Entertainments (1893). The magic bottle formerly owned by the emperor Napoleon I and by Captain James Cook, passes in and out of the life of the hero Keawe, a Hawaiian mariner who travels from the Kona shore to Tahiti, an island of French Polynesia. Part of the curse of wish fulfillment is leprosy, a disease that turns Keawe into a pariah. The author’s visit to Father Damien’s leper colony on Molokai so impacted his imagination that he referred to the disease throughout his South Seas writings. The infection represents a dual torment—a medical curse and imperial encroachment. Subtextually, it replicates the horror of whites at contamination through close or intimate contact with nonwhites.

While living at Vailima, a plantation manse in Samoa, the author lobbied for islanders against the imperialistic plans of Germany, England, and the United States and from the proselytizing of missionaries, the subject of the anticolonial tales “The Four Reformers” and “Something in It” in Fables (1888). With the story “The Beach of Falesa” (1892), he damns Wiltshire, the white male trader, for originally viewing Uma, an island female, as a sexual commodity and for considering their halfcaste children unsuitable for “white man’s country” or white husbands (Stevenson 1917, 148). In The Ebb-Tide (1894), written with his stepson Lloyd Osbourne, Stevenson pictured the inglorious British intruder as a bearer of pestilence, a microbe less virulent than the moral pollution sweeping the beach at Papeete, Tahiti. Washed up on shore lies the detritus of empire—timbers, rigging, harpoons, rusted tanks, ladders, “a whole curiosity shop of sea curios”—a parable in junk guarded by “the commonplace ghosts of sailormen” (Stevenson and Osbourne 1905, 166-167). His sociological TRAVELOGUE, The Amateur Emigrant from Clyde to Sandy Hook (1895), recounts “legends of the steerage” (Stevenson 1895, 60) about passengers and stowaways escaping the Old World to better lives in the New World. The very different conditions aboard an ocean liner are a miniature version of the wealth of England’s elite contrasted with that of its underclass. With a Jekyll-and-Hyde paradigm, Stevenson proposes a Conradian “heart of darkness” within the English, an evil basis of the British Empire. His view of hypocritical agendas influenced the writings of CHINUA ACHEBE, Sir ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE, GRAHAM GREENE, H. Rider Haggard, and MERVYN PEAKE.


Ambrosini, Richard, and Richard Dury. Robert

Louis Stevenson: Writer of Boundaries. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2006.

Edmond, Rod. Representing the South Pacific: Colonial Discourse from Cook to Gauguin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Mack, Douglas S. Scottish Fiction and the British Empire. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006.

Simmons, Diane. The Narcissism of Empire: Loss, Rage and Revenge in Thomas De Quincey, Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Conan Doyle, Rudyard Kipling, and Isak Dinesen. Eastbourne, U.K.: Sussex Academic Press, 2007.

Stevenson, Robert Louis. The Amateur Emigrant from the Clyde to Sandy Hook. Chicago: Stone and Kimball, 1895.

----- . An Inland Voyage. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1905.

------- . In the South Seas. London: S. S. McClure, 1891.

----- . Island Nights’ Entertainments. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1917.

------- . Kidnapped. New York: Blue Ribbons Books, 1921. . Selected Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson. Edited by Ernest Mehew. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1997.

----- , and Lloyd Osbourne. The Ebb-Tide: A Trio and Quartette. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1905.