Saturday, January 26, 2013

Robert Louis Stevenson in Hawaii

Place of Refuge Hale o Keawe on Kona Coast

Robert Louis Stevenson, best known for his books Kidnapped and Treasure Island came to Hawaii in 1889.  He spent time with King David Kalakaua, wrote a poem for the half-Scottish Princess Ka’iulani, and even visited the Big Island.  Though Stevenson wrote a lot about his experiences in Hawaii, most of the writings about the islands were never published.  Fortunately, his “Journal of the Kona Coast” was included in the book Travels in Hawaii by A. Grove Day published by the University of Hawaii Press in 1991, which we found at Kona Bay Books last week.

Born in Scotland in 1850, Stevenson was frail and sickly all his life.  His first published works were travelogues about trips in Europe and to California and short stories about adventure, crime, tropical islands, and strange characters like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  However, he did not become popular until Treasure Island and his other children’s fantasy fiction novels were published with settings in warm, tropical islands that he had never visited.  At the age of 39, Stevenson decided to visit the South Pacific with hopes of improving his health in a warmer climate and experiencing the places he had written about. He arrived in Honolulu from San Francisco in January 1889 and stayed until June. 

We were surprised to read that Stevenson visited the Kona Coast during his stay in Hawaii. He arrived on a steamer in April 1889 and was dropped off on a reef just south of  Kealakekua Bay.  He waded to shore in knee deep water to Ho’okena village where he stayed for a week with a retired judge and his family.   Stevenson described the Kona landscape and his horseback rides to a coffee plantation and Honaunau village in his journal.  He toured the City of Refuge Hale o Keawe which inspired one of his short stories, “The Bottle Imp”, a classic tale of a cursed, magic bottle in a Hawaii setting.

Although Hawaii’s warm climate improved his health, Stevenson continued his journey south to tropical islands near the equator and eventually landed in Samoa where he bought acreage and built a house in Apia.    Stevenson returned to Hawaii one more time in the summer of 1893 after his health degraded in Samoa, but he only stayed 5 weeks before returning to Samoa where he died at the age 44 the following year.

Note to self: Don’t leave Hawaii.

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