Robert Louis Stevenson arrived in Samoa in 1889 and built a house at Vailima. He quickly became passionately interested, and involved, in the attendant political machinations. These involved the three colonial powers battling for control of Samoa - America, Germany and Britain - and the indigenous factions struggling to preserve their ancient political system. The book covers the period from 1882 to 1892.
The book served as such a stinging protest against existing conditions that it resulted in the recall of two officials, and Stevenson for a time feared that it would result in his own deportation. When things had finally blown over he wrote to Sidney Colvin, who came from a family of distinguished colonial administrators, "I used to think meanly of the plumber; but how he shines beside the politician!"