by Carla Manfredi
In June 1888, Robert Louis Stevenson and his family set sail for the Pacific Islands aboard the Casco. It was not long before the famous author, encouraged by his wife and step-son who had packed at least two cameras and 1200 plates, became an enthusiastic practitioner of travel photography. Over the course of three years spent cruising, Stevenson visited no less than fifty islands across the areas known as Polynesia and Micronesia and, in collaboration with his family, produced approximately 600 photographs. When the peripatetic family settled in Sāmoa in 1891, they organized their photographs into four family albums. Stevenson, however, never left the Pacific; after his death in 1894, the precious album collection remained with his family until they bequeathed them to Edinburgh’s Writers’ Museum in the 1930s.
When Rev. William Clarke first saw R. L. Stevenson disembark in Apia, Sāmoa he observed that the author had a “camera dangling on its strap in one hand.” This tantalizing scene of Stevenson holding this cumbersome photographic apparatus raises seemingly straightforward questions: what motivated Stevenson’s Pacific photography and what were the circumstances of his family’s practice? In seeking to answer these questions, “Island Encounters in Focus” (part of my forthcoming book entitled Robert Louis Stevenson’s Pacific Impressions: Travel and Photography, 1888-1894 [Palgrave-Macmillan]) foregrounds the relationship between Stevenson’s photographs and textual and the extant records of his Pacific travel and residence and argues that individual photographs offer unique opportunities to elucidate the author’s place within the knotted histories of colonialism and photography in the Islands.
The two case studies that feature in my article suggest that Stevenson’s photos give us unprecedented access into specific moments of interaction between the traveler and Islanders and bring to light the daily negotiations between the individuals who stood before and behind the camera’s lens. The first examines photographs taken during the family’s visit to the Marquesas Islands (French Polynesia) in July-August 1888. Here, Stevenson encountered a dispossessed High Chief named Moipu who was thought to be a degenerate “cannibal.” Moipu posed for a series of photos and was later imitated by Lloyd Osbourne who dressed in a similar costume to that of Moipu in two self-portraits. The second case study discusses photographs of dancing Gilbert Islanders (I-Kiribati). My reading focuses on the crowds that line the contours of the image and that stare back at the camera calling our attention to the fact that the travellers must have, at times, been the objects of amusement, curiosity, or perhaps even ridicule.
Although Stevenson’s writings contain few detailed records of his photographic activities, it is clear that he and his family created photographs not only for illustrative purposes, but also to enter into relationships with locals. I hope that this article will serve as a point of entry for scholars within and without Victorian Studies to engage with a generous collection that routinely defies easy methodological, geographical, and generic classifications.
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- Manfredi, Carla. “Island Encounters in Focus: Photography and the R.L. Stevenson Family.” Victorian Review, vol 43, no 1, Spring 2017, pp. 67-86.