Father Damien
Robert Louis Stevenson



FEBRUARY 25, 1890.

Sir, - It may probably occur to you that we have met, and visited,
and conversed; on my side, with interest. You may remember that
you have done me several courtesies, for which I was prepared to be
grateful. But there are duties which come before gratitude, and
offences which justly divide friends, far more acquaintances. Your
letter to the Reverend H. B. Gage is a document which, in my sight,
if you had filled me with bread when I was starving, if you had sat
up to nurse my father when he lay a-dying, would yet absolve me
from the bonds of gratitude. You know enough, doubtless, of the
process of canonisation to be aware that, a hundred years after the
death of Damien, there will appear a man charged with the painful
office of the DEVIL'S ADVOCATE. After that noble brother of mine,
and of all frail clay, shall have lain a century at rest, one shall
accuse, one defend him. The circumstance is unusual that the
devil's advocate should be a volunteer, should be a member of a
sect immediately rival, and should make haste to take upon himself
his ugly office ere the bones are cold; unusual, and of a taste
which I shall leave my readers free to qualify; unusual, and to me
inspiring. If I have at all learned the trade of using words to
convey truth and to arouse emotion, you have at last furnished me
with a subject. For it is in the interest of all mankind, and the
cause of public decency in every quarter of the world, not only
that Damien should be righted, but that you and your letter should
be displayed at length, in their true colours, to the public eye.

To do this properly, I must begin by quoting you at large: I shall
then proceed to criticise your utterance from several points of
view, divine and human, in the course of which I shall attempt to
draw again, and with more specification, the character of the dead
saint whom it has pleased you to vilify: so much being done, I
shall say farewell to you for ever.

"August 2, 1889.

"Rev. H. B. GAGE.

"Dear Brother, - In answer to your inquires about Father Damien, I
can only reply that we who knew the man are surprised at the
extravagant newspaper laudations, as if he was a most saintly
philanthropist. The simple truth is, he was a coarse, dirty man,
headstrong and bigoted. He was not sent to Molokai, but went there
without orders; did not stay at the leper settlement (before he
became one himself), but circulated freely over the whole island
(less than half the island is devoted to the lepers), and he came
often to Honolulu. He had no hand in the reforms and improvements
inaugurated, which were the work of our Board of Health, as
occasion required and means were provided. He was not a pure man
in his relations with women, and the leprosy of which he died
should be attributed to his vices and carelessness. Other have
done much for the lepers, our own ministers, the government
physicians, and so forth, but never with the Catholic idea of
meriting eternal life. - Yours, etc.,
"C. M. HYDE" (1)

(1) From the Sydney PRESBYTERIAN, October 26, 1889.

To deal fitly with a letter so extraordinary, I must draw at the
outset on my private knowledge of the signatory and his sect. It
may offend others; scarcely you, who have been so busy to collect,
so bold to publish, gossip on your rivals. And this is perhaps the
moment when I may best explain to you the character of what you are
to read: I conceive you as a man quite beyond and below the
reticences of civility: with what measure you mete, with that shall
it be measured you again; with you, at last, I rejoice to feel the
button off the foil and to plunge home. And if in aught that I
shall say I should offend others, your colleagues, whom I respect
and remember with affection, I can but offer them my regret; I am
not free, I am inspired by the consideration of interests far more
large; and such pain as can be inflicted by anything from me must
be indeed trifling when compared with the pain with which they read
your letter. It is not the hangman, but the criminal, that brings
dishonour on the house.

You belong, sir, to a sect - I believe my sect, and that in which
my ancestors laboured - which has enjoyed, and partly failed to
utilise, and exceptional advantage in the islands of Hawaii. The
first missionaries came; they found the land already self-purged of
its old and bloody faith; they were embraced, almost on their
arrival, with enthusiasm; what troubles they supported came far
more from whites than from Hawaiins; and to these last they stood
(in a rough figure) in the shoes of God. This is not the place to
enter into the degree or causes of their failure, such as it is.
One element alone is pertinent, and must here be plainly dealt
with. In the course of their evangelical calling, they - or too
many of them - grew rich. It may be news to you that the houses of
missionaries are a cause of mocking on the streets of Honolulu. It
will at least be news to you, that when I returned your civil
visit, the driver of my cab commented on the size, the taste, and
the comfort of your home. It would have been news certainly to
myself, had any one told me that afternoon that I should live to
drag such a matter into print. But you see, sir, how you degrade
better men to your own level; and it is needful that those who are
to judge betwixt you and me, betwixt Damien and the devil's
advocate, should understated your letter to have been penned in a
house which could raise, and that very justly, the envy and the
comments of the passers-by. I think (to employ a phrase of yours
which I admire) it "should be attributed" to you that you have
never visited the scene of Damien's life and death. If you had,
and had recalled it, and looked about your pleasant rooms, even
your pen perhaps would have been stayed.

Your sect (and remember, as far as any sect avows me, it is mine)
has not done ill in a worldly sense in the Hawaiian Kingdom. When
calamity befell their innocent parishioners, when leprosy descended
and took root in the Eight Islands, a QUID PRO QUO was to be looked
for. To that prosperous mission, and to you, as one of its
adornments, God had sent at last an opportunity. I know I am
touching here upon a nerve acutely sensitive. I know that others
of your colleagues look back on the inertia of your Church, and the
intrusive and decisive heroism of Damien, with something almost to
be called remorse. I am sure it is so with yourself; I am
persuaded your letter was inspired by a certain envy, not
essentially ignoble, and the one human trait to be espied in that
performance. You were thinking of the lost chance, the past day;
of that which should have been conceived and was not; of the
service due and not rendered. TIME WAS, said the voice in your
ear, in your pleasant room, as you sat raging and writing; and if
the words written were base beyond parallel, the rage, I am happy
to repeat - it is the only compliment I shall pay you - the rage
was almost virtuous. But, sir, when we have failed, and another
has succeeded; when we have stood by, and another has stepped in;
when we sit and grow bulky in our charming mansions, and a plain,
uncouth peasant steps into the battle, under the eyes of God, and
succours the afflicted, and consoles the dying, and is himself
afflicted in his turn, and dies upon the field of honour - the
battle cannot be retrieved as your unhappy irritation has
suggested. It is a lost battle, and lost for ever. One thing
remained to you in your defeat - some rags of common honour; and
these you have made haste to cast away.

Common honour; not the honour of having done anything right, but
the honour of not having done aught conspicuously foul; the honour
of the inert: that was what remained to you. We are not all
expected to be Damiens; a man may conceive his duty more narrowly,
he may love his comforts better; and none will cast a stone at him
for that. But will a gentleman of your reverend profession allow
me an example from the fields of gallantry? When two gentlemen
compete for the favour of a lady, and the one succeeds and the
other is rejected, and (as will sometimes happen) matter damaging
to the successful rival's credit reaches the ear of the defeated,
it is held by plain men of no pretensions that his mouth is, in the
circumstance, almost necessarily closed. Your Church and Damien's
were in Hawaii upon a rivalry to do well: to help, to edify, to set
divine examples. You having (in one huge instance) failed, and
Damien succeeded, I marvel it should not have occurred to you that
you were doomed to silence; that when you had been outstripped in
that high rivalry, and sat inglorious in the midst of your well-
being, in your pleasant room - and Damien, crowned with glories and
horrors, toiled and rotted in that pigsty of his under the cliffs
of Kalawao - you, the elect who would not, were the last man on
earth to collect and propagate gossip on the volunteer who would
and did.

I think I see you - for I try to see you in the flesh as I write
these sentences - I think I see you leap at the word pigsty, a
hyperbolical expression at the best. "He had no hand in the
reforms," he was "a coarse, dirty man"; these were your own words;
and you may think it possible that I am come to support you with
fresh evidence. In a sense, it is even so. Damien has been too
much depicted with a conventional halo and conventional features;
so drawn by men who perhaps had not the eye to remark or the pen to
express the individual; or who perhaps were only blinded and
silenced by generous admiration, such as I partly envy for myself -
such as you, if your soul were enlightened, would envy on your
bended knees. It is the least defect of such a method of
portraiture that it makes the path easy for the devil's advocate,
and leaves the misuse of the slanderer a considerable field of
truth. For the truth that is suppressed by friends is the readiest
weapon of the enemy. The world, in your despite, may perhaps owe
you something, if your letter be the means of substituting once for
all a credible likeness for a wax abstraction. For, if that world
at all remember you, on the day when Damien of Molokai shall be
named a Saint, it will be in virtue of one work: your letter to the
Reverend H. B. Gage.

You may ask on what authority I speak. It was my inclement destiny
to become acquainted, not with Damien, but with Dr. Hyde. When I
visited the lazaretto, Damien was already in his resting grave.
But such information as I have, I gathered on the spot in
conversation with those who knew him well and long: some indeed who
revered his memory; but others who had sparred and wrangled with
him, who beheld him with no halo, who perhaps regarded him with
small respect, and through whose unprepared and scarcely partial
communications the plain, human features of the man shone on me
convincingly. These gave me what knowledge I possess; and I learnt
it in that scene where it could be most completely and sensitively
understood - Kalawao, which you have never visited, about which you
have never so much as endeavoured to inform yourself; for, brief as
your letter is, you have found the means to stumble into that
confession. "LESS THAN ONE-HALF of the island," you say, "is
devoted to the lepers." Molokai - "MOLOKAI AHINA," the "grey,"
lofty, and most desolate island - along all its northern side
plunges a front of precipice into a sea of unusual profundity.
This range of cliff is, from east to west, the true end and
frontier of the island. Only in one spot there projects into the
ocean a certain triangular and rugged down, grassy, stony, windy,
and rising in the midst into a hill with a dead crater: the whole
bearing to the cliff that overhangs it somewhat the same relation
as a bracket to a wall. With this hint you will now be able to
pick out the leper station on a map; you will be able to judge how
much of Molokai is thus cut off between the surf and precipice,
whether less than a half, or less than a quarter, or a fifth, or a
tenth - or, say a twentieth; and the next time you burst into print
you will be in a position to share with us the issue of your

I imagine you to be one of those persons who talk with cheerfulness
of that place which oxen and wain-ropes could not drag you to
behold. You, who do not even know its situation on the map,
probably denounce sensational descriptions, stretching your limbs
the while in your pleasant parlour on Beretania Street. When I was
pulled ashore there one early morning, there sat with me in the
boat two sisters, bidding farewell (in humble imitation of Damien)
to the lights and joys of human life. One of these wept silently;
I could not withhold myself from joining her. Had you been there,
it is my belief that nature would have triumphed even in you; and
as the boat drew but a little nearer, and you beheld the stairs
crowded with abominable deformations of our common manhood, and saw
yourself landing in the midst of such a population as only now and
then surrounds us in the horror of a nightmare - what a haggard eye
you would have rolled over your reluctant shoulder towards the
house on Beretania Street! Had you gone on; had you found every
fourth face a blot upon the landscape; had you visited the hospital
and seen the butt-ends of human beings lying there almost
unrecognisable, but still breathing, still thinking, still
remembering; you would have understood that life in the lazaretto
is an ordeal from which the nerves of a man's spirit shrink, even
as his eye quails under the brightness of the sun; you would have
felt it was (even today) a pitiful place to visit and a hell to
dwell in. It is not the fear of possible infection. That seems a
little thing when compared with the pain, the pity, and the disgust
of the visitor's surroundings, and the atmosphere of affliction,
disease, and physical disgrace in which he breathes. I do not
think I am a man more than usually timid; but I never recall the
days and nights I spent upon that island promontory (eight days and
seven nights), without heartfelt thankfulness that I am somewhere
else. I find in my diary that I speak of my stay as a "grinding
experience": I have once jotted in the margin, "HARROWING is the
word"; and when the MOKOLII bore me at last towards the outer
world, I kept repeating to myself, with a new conception of their
pregnancy, those simple words of the song -

" 'Tis the most distressful country that ever yet was seen."

And observe: that which I saw and suffered from was a settlement
purged, bettered, beautified; the new village built, the hospital
and the Bishop-Home excellently arranged; the sisters, the poctor,
and the missionaries, all indefatigable in their noble tasks. It
was a different place when Damien came there and made this great
renunciation, and slept that first night under a tree amidst his
rotting brethren: alone with pestilence; and looking forward (with
what courage, with what pitiful sinkings of dread, God only knows)
to a lifetime of dressing sores and stumps.

You will say, perhaps, I am too sensitive, that sights as painful
abound in cancer hospitals and are confronted daily by doctors and
nurses. I have long learned to admire and envy the doctors and the
nurses. But there is no cancer hospital so large and populous as
Kalawao and Kalaupapa; and in such a matter every fresh case, like
every inch of length in the pipe of an organ, deepens the note of
the impression; for what daunts the onlooker is that monstrous sum
of human suffering by which he stands surrounded. Lastly, no
doctor or nurse is called upon to enter once for all the doors of
that gehenna; they do not say farewell, they need not abandon hope,
on its sad threshold; they but go for a time to their high calling,
and can look forward as they go to relief, to recreation, and to
rest. But Damien shut-to with his own hand the doors of his own

I shall now extract three passages from my diary at Kalawao.

A. "Damien is dead and already somewhat ungratefully remembered in
the field of his labours and sufferings. 'He was a good man, but
very officious,' says one. Another tells me he had fallen (as
other priests so easily do) into something of the ways and habits
of thought of a Kanaka; but he had the wit to recognise the fact,
and the good sense to laugh at" [over] "it. A plain man it seems
he was; I cannot find he was a popular."

B. "After Ragsdale's death" [Ragsdale was a famous Luna, or
overseer, of the unruly settlement] "there followed a brief term of
office by Father Damien which served only to publish the weakness
of that noble man. He was rough in his ways, and he had no
control. Authority was relaxed; Damien's life was threatened, and
he was soon eager to resign."

C. "Of Damien I begin to have an idea. He seems to have been a
man of the peasant class, certainly of the peasant type: shrewd,
ignorant and bigoted, yet with an open mind, and capable of
receiving and digesting a reproof if it were bluntly administered;
superbly generous in the least thing as well as in the greatest,
and as ready to give his last shirt (although not without human
grumbling) as he had been to sacrifice his life; essentially
indiscreet and officious, which made him a troublesome colleague;
domineering in all his ways, which made him incurably unpopular
with the Kanakas, but yet destitute of real authority, so that his
boys laughed at him and he must carry out his wishes by the means
of bribes. He learned to have a mania for doctoring; and set up
the Kanakas against the remedies of his regular rivals: perhaps (if
anything matter at all in the treatment of such a disease) the
worst thing that he did, and certainly the easiest. The best and
worst of the man appear very plainly in his dealings with Mr.
Chapman's money; he had originally laid it out" [intended to lay it
out] "entirely for the benefit of Catholics, and even so not
wisely; but after a long, plain talk, he admitted his error fully
and revised the list. The sad state of the boys' home is in part
the result of his lack of control; in part, of his own slovenly
ways and false ideas of hygiene. Brother officials used to call it
'Damien's Chinatown.' 'Well,' they would say, 'your Chinatown
keeps growing.' And he would laugh with perfect good-nature, and
adhere to his errors with perfect obstinacy. So much I have
gathered of truth about this plain, noble human brother and father
of ours; his imperfections are the traits of his face, by which we
know him for our fellow; his martyrdom and his example nothing can
lessen or annul; and only a person here on the spot can properly
appreciate their greatness."

I have set down these private passages, as you perceive, without
correction; thanks to you, the public has them in their bluntness.
They are almost a list of the man's faults, for it is rather these
that I was seeking: with his virtues, with the heroic profile of
his life, I and the world were already sufficiently acquainted. I
was besides a little suspicious of Catholic testimony; in no ill
sense, but merely because Damien's admirers and disciples were the
least likely to be critical. I know you will be more suspicious
still; and the facts set down above were one and all collected from
the lips of Protestants who had opposed the father in his life.
Yet I am strangely deceived, or they build up the image of a man,
with all his weakness, essentially heroic, and alive with rugged
honesty, generosity, and mirth.

Take it for what it is, rough private jottings of the worst sides
of Damien's character, collected from the lips of those who had
laboured with and (in your own phrase) "knew the man"; - though I
question whether Damien would have said that he knew you. Take it,
and observe with wonder how well you were served by your gossips,
how ill by your intelligence and sympathy; in how many points of
fact we are at one, and how widely our appreciations vary. There
is something wrong here; either with you or me. It is possible,
for instance, that you, who seem to have so many ears in Kalawao,
had heard of the affair of Mr. Chapman's money, and were singly
struck by Damien's intended wrong-doing. I was struck with that
also, and set it fairly down; but I was struck much more by the
fact that he had the honesty of mind to be convinced. I may here
tell you that it was a long business; that one of his colleagues
sat with him late into the night, multiplying arguments and
accusations; that the father listened as usual with "perfect good-
nature and perfect obstinacy"; but at the last, when he was
persuaded - "Yes," said he, "I am very much obliged to you; you
have done me a service; it would have been a theft." There are
many (not Catholics merely) who require their heroes and saints to
be infallible; to these the story will be painful; not to the true
lovers, patrons, and servants of mankind.

And I take it, this is a type of our division; that you are one of
those who have an eye for faults and failures; that you take a
pleasure to find and publish them; and that, having found them, you
make haste to forget the overvailing virtues and the real success
which had alone introduced them to your knowledge. It is a
dangerous frame of mind. That you may understand how dangerous,
and into what a situation it has already brought you, we will (if
you please) go hand-in-hand through the different phrases of your
letter, and candidly examine each from the point of view of its
truth, its appositeness, and its charity.

Damien was COARSE.

It is very possible. You make us sorry for the lepers, who had
only a coarse old peasant for their friend and father. But you,
who were so refined, why were you not there, to cheer them with the
lights of culture? Or may I remind you that we have some reason to
doubt if John the Baptist were genteel; and in the case of Peter,
on whose career your doubtless dwell approvingly in the pulpit, no
doubt at all he was a "coarse, headstrong" fisherman! Yet even in
our Protestant Bibles Peter is called Saint.

Damien was DIRTY.

He was. Think of the poor lepers annoyed with this dirty comrade!
But the clean Dr. Hyde was at his food in a fine house.

Damien was HEADSTRONG.

I believe you are right again; and I thank God for his strong head
and heart.

Damien was BIGOTED.

I am not fond of bigots myself, because they are not fond of me.
But what is meant by bigotry, that we should regard it as a blemish
in a priest? Damien believed his own religion with the simplicity
of a peasant or a child; as I would I could suppose that you do.
For this, I wonder at him some way off; and had that been his only
character, should have avoided him in life. But the point of
interest in Damien, which has caused him to be so much talked about
and made him at last the subject of your pen and mine, was that, in
him, his bigotry, his intense and narrow faith, wrought potently
for good, and strengthened him to be one of the world's heroes and


Is this a misreading? or do you really mean the words for blame? I
have heard Christ, in the pulpits of our Church, held up for
imitation on the ground that His sacrifice was voluntary. Does Dr.
Hyde think otherwise?


It is true he was allowed many indulgences. Am I to understand
that you blame the father for profiting by these, or the officers
for granting them? In either case, it is a mighty Spartan standard
to issue from the house on Beretania Street; and I am convinced you
will find yourself with few supporters.


I think even you will admit that I have already been frank in my
description of the man I am defending; but before I take you up
upon this head, I will be franker still, and tell you that perhaps
nowhere in the world can a man taste a more pleasurable sense of
contrast than when he passes from Damien's "Chinatown" at Kalawao
to the beautiful Bishop-Home at Kalaupapa. At this point, in my
desire to make all fair for you, I will break my rule and adduce
Catholic testimony. Here is a passage from my diary about my visit
to the Chinatown, from which you will see how it is (even now)
regarded by its own officials: "We went round all the dormitories,
refectories, etc. - dark and dingy enough, with a superficial
cleanliness, which he" [Mr. Dutton, the lay-brother] "did not seek
to defend. 'It is almost decent,' said he; 'the sisters will make
that all right when we get them here.' " And yet I gathered it was
already better since Damien was dead, and far better than when he
was there alone and had his own (not always excellent) way. I have
now come far enough to meet you on a common ground of fact; and I
tell you that, to a mind not prejudiced by jealousy, all the
reforms of the lazaretto, and even those which he most vigorously
opposed, are properly the work of Damien. They are the evidence of
his success; they are what his heroism provoked from the reluctant
and the careless. Many were before him in the field; Mr. Meyer,
for instance, of whose faithful work we hear too little: there have
been many since; and some had more worldly wisdom, though none had
more devotion, than our saint. Before his day, even you will
confess, they had effected little. It was his part, by one
striking act of martyrdom, to direct all men's eyes on that
distressful country. At a blow, and with the price of his life, he
made the place illustrious and public. And that, if you will
consider largely, was the one reform needful; pregnant of all that
should succeed. It brought money; it brought (best individual
addition of them all) the sisters; it brought supervision, for
public opinion and public interest landed with the man at Kalawao.
If ever any man brought reforms, and died to bring them, it was he.
There is not a clean cup or towel in the Bishop-Home, but dirty
Damien washed it.


How do you know that? Is this the nature of conversation in that
house on Beretania Street which the cabman envied, driving past? -
racy details of the misconduct of the poor peasant priest, toiling
under the cliffs of Molokai?

Many have visited the station before me; they seem not to have
heard the rumour. When I was there I heard many shocking tales,
for my informants were men speaking with the plainness of the
laity; and I heard plenty of complaints of Damien. Why was this
never mentioned? and how came it to you in the retirement of your
clerical parlour?

But I must not even seem to deceive you. This scandal, when I read
it in your letter, was not new to me. I had heard it once before;
and I must tell you how. There came to Samoa a man from Honolulu;
he, in a public-house on the beach, volunteered the statement that
Damien had "contracted the disease from having connection with the
female lepers"; and I find a joy in telling you how the report was
welcomed in a public-house. A man sprang to his feet; I am not at
liberty to give his name, but from what I heard I doubt if you
would care to have him to dinner in Beretania Street. "You
miserable little -------" (here is a word I dare not print, it
would so shock your ears). "You miserable little ------," he
cried, "if the story were a thousand times true, can't you see you
are a million times a lower ----- for daring to repeat it?" I wish
it could be told of you that when the report reached you in your
house, perhaps after family worship, you had found in your soul
enough holy anger to receive it with the same expressions; ay, even
with that one which I dare not print; it would not need to have
been blotted away, like Uncle Toby's oath, by the tears of the
recording angel; it would have been counted to you for your
brightest righteousness. But you have deliberately chosen the part
of the man from Honolulu, and you have played it with improvements
of your own. The man from Honolulu - miserable, leering creature -
communicated the tale to a rude knot of beach-combing drinkers in a
public-house, where (I will so far agree with your temperance
opinions) man is not always at his noblest; and the man from
Honolulu had himself been drinking - drinking, we may charitably
fancy, to excess. It was to your "Dear Brother, the Reverend H. B.
Gage," that you chose to communicate the sickening story; and the
blue ribbon which adorns your portly bosom forbids me to allow you
the extenuating plea that you were drunk when it was done. Your
"dear brother" - a brother indeed - made haste to deliver up your
letter (as a means of grace, perhaps) to the religious papers;
where, after many months, I found and read and wondered at it; and
whence I have now reproduced it for the wonder of others. And you
and your dear brother have, by this cycle of operations, built up a
contrast very edifying to examine in detail. The man whom you
would not care to have to dinner, on the one side; on the other,
the Reverend Dr. Hyde and the Reverend H. B. Gage: the Apia bar-
room, the Honolulu manse.

But I fear you scarce appreciate how you appear to your fellow-men;
and to bring it home to you, I will suppose your story to be true.
I will suppose - and God forgive me for supposing it - that Damien
faltered and stumbled in his narrow path of duty; I will suppose
that, in the horror of his isolation, perhaps in the fever of
incipient disease, he, who was doing so much more than he had
sworn, failed in the letter of his priestly oath - he, who was so
much a better man than either you or me, who did what we have never
dreamed of daring - he too tasted of our common frailty. "O, Iago,
the pity of it!" The least tender should be moved to tears; the
most incredulous to prayer. And all that you could do was to pen
your letter to the Reverend H. B. Gage!

Is it growing at all clear to you what a picture you have drawn of
your own heart? I will try yet once again to make it clearer. You
had a father: suppose this tale were about him, and some informant
brought it to you, proof in hand: I am not making too high an
estimate of your emotional nature when I suppose you would regret
the circumstance? that you would feel the tale of frailty the more
keenly since it shamed the author of your days? and that the last
thing you would do would be to publish it in the religious press?
Well, the man who tried to do what Damien did, is my father, and
the father of the man in the Apia bar, and the father of all who
love goodness; and he was your father too, if God had given you
grace to see it.


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