Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Stevenson’s visit to Tuvalu

Today is Independence Day in Tuvalu. It’s also the 25th anniversary of the country’s independence from Britain. Formerly known as the Ellice Islands, Tuvalu consists of four reef islands and five atolls, and is located in the Pacific Ocean midway between Australia and Hawaii. It is one of the smallest countries, land-wise and population-wise, in the world. In 1890, not long after the country first came under British jurisdiction, Robert Louis Stevenson, the famous Scottish writer, visited the place with his wife, who kept a diary.

The ancestors of Tuvaluan people are believed to have arrived on the islands 2,000-3,000 years ago, probably from Tonga and Samoa. According to Wikipedia, eight of the country’s nine islands were inhabited, hence the name Tuvalu, which means ‘eight standing together’ in Tuvaluan. Under the leadership of chiefs, known as ‘Aliki’, traditional society continued for hundreds of years before undergoing significant changes with the arrival of European traders in the 1820s.

In the early 1860s, Peruvian slave raiders (‘blackbirders’), stole over 400 people from the Tuvaluan islands, but, later in the decade, missionaries started arriving. The British took control in the 1870s, and then administered them as a protectorate from 1892 to 1916, and as part of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony from 1916 to 1974. The Ellice islanders then voted for separate British dependency status as Tuvalu, separating from the Gilbert Islands, and in 1978, took on full independence within the Commonwealth.

Tuvalu has a population of less than 10,000 about half of whom live in the capital Funafuti (which is itself made up of 33 islets); and a gross land area of only 26 sqkm (although Funafuti alone encircles a lagoon with an area 275 sqkm). According to Wikipedia again, it is the third least populated independent country in the world (with only Vatican City and Nauru having fewer inhabitants), and the fourth smallest in terms of land area (with only Vatican City, Monaco and Nauru smaller). Subsistence farming and fishing remain the primary economic activity, but the country’s main form of income is foreign aid. Being only 5 m above sealevel, it is one of the countries most endangered by the threat of rising sea levels from climate change.

In May 1890, Robert Louis Stevenson (author of such famous novels as Treasure Island and Kidnapped) visited Funafuti. Since 1887, when his father died, he and his family had been travelling around the Pacific, with extended stays in the Hawaiian islands, Tahiti and the Gilbert Islands. Their visit to Funafuti came a few weeks after leaving Sydney, on their third and final voyage around the South Seas, this one on a ship called Janet Nicol. Later the same year, Stevenson settled in Upolu, one of the Samoan islands, and stayed there till his death in 1894.

Stevenson was no mean diarist, and several of his diaries were publishing successes - Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes, for example, and The Silverado Squatters. More about Stevenson, and links to etexts of these diaries can be found at The Diary Junction. But his wife, Fanny, also kept a diary, and it is thanks to her that we have a record of their visit to Funafuti - in The Cruise of the Janet Nichol in the South Seas. Parts of the book are available at Googlebooks, but Jane Resture, on her Tuvalu website, reproduces the text of Fanny’s entry regarding the visit to Funafuti, as well as adding a map and some old photos.

The Stevensons arrived at Funafuti on 27 May 1890 and left the next day. Here is part of Fanny’s diary for 27 May.

‘We expect to make Funafuti, the first of the Ellices by daybreak. At nine o'clock, there were no signs of the island. ‘Bad steering,’ growled the Captain. ‘We’ve run past it and now we have to turn around and run back.’ At about 2 we anchored in the lagoon. Two traders came aboard. One was a half-caste from some other island with elephantiasis, very bad, in both legs. The other trader (Restieaux) was described as not thin but very pallid; his face, hands, legs, and feet were without sunburn, smooth, and of a curious transparent mixture like wax. It seemed an over-exertion to raise his large heavy eyes when he spoke to us.

I asked him if he liked the island. ‘Not at all,’ he answered and went on to describe the people; he said he could not keep chickens, ducks or pigs; no one could, for their neighbours, jealous that another should have what they had not, would stone the creatures to death. The same with the planting of fruit trees; the soil was good, and there were a few breadfruits and bananas, but any attempt to grow more is frustrated. The young trees are torn up and even the old ones are occasionally broken and nearly destroyed. . .

. . . After awhile, Louis and I stroll across the island, becoming more and more amazed by what we saw. Everything that one naturally expects to find on a low island is here reversed. To begin with, the fact of the poisonous fish are outside the reef is contrary to what one has reason to expect. The soil is very rich for a low island, with ferns and many shrubs and flowering plants growing. We saw a little taro and quite a large patch, considering, of bananas. There was much marsh and green stagnant pools, and the air was heavy with a hothouse smell. The island seemed unusually wide, but when we pushed through the bushes and trees to find ourselves not on the sea beach, as we had expected, but on the margin of a large lagoon emptied of its waters almost entirely by the low tide.

I found Louis bending over a piece of the outer reef that he had broken off. From the face of both fractures innumerable worms were hanging like a sort of dreadful, thick fringe. The worm looked exactly like slender earth worms more or less bleached, though some were quite earth worm colours.’

1 comment:

meninadofazdeconta said...

How wonderful!!! For me it keeps being a dream... Thanks for sharing. Any photos?