The Teller of Tales

The salvage crews were still working on the hulks of the British, American, and German warships sunk in Apia's harbor by a hurricane in 1889 when a thin, tubercular writer arrived from Scotland.

Not yet 40 years old, Robert Louis Stevenson was already famous -- and wealthy -- for such novels as Treasure Island and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He arrived in Samoa after traveling across the United States and a good part of the South Pacific in search of a climate more suitable to his ravaged lungs. With him were his wife, Fanny (an American divorcée 11 years his senior), his stepmother, and his stepson. His mother joined them later.


Stevenson intended to remain in Apia for only a few weeks while he caught up on writing a series of newspaper columns. He and his entourage stayed to build a mansion known as Vailima on the slopes of Mount Vaea, overlooking Apia, where he lived lavishly and wrote more than 750,000 published words. He learned the Samoan language and translated "The Bottle Imp," his story about a genie, into it. It was the first work of fiction translated into Samoan.

Stevenson loved Samoa, and the Samoans loved him. Great orators and storytellers in their own right, they called him Tusitala, the "Teller of Tales."

On December 3, 1894, almost 5 years after he arrived in Apia, Stevenson was writing a story about a son who had escaped a death sentence handed down by his own father and had sailed away to join his lover. Leaving the couple embraced, Stevenson stopped to answer letters, play cards, and fix dinner. While preparing mayonnaise on his back porch, he suddenly clasped his hands to his head and collapsed. He died not of tuberculosis but of a cerebral hemorrhage.


More than 200 grieving Samoans hacked a "Road of the Loving Hearts" up Mount Vaea to a little knoll below the summit, where they placed him in a grave with a perpetual view overlooking Vailima, the mountains, the town, the reef, and the sea he loved. Carved on his grave is his famous requiem:

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.

Hot Dogs & Hamburgers

Back in 1919, a young woman of British and Samoan descent named Agnes Genevieve Grey opened the Cosmopolitan Club on a point of land where the Vaisigano River flows into Apia Harbour. It was a small pub catering to businessmen and occasional tourists who climbed off the transpacific steamers.


And then came the U.S. Marines, who landed in 1942 to train for the South Pacific campaigns against the Japanese. Aggie Grey started selling them much-appreciated hot dogs and hamburgers. Quickly her little enterprise expanded into a three-story clapboard hotel. Many of those young marines, including future U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz, left Samoa with fond memories of Aggie Grey and her hotel (and in the case of Shultz, a tattoo on his derriere).

Another serviceman was a U.S. naval historian named James A. Michener. Everyone in Samoa believes Michener used Aggie as the role model for Bloody Mary, the Tonkinese woman who provided U.S. servicemen with wine, song, and other diversions in his Tales of the South Pacific.

Although her hotel grew to include more than 150 rooms, Aggie always circulated among her guests, making them feel at home. Everyone sat down family style at meals in the old clapboard building on Beach Road, and afterward they all moseyed over for coffee in the lounge. Afternoon tea was a time for socializing and swapping gossip from places far away. And on fiafia nights, when the feasts were laid out, Aggie herself would dance the graceful Samoan siva.


Like Robert Louis Stevenson, the Samoans revered Aggie Grey. They made her the only commoner to appear on a Samoan postage stamp. And when she died in 1988 at the age of 90, Head of State Malietoa Tanumafili II and hundreds of other mourners escorted her to her final resting place in the hills above Apia.

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