The leper colony
For Robert Louis Stevenson, travel meant discovery, exploration and writing about it. The history and culture of Hawaii came under his scrutiny in the winter and spring of 1889. Researching through books and maps preceded his tour, by himself, to various points of interest. Published as “The Eight Islands,” the narrative covers the Kona coast, the City of Refuge and the leper colony on the island of Molokai.
Today these are tourist attractions, but in 1889, few Westerners had any use for them, especially the flat, knife-shaped Kalawao peninsula jutting out to sea on the north side of Molokai. This was a real prison called an isolation station with the Pacific Ocean and a 2,000-foot-high sheer cliff for walls. The inmates had started arriving in 1866 when the Hawaiian Legislature passed “An Act to Prevent the Spread of Leprosy.”
Providing the outcasts with more than bare essentials wasn’t part of their Act, and as can be imagined, the reputation for misery in this depository of despair reached the outside world. A peasant from Belgium who became a Roman Catholic priest answered the call. Father Damien sacrificed any future he might have had to give up his last 16 years trying to give life meaning to the walking dead of Molokai. He died of the disease himself at 49.
Stevenson had known about Father Damien long before the cruise of the Casco. His source was an American poet and fellow traveler he had befriended in San Francisco, California, in 1879, Charles Warren Stoddard. It’s not surprising that Stevenson was impressed by the Damien story and he was hoping to be able to meet the man during his island tour. That could have happened if the good priest hadn’t died while RLS was looking around the Kona coast. Instead, the famous author set himself on a pilgrimage to the site of Damien’s labors to honor the martyrdom of a selfless individual.
The authorities in Honolulu thought it kind of strange that a private citizen should want to go to the infamous promontory and Stevenson was required to get written permission by the Board of Health. Louis did more than just go and look and leave. Making use of the mission guest house, he remained for eight days as a volunteer. Prior to his departure for the island, he forwarded a brand new croquet set to the Bishop Home for Girls there.
At that time, Sister Leopoldina Burns was a nun at the missionary. She kept a journal and that portion of it pertaining to the presence of this wandering invalid was later included as a school reading exercise in the 1920s. It began on a morning when she saw “A strange looking man, hanging on the fence. I walked over to speak to him, and would not have been surprised had he told me he was a tramp and needed help … the morning was hot and he had walked far. His remarkable eyes were sunk with dark rings around them. He was a small man … I greeted him and asked, ‘Is there anything I can do for you?’ ‘Oh,’ he said with a pleasant smile, ‘I wish to see Rev. Mother.’ I told him, ‘Go around to the front door and you will find her.’ Had I known who he was I think I would have accompanied him to the house …
“I told Mother how I took him for a tramp, she smiled and said, ‘Well, he’s the best tramp I ever met, and the tramping he is doing here is not good for him as the poor man is subjected to hemorrhages.'”
Mother Marianne Cope had thanked Stevenson for the croquet set followed by his request that the children be ready the next morning for their first lesson. Sister Leopoldina continued:
“Poor dear children could hardly believe that a fine well white man would not be afraid, and why he did not shrink from them and shun them as all other white men do … they kept away thinking it could not be possible but when he called to them, ‘Come girls, I only have a few days to teach you, and you must know your game well so that you can beat me or I shall not be happy leaving you!’ In a few minutes they were all at ease, they knew that he meant to be their friend in every way … He had learned all their names, and it was remarkable how quickly they were learning and how very happy and interested they were. Mr. Stevenson became one of them so that they could forget at least for a little while that they were victims doomed for life.”
After Stevenson returned to Honolulu from his mission to the mission, he sent a factory-fresh Wetemayer piano to the colony of unfortunates trapped between ocean and cliff on Molokai. He told a friend, “No stranger time have I ever had, nor any so moving.”
On the beach
Five months had passed since the Stevenson expedition came ashore on Oahu, bringing closure to their not so splendid passage from Tahiti. Winds of change were blowing through their cottage on then beautiful Waikiki Beach as the Arcadian lifestyle in which they excelled entered transition. The author’s mother, Margaret, had news that her sister was ill, and in May, she departed on the Oceanic Line steamship Umatilla to start the long haul back to Scotland.
Professionally, Robert Louis Stevenson was thinking big. Snug again in his surfside bungalow, fresh from his solo island tour, he resumed a literary project on a grand scale that would embrace the totality of his Pacific writings, including those yet to be. The theme of this “prose-epic” as he called it, would be “the unjust but inevitable extinction of the Polynesian Islanders.” Of his material, he said, “At least nobody has had such stuff; such wild stories, such beautiful scenes, such singular intimacies, such manners and traditions, so incredible a mixture of the beautiful and horrible, the savage and the civilized.”
This growing magnum opus in his mind was likely too big for even a healthy man to complete, but possibly the ambition advancing it served another need. “COME SAID I TO MY ENGINE, LET US MAKE A TALE,” is an RLS phrase on the Borglum plaque at Baker’s in Saranac Lake. The engine that drove Stevenson was his writing, into which he poured himself to a pronounced degree. After nearly half a year of beach life at Waikiki, Louis felt the call of the sea again. He already knew the final destination of this next voyage, provided shipwreck, cannibals or pirates didn’t intervene. But he would take his sweet time getting there because he had to gather material for his prose epic along the way. Stevenson’s ambition to write was stronger than ever. It’s what kept him going. Like he told his friend Will Low the year before when they were standing on another beach, in front of another ocean, staring at the stars from Manasquan, New Jersey, “Yes, that is what art is good for,” Louis told him, “for without my work, I suppose that I would have given up, long ago.”