A Letter from the Pacific Islands: Robert Louis Stevenson to His Mother Margaret, August 22, 1889

A black and white photograph of writer Robert Louis Stevenson, a young white man with a moustache sitting in front of a simple backdrop.

The Booth Family Center for Special Collections holds an informative, four-page letter from Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) to his mother Margaret, dated August 22, 1889. The letter is found in box 1 folder 19 of the Ethel Crocker – Andre de Limur Collection. Stevenson published a wide array of works, including essays, poems, novels, and travel books. His best known works are Treasure Island (1881), Kidnapped (1886), and Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886).

In 1888, Robert Louis Stevenson, his wife Fanny, and a small traveling party set out on a long sea voyage from San Francisco, California to the Pacific islands. Stevenson embarked on the trip hoping that the islands’ climate would counteract his chronic tuberculosis. He also thought the islands would provide ideas for future stories. Margaret Stevenson accompanied her son through the first leg of his journey, returning to the United States after their voyage reached the Hawaiian islands.  

Stevenson penned this letter on August 22, 1889, from the schooner Equator in the lagoon of Abaiang in the Gilbert Islands. Although he intended to stay just a week or two, he remained on the islands through October 1889. In the letter, he explained that his plans had been “revolutionised” as he had originally expected to be home by June, “bar something extraordinary.” 

Stevenson proclaimed, “This cruise has been a huge success. The islands are interesting in many ways although not like our islands in the South.” He explained that the trading boat, the Equator, is “far more comfortable than the Casco,” the schooner he traveled on for the first part of the trip. He reported that his “health has been fine; Fanny’s not great.” They had both been afflicted by a fever, but were recovering with the aid of antipyrine (which they found more effective than quinine). He also suffered from a case of “prickly heat.”

Stevenson and Fanny slept on shore the night before he wrote this letter. Stevenson admitted he was “half sorry” that Margaret was no longer among the members on this trip and noted that the “people [here] are not like Polynesians.” He ended the letter “ever yours.”

In September 1889, Stevenson’s The Master of the Ballantrae was published to good reviews. He considered purchasing his own schooner to sail the Pacific and he even considered buying an island to use as a base for his travels. In the end, he bought a home in Samoa and established an estate there, which he called “Vailima.” Fanny, Margaret, and a small group of family and friends resided with him there. The Pacific climate aided Stevenson’s health and he wrote prolifically during this phase of his life. Vailima would remain his home until his death of a cerebral hemorrhage on December 3, 1894.

This letter was formerly part of the manuscripts collection of Mary Weinmann and it was donated to the Georgetown University Library as part of the Ethel Crocker – Andre de Limur Collection. The letter provides a glimpse into Robert Louis Stevenson’s Pacific travels which informed much of his writing in the later part of his life.

-Scott Taylor, Manuscripts Archivist