Literary Notes: A long way from Treasure Island

WHEN ROBERT Louis Stevenson sailed with his American wife and stepson through the Golden Gate from San Francisco into the Pacific in June 1888, he had in mind a cruise among the South Sea islands, to be paid for with the syndicated "letters" he would write for the newspapers, in which he would entertainingly describe his travels.

A year and a half later, in December 1889, a missionary in the town of Apia on the Samoan island of Upolu encountered a tanned woman wearing a Gilbertese straw hat who was carrying a mandolin, an extremely thin man with a cigarette, and a younger man who was wearing dark glasses and carrying a concertina and a ukelele, the missionary took this bizarre trio for "a party of vaudeville artists en route to Australia or the States".

What Robert Louis Stevenson could not know when he set out from San Francisco was that he would discover much more than entertainment in the islands, and that he would settle among them for ever, and live and die on that Samoan island. He had already, as a boy, discovered the South Seas in fiction. At the age of 12 he had written a first instalment of "Creek Island, or Adventures in the South Seas", supposedly "To be continued" . A few years later, after church one Sunday in Edinburgh, young Stevenson introduced himself to the author R.M. Ballantyne - "Ballantyne the brave", as he was to call him in the verses prefacing Treasure Island. The 15- year-old Stevenson declared himself an admirer of Ballantyne's best-selling South Sea romance Coral Island, which he had read twice, he told Ballantyne, and hoped to read twice more.

The real Pacific was naturally rather different. When Stevenson stopped over in Sydney after his travels, a reporter from the Sydney Morning Herald asked him if he had found Treasure Island. "Mr. Stevenson smiled humorously. `Treasure Island,' he said, `is not in the Pacific.' " The record of Stevenson's travels between San Francisco and Upolu is in his book In the South Seas, which describes his experiences and encounters on the islands of the Marquesas, the Paumotus and the Gilberts (now the Republic of Kiribati).

The best part of the book (and the part Stevenson himself preferred) tells the story of his stay on the Gilbertese island of Apemama, by special permission of the despotic King Tem Binoka, blue-spectacled and memorable in his woman's frock and pith helmet, cheating his wives at cards and firing his Winchester over the heads of his misbehaving subjects. Tem Binoka allowed few whites to stay on his island, and strictly regulated the inroads of colonisation and civilisation, but he was curious as well as clever, and often embarrassed Stevenson with questions he could not answer. What was the height of Queen Victoria's palace, exactly?

Stevenson recognised that his writings described scenes and characters on the islands that were soon to vanish beneath the rising tide of civilisation. In August 1894, discussing the proposed publication of his travel book, he remarked that what he had seen on Apemama was gone for ever, now that Tem Binoka was dead and his island annexed by Britain. A few months later Stevenson was dead himself, and a hundred years later, of course, the colonial South Seas, the white men's islands, have also passed into the past.

Stevenson's book is a historical document as well as a travel account. It did not please some readers who wanted more romance and less reality, more autobiography and less anthropology, but Stevenson was determined to write about the islands and islanders, not just the traveller. There was one reader at least who recognised the book's merit, Joseph Conrad, who said he preferred In the South Seas to Treasure Island. Stevenson had travelled far from Treasure Island.

Neil Rennie is the editor of Robert Louis Stevenson, `In the South Seas' (Penguin, pounds 6.99)