Robert Louis Stevenson’s Interpretation of Plantation Economies in Samoa, 1880s

Robert Louis Stevenson, advocate for Samoans in the late 19th Century.

When Europeans began establishing colonies and plantation economies abroad in the late 19th century, little consideration was given to their possible negative impact on local populations.   On the contrary, their introduction was generally viewed as a ‘good thing’ – a way to bring western ways to native lands; in short, to introduce ‘civilization’. 

An exception to this colonial point of view is found in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Eight Years of  Trouble in Samoa.  In it, he discusses what he sees as the intrusion of Western ways in Samoa and documents some of the resulting problems:

THE huge majority of Samoans, like other God-fearing folk in other countries, are perfectly content with their own manners. And upon one condition, it is plain they might enjoy themselves far beyond the average of man. Seated in islands very rich in food, the idleness of the many idle would scarce matter; and the provinces might continue to bestow their names among rival pretenders, and fall into war and enjoy that a while, and drop into peace and enjoy that, in a manner highly to be envied.

But the condition – that they should be let alone – is now no longer possible.

More than a hundred years ago, and following closely on the heels of Cook, an irregular invasion of adventurers began to swarm about the isles of the Pacific. The seven sleepers of Polynesia stand, still but half aroused, in the midst of the century of competition. And the island races, comparable to a shopful of crockery launched upon the stream of time, now fall to make their desperate voyage among pots of brass and adamant.

Here is a brief description of what Stevenson proposes as being Samoan attitudes towards German coconut plantations; here, the locals seem to have a pretty sound idea about what constitutes ‘food security’ – from their perspective:

YOU ride [horseback] in a German plantation and see no bush, no soul stirring; only acres of empty sward, miles of cocoa-nut alley: a desert of food. In the eyes of the Samoan the place has the attraction of a park for the holiday schoolboy, of a granary for mice. We must add the yet more lively allurement of a haunted house, for over these empty and silent miles there broods the fear of the negrito cannibal.

For the Samoan besides, there is something barbaric, unhandsome, and absurd in the idea of thus growing food only to send it from the land and sell it. A man at home who should turn all Yorkshire into one wheatfield, and annually burn his harvest on the altar of Mumbo-Jumbo, might impress ourselves not much otherwise. And the firm which does these things is quite extraneous, a wen that might be excised to-morrow without loss but to itself; few natives drawing from it so much as day’s wages; and the rest beholding in it only the occupier of their acres.

The nearest villages have suffered most; they see over the hedge the lands of their ancestors waving with useless cocoa-palms; and the sales were often questionable, and must still more often appear so to regretful natives, spinning and improving yarns about the evening lamp. At the worst, then, to help oneself from the plantation will seem to a Samoan very like orchard-breaking to the British schoolboy; at the best, it will be thought a gallant Robin-Hoodish readjustment of a public wrong.

Source: Robert Louis Stevenson A Footnote to History: Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa, CHAPTER III – THE SORROWS OF LAUPEPA, 1883 TO 1887

 Stevenson was a great supporter of Samoans and their struggle to retain their ways in opposition to American, British and German colonizers.  He and his wife built a large house and lived there until his death sudden and untimely death at 44.

Robert and Emma Stevenson, and their friends and others at home on Samoa. Source:

 Stevenson was plagued by ill-health for a number of years, which was a major reason that he and Emma settled in Samoa.  Prior to this move, they spent time in the States, recuperating and writing.

After his sudden death, he lay in state and then was buried in his beloved Samoa.  Before, however, writing the following verses that were inscribed on his grave:

Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.

This be the verse you grave for me,
Here he lies where he longed to be.
Home is the sailor home from the sea,
And the hunter home from the hill

Burial and grave of Stevenson in Samoa, 1894. Source: Wikipedia


About dianabuja

With a group of BaTwa (pygmy) women potters, with whom we've worked to enhance production and sales of their wonderful pots - fantastic for cooking and serving. To see the 2 blogs on this work enter 'batwa pots' into the search engine located just above this picture. Blog entries throughout this site are about Africa, as well as about the Middle East and life in general - reflecting over 35 years of work and research in Africa and the Middle East – Come and join me!
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