Robert Louis Stevenson and the cruise on the Janet Nicoll

Summary of movements

• 11 April 1890, leaves Sydney on the Janet Nicoll
• 18-19 April, calls at Aukland
• 26-28 April, at Savage Island (Niue)
• 30 April, arrives at Samoa, spends the night on shore in Apia
• 1 May, inspects work on Vailima and departs
• 3 May at Swain’s Island (in the Tokelau Islands)
• 3-19 May, sailing east to Penrhyn and then back via several small atolls of the Cook Islands
• 19-20 May, back at Swain’s Island, then off to two other atolls in the same group (till 24 May)
• 24 May-7 June, sailing through the Ellice Islands, stopping at atolls from Funafuti to Nanomea
• 7-17 June, sailing through the Gilbert Islands, stopping at atolls from Arorai to Maraki
• 17-28 June, sailing to the north of the Marshall Islands (Majuro) and then south again, stopping at atolls
• 1 July-16 July, sailing among the Gilbert Islands from north to south, from Abaiang to Arorae
• 16 July, the Janet Nicoll leaves the Gilbert Islands and sails south-south-west to New Caledonia, via the New Hebrides and Loyalty Group.
• 26 July, arrives at Noumea
• 27 July Janet Nicoll departs for Sydney with Fanny and Lloyd, RLS remains in Noumea
• 2 August, RLS leaves Noumea
• 7 August, arrives in Sydney

Sydney and the Janet Nicoll

After buying the Vailima property in Samoa and arranging for a house to be built, RLS and Fanny went to Sydney in February 1890, planning to return to England for a short stay. In late March, RLS fell ill with a lung haemorrhage. Remembering how well RLS had been on the Equator cruise, Fanny decided to repeat the experience. The port of Sydney was blocked by a dock strike, but Fanny found out that the Janet Nicoll with a non-union crew was preparing to set sail. She used all her powers of persuasion on the reluctant owners and on 11 April the Janet Nicoll set sail with RLS, Fanny and Lloyd on board.

The Janet Nicoll was a 600-ton iron steamer with two masts for supplementary sail belonging to the trading company of Henderson and Macfarlane of Aukland. Apart from RLS, Fanny and Lloyd, there were three other passengers: Harry Henderson, one of the owners, Ben Hurd, an experienced and respected trader (from whom RLS learnt much about the Pacific), and Jack Buckland, known as “Tin Jack”, a gentleman with a small allowance who was also a small trader (and the model for Tommy Haddon in The Wrecker [1892]). RLS dedicates Island Nights’ Entertainments (1893) to these three. The hard-working and good-natured crew from the Solomon Islands was taken by RLS as models for the native crew in The Ebb-Tide (1894), in which he uses one of their names, Sally Day.

Unlike the Casco and Equator cruises, this trip was not planned and RLS had no say in where the ship went (in fact, the route was not even disclosed to the passengers). However, the ship was spacious, RLS enjoyed quite good health and he and Fanny enjoyed the company of the other passengers.

On this four-month cruise, the Janet Nicoll followed a zigzagging course calling at many small islands: after Samoa, sailing east to Penrhyn Island, then west to the Ellice Islands, north-west to the Gilbert Islands on the Equator and familiar from the Equator cruise, then further north-west to the Marshall Islands, before returning to the Gilbert Islands again and then south-west to New Caledonia and back to Sydney. Apart from a night ashore in Apia, the Stevenson party slept on the ship and went ashore for daytime visits and did not go ashore at every island.

On the islands RLS saw things later incorporated into his South Sea stories: the salvaged white ship’s figure head on Penrhyn was used in The Ebb-Tide and many of the stories and observations of white traders, interracial marriages and beachcombers were used in that novel and in “The Beach of Falesá” (1892).

Fanny Stevenson’s journal, The Cruise of the Janet Nichol (Fanny’s spelling of the name), has been edited by Roslyn Jolly (Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2004).

Sydney to Samoa

After leaving Sydney on 11 April, they sailed east to Aukland in New Zealand, where they arrived on 18 April. Fanny and RLS stayed overnight in a hotel and left with he ship the following day. They then went north-east, stopping at Niue (Savage Island) and then arriving in Samoa on 30 April, leaving the following day—just enough to inspect progress on the construction of Vailima.

Samoa to the Cook and Tokelau Islands

On 1 May the Janet Nicoll left Apia and steamed north. On 3 May they stopped at Swain’s Island (Olohenga or Quiros) an isolated atoll in the Tokelau or Union Islands.

They then steamed eastwards through the coral atolls of the northern Cook Islands to Penrhyn Island and back: Danger Island (Pukapuka) (4 May) – Manihiki (6-7 May) – Penrhyn (9-10 May) – Manikiki (11 May, where none of the passengers went ashore) – Suwarrow (13 May) – Danger Island (16 May, where no-one went ashore because the copra wasn’t ready) – Nassau (17 May).

On 19-20 May they were back at Swain’s Island and then set off to other Tokelau Islands further to the north: Fakaafo (22-23 May) – Atafu (22-24 May).

Ellice Islands

On 24 May the Janet Nicoll set out westward to the Ellice islands (now Tuvalu): Funafuti (27-28 May) – Natau (Niutau) (28-30 May) – Nanui (31 May-2 June) – Nanomea (4-7 June).

Gilbert Islands

They then when northwards, passing out of Polynesia into Micronesia as they moved into the Gilbert Isands: Arorai (9 June) – Onoatoa (12 June) – Noukanau (Nikunau, 13 June) – Tapituea (Tabiteuea, 15 June) – Apemama (Abemama, 16 June) – Kuria (16 June) – Maraki (Marakei, 17 June).

In Kuria they met once again with the colourful King Tembinoka who they had met on the Equator trip (and they were to meet him again on their return to the Gilbert Islands in July).

Marshall Islands

After the Gilberts the Janet Nicoll sailed north-west through the Marshall Islands to Jaluit (19 June) and Majuro (20-24 June), and then back south-east again to Jaluit (26 June) – Namorik (27 June) – Ebon (28 June).

Back in the Gilbert Islands

On 1 July they arrived back in the Gilbert Islands and visited Apiang (Abaiang, 1 July) – Tarawa (1 July) – Aranuka (3-4 July) – Apemama (Abemama, 5-6 July) – Nanauti (Nonouti, 7-8 July) – Piru (Beru, 9-11 July) – Noukanau (Nikunau, 12-13 July) – Piru (Beru, 13 July) – Onoatoa (Onotoa, 14 July) – Tamana (15 July) – Arorai (Arorae, 16 July).

To New Caledonia and Sydney

The Janet Nicoll then turned south-south-west, called briefly at the westernmost of the Ellice Islands, Nanomea (18 July) before continuing in the same direction. They then arrived at Eromango in the New Hebrides (Vanatu group, 4 July) and continued to Mare in the Loyalty Group (25 July) and then the Port of Noumea on the large Island of New Caledonia (26 July). Fany and Lloyd left the following day on the Janet Nicoll, but RLS stayed on a week (at the Hotel Sebstopol) because he was feeling weak and didn’t want to return too soon to the Australian winter.

On 2 August 1890, he left Noumea on the S.S. Stockton and arrived back in Sydney on 7 August.

By Richard Dury

Image 1 courtesy of the Writers’ Museum. Image 2 courtesy of Capital Collections. Image 3 courtesy of Capital Collections