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Reviewed by:
  • Robert Louis Stevenson and the Colonial Imagination
  • Karen Teal (bio)
Ann C. Colley, Robert Louis Stevenson and the Colonial Imagination (Aldershot and Burlington: Ashgate, 2004), pp. x + 200, $69.95 cloth.

Ann Colley's book is a group of essays devoted to Robert Louis Stevenson's fortunes and preoccupations in the South Seas during the last part of his short life. The loosely connected chapters cover meditations on the use of clothes by Stevenson and his native friends and staff, the role of light and shadows in fiction and perception, the treatment of Pacific island artifact, the influence of missionaries on the natives, and the influence of the islands on the short stories and essays he wrote while there. The chapters that will be most interesting to the readers of the Victorian Periodicals Review are the last two, which are about how Stevenson's politics found their way into the periodical press and how the missionary press informed his poetry.

Colley says it is difficult to assign Stevenson to a purely imperialistic position. In the "popular" sense she says he was an imperialist. But he supported native Samoan rule, and "was just as willing to accuse his fellow westerners of being childlike, naïve, and uncivilized." In his story, "The Isle of Voices," for instance, Stevenson observes that "'white men are like children and only believe their own stories.'" Stevenson also saw direct resemblances between the Scottish highland chiefs and the Samoan chiefs. Nevertheless, the reader also learns that Stevenson liked to appear in formal western dress for official occasions and insisted on mixing mainly with South Seas islands royalty.

However, there is no contradiction in the sentiment of his political letters to The Times during the years 1889-1894, the year of his death. Stevenson's last five years of life were spent in a "campaign to rid Samoa of its irresponsible foreign officials and to try to reconcile the islands' warring factions." In these controversial letters, Stevenson sounded the alarm for the sovereignty of the islands and the dangerous games foreign officials played there.

The campaign began when Stevenson was in Honolulu and met freelance journalist John C. Klein. Klein had been present at the defeat [End Page 80] of a German commercial landing party that attempted to disarm Samoans at Fangalii on December 18, 1888. Klein's information stirred Stevenson to begin a series of letters to The Times on colonial control of Samoa. The series began on March 11, 1889 with a letter titled "Recent German Doings in Samoa." Samoa's political scene was ripe for commentary. Two native kings controlled Samoa, but the imperial powers conspired to depose one to simplify matters. Stevenson deeply admired the targeted king and grew intolerant of imperial actions. Colley locates an article written for Scribner's Magazine October, 1895 in which Stevenson's cousin, Balfour, describes the way local kings and rebels would drop by Stevenson's house in Vailima for advice. Stevenson became a political lightning rod.

Unfortunately, Stevenson was not always at ease with his position as the non-native supporter of local native power. He had problems disliking the men sent from afar to rule: In 1892, Stevenson remarked that while he was writing up a "villainous attack upon . . . (Conrad Cedercrantz, the Chief Justice) for The Times . . . we meet and smile and–damn it! Like each other." Similarly, Stevenson wrote an article for Scribner's called "Confessions of a Unionist" in which he denounced the English position on Ireland, but in it he also expressed hatred for the Irish Nationalists' policies. Ultimately he decided not to publish the story. In an earlier article for the Contemporary Review, Stevenson publicly worried about the violence that occurs in potentially ungoverned circumstances, such as South Africa.

Stevenson's period of political activity was also studded with interesting ironic moments with the press. Because of the letters, Stevenson became the focus of gossip and people expected him to be named the next British Consul to Samoa. The Manchester Courier hinted at it, but the New Zealand Herald, the Sydney Morning Herald and the Wellington Evening Post all decided to announce Stevenson's appointment. Stevenson was never actually named...


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pp. 80-83
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