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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 12, Issue 2 (May 1, 1937)

R. L. S. and his Friends Some Stevenson Memories

page 59

R. L. S. and his Friends Some Stevenson Memories .

Ben Hird (From a photograph about 1890).

Ben Hird
(From a photograph about 1890).

Anything that will extend our knowledge and understanding of that always magnetic and lovable soul Robert Louis Stevenson is to be welcomed. It is therefore of particular interest, not solely a literary interest, to know that the Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington has lately acquired a letter signed by him which had not previously seen publication. This letter came to light from the Gisborne district, where several of the recipient's relatives live. It is addressed to Ben Hird, one of the three Island traders to whom R.L.S. dedicated his “Island Nights' Entertainments”—a story for each of them. For me there was a special and particular interest in that discovery by our great treasure-house of Pacific Islands literature, for it renewed memories of the days when we used to see something of those Island friends in Auckland, and on too rare occasions of Stevenson himself.

Those were only fleeting visits, unfortunately, for the man of Vailima was only passing through by steamer on each occasion. His longest visit to Auckland was in 1890, in the South Sea trading steamer Janet Nicoll, it was in that vessel that he made the acquaintance of the three shipmates whose names are so familiar to readers of his books, though not one reader in a hundred thousand could have any inkling of who or what they were.

A Cruise in the Janet Nicoll.

Early in February of 1890, soon after the then forest - covered site of Vailima had been bought and orders given to clear it for a home, Stevenson and his wife and Mr. Lloyd Osbourne, his stepson, left Apia for Sydney. It was the much-travelled and greatly - suffering novelist's intention to visit England, but fate disposed otherwise. He caught a cold in Sydney, and there was nothing for it but to take to the tropics again on a lung-strengthening or at any rate lung-easing cruise. Mrs. Stevenson heard of a trading steamer about to leave on a long voyage among the Pacific Islands. After much trouble she persuaded the charterers of the steamer, the great South Sea trading firm of Henderson and Macfarlane, to take them as passengers.

The vessel was going on a business cruise, with one of the characters, Mr. Harry Henderson, on board, inspecting the nrm's stations throughout the mid-Pacific, and passengers were not at first welcome. But the Stevensons' immediately won the hearts of the Janet Nicoll; and it was the saving of the sick man's life; at any rate he was a comparatively well man in a few weeks.

A Visit to Auckland.

The great maritime strike of 1890, which affected all Australian and New Zealand shipping, was on when the Janet Nicoll was preparing to leave Sydney for Auckland, and there was some difficulty in getting a crew. She got away at last, with a scratch crew, a Sydney mixture, some white, most of them South Sea Islanders. Here come in my own memories of the ship with her six passengers and the non-union crew. I was at that time a youthful member of the staff of the “Auckland Star,” learning the ropes of the news-gathering trade, with the waterfront and the shipping for my daily round. An always-interesting and often exciting field in those times, when ships were smaller and more numerous than they are to-day, and when deep-sea arrivals always held the charm of the unexpected.

The Janet's Crew.

I went aboard the Janet Nicoll when she arrived. She was an iron screw-steamer of some six hundred tons, square-rigged on her foremast; every steamer carried some sail in those days. There was trouble about the inexperienced crew; most of whom were “black” in a labour union sense. Two or three men, white hands in the stokehold, came to the “Star” office to complain about the inefficiency of the others; they mentioned, among other matters, that the chief officer had to lay aloft himself and go out on the foretopsail yard to furl sail because there were no deckhands who would venture up when it blew hard.

The men made a long statement which I took down; it was sworn to by them before a Justice of the Peace and published; and the chartering firm made a reply to it next day. But there were all manner of shipping troubles then which had to be got over in some way or another; ships must sail, with any kind of crew they could get. The Janet's hands were right enough, once the ship got away and the officers got them into sailorly shape. They were Line Islanders, and better hands in a surf-boat than Europeans.

She got away, she visited more than thirty islands on that cruise, as far up as the low-lying Gilberts and Marshalls, where one island is very much like another. It was now, after leaving Auckland and getting shaken down on board, that the Stevensons' party came to know their commerce-chasing shipmates. Of the six, but one is still living, Lloyd Osbourne.

Ben Hird and Company,

The managing owner, or part owner, Harry Henderson, became a trusty page 60 friend of the novelist, but the one of the three who captured his liking most was the ship's supercargo, Ben Hird, a burly, jolly, sailorly Scot (he seemed to me more Irish than Scot, though he came from Aberdeen). He had been at sea in one way and another for more than twenty years; he had voyaged all over the South Seas, and spent long months on lonely islands as trader. He could sing a good song, and valiantly maintain the reputation of his birthland when convivial spirits met. So, too, could the third and youngest member of the trading trio, Jack Buckland, whose nickname was “Tin Jack.” He was a bright but somewhat irresponsible character, given to chatter and youthful pranks; a trader for his firm on one far-out island after another. He is considered to be the original of Stevenson's character, Tommy Hadden in “The Wrecker.”

But Ben Hird was the most stimulating figure. He was a very great favourite among all the Island people, white and brown, whom he met on his long cruises in schooners, brigantines and steamers under the famous Circular Saw house flag.

Stevenson's letter now in the Turnbull Library was addressed to Ben Hird in May, 1893, from Vailima. It was dictated to Isobel Strong, his adopted daughter, and signed by him. He mentioned that “something is already out in England in which you are directly interested…. The book is called ‘Island Nights’ Entertainments,' and is dedicated to three rather decent fellows—Harry Henderson, Jack Buckland, and B—, but you will find it on the flyleaf. They are all people anyway for whom I entertain a particular esteem—and Be—there, I'm letting it slip again—is not the least.”

R.L.S. was expecting and hoping Hird would visit Apia. “For months I hung on to my last bottle of good whisky for Ben Hird.”

“You are expected,” he added, “to sing ‘Afton Water,’ and to tell the latest story of Tin Jack with all details on the verandah of Vailima.”

“Tin Jack” Buckland was a merry-hearted young fellow who was never likely to grow old. He came to a tragic end on Christmas Island, killed while handling explosives in the customary free-and-easy way of the Island. Ben Hird died when on a trading cruise in his firm's steamer among the Line Islands and was buried on the coral atoll of Funafuti. The last of the cheery trio, Harry Henderson, died in Melbourne in 1926.

I am inclined to the belief that Ben Hird was the original of London Dodd, the narrator of so much comedy and tragedy in “The Wrecker.” True, he was not a smallish man, as the author described him in the introductory chapter, where Dodd comes in in the trading schooner from Auckland that arrived at Tai-o-hae, the French port of entry in the Marquesas. But he was the bearded supercargo with a pleasing flow of conversation, and he was “an old, salted trader,” an accurate enough description of Mr. B. Hird.

A reference to one Tierney in the Stevenson letter to Hird is cryptic to most readers without some explanation. Stevenson wrote:“…. I was very sorry to hear about poor old Tierney, but I trust he is all on the mend and jolly again, like others of that vast clan of one-handed calenders, the sons of kings, who people the Line Islands.”

The last portrait of R.L.S.

The last portrait of R.L.S.

The allusion is to a Captain Tierney, a trader who lived on Apaiang, in the Gilbert Islands. As far as my memory serves me, he was reported in Auckland to have blown one of his hands off, or shattered it, when killing fish with dynamite. A rather common mishap in the Islands, holding the explosive a second too long before throwing it into the water, Evidently Hird had reported the accident to Stevenson, who had visited Captain Tierney on Apaiang in 1889, when he was cruising in the schooner Equator.

A Meeting With R.L.S.

Though we saw something of the Stevensons on that visit to Auckland in 1890, it was not until three years later that I met and talked with R.L.S. himself. That ever-treasured experience and privilege was on board the mailsteamer Mariposa, at Auckland on February the 24th, 1893. Stevenson was on his way from Samoa to Sydney; it was the year before his death, and he was indeed dying then. He looked pale and ill, as he sat there in the saloon; he was waiting for Sir George Grey to call for him, and I had the chance of a talk with him about his books and the always troubled politics of Samoa.

That pale, romantic figure is plain in the mind's eye, after all those years. Romantic is an ill-used adjective, yet I feel it is the right word here. His deep emotional eyes, with a humorous kindly glint, his lank black hair, rather long and rather damp-looking, his slender waxy-white hands, were features that do not pass from memory. Stevenson's eyes, the eyes of a poet and a lover of humanity, seemed Polynesian eyes too, the liquid, eyes of the golden brown folk.

He was worn and tired, but he was very kind to his young interviewer, and talked freely enough about the triangular political squabbles in Samoa, where affairs were rapidly approaching the periodical crisis. “Things are just about as bad as they can be,” he said. “Every day deepens my belief that annexation by some one Power would be the best thing that can happen to the Islands. This divided control is a curse.” The two head officials appointed by the Powers, were a curse also, I gathered. “There is no money in the Treasury at Apia. Not a salary has been paid for the last four months, either to the Municipal magistrate (Mr. Cooper, an Auckland man), or to the other officers or police— in fact, the only men who have got their salaries are the two Europeans— one is a Swedish judge—sent out by the Powers to run the farce of a Government.”

I think that at the moment I was more concerned to get Stevenson's views about Samoa, present and future, than to ask about his books. He was expecting to be deported by the Germans. But when we passed on to writing topics, he told me about his latest job of work, as he called it. It was, he said, to be called “The Schooner Farallone;” it had been tentatively titled “The Pearl Fisher.” This was the book that, as it developed, was eventually published as “The Ebb Tide.”

Sir George Grey was a great and heroic figure in Stevenson's eyes. The page 61
(Rly. Publicity Photo.) A view of Karori, a suburb of Wellington. (This photograph was taken after a fall of snow—a rare occurrence in the Capital City of New Zealand).

(Rly. Publicity Photo.)
A view of Karori, a suburb of Wellington. (This photograph was taken after a fall of snow—a rare occurrence in the Capital City of New Zealand).

venerable man of great State affairs and the dying writer met and talked, and Stevenson recalled in one of his letters the pleasure of walking arm in arm with Grey and talking of Pacific Islands affairs, past, present and to come.

Mrs. Stevenson.

I recall also that some of the mailsteamer passengers professed, we heard, that they were shocked because Mrs. Stevenson went about the deck barefooted. So did Stevenson himself sometimes in warm weather, but it was excused in him as an eccentricity of genius; in his wife it was Bohemianism run to excess. It is amusing to recall to-day the stifling propriety of the young Nineties. That was in a mail steamer, where passengers dressed with the utmost regard for the Respectabilities. It was different when they travelled in their own chartered schooner, and in the easy-going South Sea tramp Janet Nicoll, where everyone, from the Captain down, often went barefooted in the tropics.

By the way, writing again of the Janet Nicoll, Mrs. Stevenson made a curious blunder in her book on the cruise. She misspelled the steamer's name as Janet Nichol on the title-page and all through the book, a curious example of carelessness or want of observation.

Stevenson and the Sculptor.

Stevenson had one more sea cruise after that. He visited Honolulu, where he was down with fever, and Mrs. Stevenson went up to nurse him and take him home. In October he noted in one of his letters: “I am being busted here by party named Hutchinson. Seems good.” This brief reference is to Mr. Allen Hutchinson, the sculptor, whose bust of Stevenson was exhibited in London in 1895. Hutchinson came to Auckland a little later, and we saw a good deal of him there and at Rotorua, where he was making busts and plaques of Maori types. A gifted man, a stalwart Englishman, he had little encouragement in New Zealand, though his work was exceptionally good. He returned to America; I heard from him from time to time. He settled in San Diego, California, where he was British Consular Agent. Some of his Maori casts are in the Partridge collection, in the Auckland Art Gallery.

(Rly Publicity photo.) A picturesque bend of the Buller River, South Island, New Zealand.

(Rly Publicity photo.)
A picturesque bend of the Buller River, South Island, New Zealand.

page 62