“I never knew the world was so amusing”

[Dots between square brackets indicate cuts made by Sidney Colvin. For full, correct and critical edition of this letter see Mehew 6, 2137.]

To Bob Stevenson [Colvin 1911, 3, pp. 114-8]

Honolulu, Hawaiian Islands, February 1889

My dear Bob,

My extremely foolhardy venture is practically over. How foolhardy it was I don’t think I realised. We had a very small schooner, and, like most yachts, over-rigged and over-sparred, and like many American yachts on a very dangerous sail plan.

The schooner Casco took RLS and his family all the way to Honolulu. When RLS decided to remain in the South Seas, Dr. Merritt, the owner, sold her. Next the yacht played the part of an opium smuggler in Hawaiian and Oriental waters [https://search-bcarchives.royalbcmuseum.bc.ca]

[…] The waters we sailed in are, of course, entirely unlighted, and very badly charted; in the Dangerous Archipelago, through which we were fools enough to go, we were perfectly in ignorance of where we were for a whole night and half the next day, and this in the midst of invisible islands and rapid and variable currents; and we were lucky when we found our whereabouts at last.

The Dangerous Archipelago of the Paamuto or Low
Islands, 1838 [https://digital.library.cornell.edu]

We have twice had all we wanted in the way of squalls; once, as I came on deck, I found the green sea over the cockpit coamings and running down the companion like a brook to meet me;

at that same moment the foresail sheet jammed and the captain had no knife; this was the only occasion on the cruise that ever I set a hand to a rope, but I worked like a Trojan, judging the possibility of hemorrhage better than the certainty of drowning. Another time I saw a rather singular thing: our whole ship’s company as pale as paper from the captain to the cook; we had a black squall astern on the port side and a white squall ahead to starboard; the complication passed off innocuous, the black squall only fetching us with its tail, and the white one slewing off somewhere else.

Twice we were a long while (days) in the close vicinity of hurricane weather, but again luck prevailed, and we saw none of it. These are dangers incident to these seas and small craft. What was an amazement, and at the same time a powerful stroke of luck, both our masts were rotten, and we found it out – I was going to say in time, but it was stranger and luckier than that. The head of the mainmast hung over so that hands were afraid to go to the helm; and less than three weeks before – I am not sure it was more than a fortnight we had been nearly twelve hours beating off the lee shore of Eimeo (or Moorea, next island to Tahiti) in half a gale of wind with a violent head sea:

Moorea Island [www.orangesmile.com]
Moorea blue lagoon [https://e31c93b4e618ab489354-db4284899b817bc76acff0cd2163cbf8.ssl.cf5.rackcdn.com]

Millard Sheets (1907-1989), Tahitian Women, Moorea [https://cdn.shopify.com]

she would neither tack nor wear once, and had to be boxed off with the mainsail – you can imagine what an ungodly show of kites we carried – and yet the mast stood.

The very day after that, in the southern bight of Tahiti,

The southern bight of Tahiti [https://argoul.files.wordpress.com]

we had a near squeak, the wind suddenly coming calm; the reefs were close in with, my eye! what a surf! The pilot thought we were gone, and the captain had a boat cleared, when a lucky squall came to our rescue. My wife, hearing the order given about the boats, remarked to my mother, ‘Isn’t that nice? We shall soon be ashore!’ Thus does the female mind unconsciously skirt along the verge of eternity.

Hawaiian feast, Honolulu, 26 January1889: (from left) Belle Osbourne Strong (RLS’s stepdaughter), King Kalakatua, Margaret Balfour Stevenson (RLS’s mother), Fanny Van de Grift Stevenson (RLS’s wife), Henry Poor (Superintendent of the Postal Savings Bank).

Our voyage up here was most disastrous – calms, squalls, head sea, waterspouts of rain, hurricane weather all about, and we in the midst of the hurricane season, when even the hopeful builder and owner of the yacht had pronounced these seas unfit for her. We ran out of food, and were quite given up for lost in Honolulu: people had ceased to speak to Belle about the Casco, as a deadly subject.

Isobel (Belle) Osbourne Strong (1858-1953) was at that time living in Honolulu with her husband Joe Strong and their son Austin [https://stevensonmuseum.org]

But the perils of the deep were part of the programme; and though I am very glad to be done with them for a while and comfortably ashore, where a squall does not matter a snuff to any one, I feel pretty sure I shall want to go to sea again ere long. The dreadful risk I took was financial, and doubleheaded. First, I had to sink a lot of money in the cruise, and if I didn’t get health, how was I to get it back? I have got health to a wonderful extent;

RLS with King Kalakatua, Honolulu 1889.

and as I have the most interesting matter for my book, bar accidents, I ought to get all I have laid out and a profit. But, second (what I own I never considered till too late), there was the danger of collisions, of damages and heavy repairs, of disablement, towing, and salvage; indeed, the cruise might have turned round and cost me double. Nor will this danger be quite over till I hear the yacht is in San Francisco; for though I have shaken the dust of her deck from my feet, I fear (as a point of law) she is still mine till she gets there.

From my point of view, up to now the cruise has been a wonderful success. I never knew the world was so amusing. On the last voyage we had grown so used to sea-life that no one wearied, though it lasted a full month, except Fanny, who is always ill.

RLS (white cap) on board of the Casco, 1889 [https://brasscompasstravels.files.wordpress.com]
Fanny Van de Grift Stevesnon (first left, seated) on board of the Casco [www.capitalcollections.org.uk]

All the time our visits to the islands have been more like dreams than realities: the people, the life,

Paul Gauguin, Ia Orana Maria (Hail Mary), 1891 [www.arte.it]

the beachcombers,

‘King of Manihiki with island judge on right hand, in front a beachcomber’, phot. Lloyd Osbourne 1890. The beachcomber sits on the sand, wearing a big square woven cape [www.capitalcollections.org.uk]

the old stories and songs I have picked up, so interesting; the climate, the scenery, and (in some places) the women, so beautiful. The women are handsomest in Tahiti,

Tahitian women, 1890 [https://images.fineartamerica.com]
P. Gauguin, Nafea Faa Ipoipo (When Will You Marry?), 1892 [www.caffeinamagazine.it]

the men in the Marquesas;

attooed native warrior of the Marquesas Islands, 1880 [https://commons.wikimedia.org]
Marquesan tatoo [www.cuded.com]

both as fine types as can be imagined. Lloyd reminds me, I have not told you one characteristic incident of the cruise from a semi-naval point of view. One night we were going ashore in Anaho Bay;

Anaho Bay, Nuka Hiva, Marquesas Islands [www.spiritofargo.com]

the most awful noise on deck; the breakers distinctly audible in the cabin; and there I had to sit below, entertaining in my best style a negroid native chieftain, much the worse for rum! You can imagine the evening’s pleasure.

This naval report on cruising in the South Seas would be incomplete without one other trait. On our voyage up here I came one day into the diningroom, the hatch in the floor was open, the ship’s boy was below with a baler, and two of the hands were carrying buckets as for a fire; this meant that the pumps had ceased working.

One stirring day was that in which we sighted Hawaii.

Hawaii [www.gohawaii.com]

It blew fair, but very strong; we carried jib, foresail, and mainsail, all single-reefed, and she carried her lee rail under water and flew. The swell the heaviest I have ever been out in – I tried in vain to estimate the height, at least fifteen feet – came tearing after us about a point and a half off the wind. We had the best hand – old Louis – at the wheel; and, really, he did nobly, and had noble luck, for it never caught us once. At times it seemed we must have it; old Louis would look over his shoulder with the queerest look and dive down his neck into his shoulders; and then it missed us somehow, and only sprays came over our quarter, turning the little outside lane of deck into a mill race as deep as to the cockpit coamings. I never remember anything more delightful and exciting. Pretty soon after we were lying absolutely becalmed under the lee of Hawaii, of which we had been warned; and the captain never confessed he had done it on purpose, but when accused, he smiled. Really, I suppose he did quite right, for we stood committed to a dangerous race, and to bring her to the wind would have been rather a heart-sickening manoeuvre.


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