The Father Damien letter

June 24, 1889, was the day the trading schooner Equator, 62 tons, Captain Reid, left the island nation of Hawaii behind her, as she sailed into the sunset, bound for the distant Gilbert Islands and points beyond. She carried five passengers: Robert Louis Stevenson, his wife, Fanny, her son, Lloyd Osbourne, her son-in-law, Joe Strong, and Ah Foo, Chinese cook and handyman. For the sake of convenience, they are called the Stevenson expedition, traveling the world in search of the climate most suitable for their leader, RLS himself, the invalid author from Scotland. The year before, Stevenson had sailed into the South Seas in his chartered luxury schooner-yacht Casco. There Louis soon realized that here was the environment his diseased lungs and emaciated physique craved, so he never looked back. He remained there and to this day his more enthusiastic admirers from six continents go to pay their respects, where Tusitala’s remains remain, under a concrete slab on top of his personal mountain in Oceania, along with his wife.

With Diamondhead sinking into the horizon, over the Equator’s stern, Stevenson got down to letter writing. His recent week long stay at the Kalawao prison for lepers on the island of Molokai had moved him; he said as much in his letters. To his mother: “I can only tell you briefly that I was a week in the settlement, hag-ridden by horrid sights but really inspired with the sight of so much goodness in the helpers and so much courage in the sick.” Sidney Colvin got a variation on the theme: “I can only say that the sight of so much courage, cheerfulness and devotion, strung me too high to mind the infinite pity and horror of the sights …”

“Of old Damien, whose weaknesses and worse perhaps I heard fully, I think only the more. He was a European peasant: dirty, bigoted, untruthful, unwise, tricky, but superb with generosity, residual candor and fundamental good humour … A man with all the grime and paltriness of mankind; but a saint and hero all the more for that.”

Damien had a natural way of rubbing people the wrong way, even his supporters. According to Dr. Arthur Mouritz, a colleague, “His temperament was mixed, nervo-bilious; he was easily excited, easily peeved, supersensitive, and difficult to get along with at times. Damien and I clashed and snapped repeatedly. His years of residence at the Settlement had made him an autocrat in all matters.”

Father Damien would recede in Stevenson’s day to day thinking as the Equator approached its first port of call at Makin, an atoll in the Gilbert Islands. Six months and many islands later, the pygmy schooner made its last port of call when it anchored in the harbor of Apia, island of Upolu, the Samoan Group. There the Stevenson expedition disembarked with plans to stay only a month, when the next ship came. That plan fell apart after Louis decided to stay there and build an extravagant home high above the harbor and call it Vailima, after a waterfall on his new property.

While Stevenson’s new home was under construction, the family took a steamship to Sydney, Australia, primarily to connect with Mrs. Isobel Strong, Stevenson’s stepdaughter, better known as “Belle.” With her 9-year-old son, Austin, she had sailed down from Honolulu and now both of them would join the rest of the family, including Margaret, Stevenson’s mother, to live out the last chapter of the story all together in their idyllic, almost storybook setting. Several of the artifacts in the Saranac Lake collection are everyday objects once used by these people at Vailima. Three of them, namely, Lloyd Osbourne and his older sister, Mrs. Belle Strong, and her son Austin, brought them here personally in 1917 and 1925. Like they say in museums, provenance doesn’t get any better than that.

While the family was still in a reunion mood, they were also counting the days to boarding the next ship bound for Samoa. On one of those days, Belle caught an article in the newspaper that was sure to get a reaction from her stepfather. The historical background here is the religious aspect of the culture conquest in 19th century Oceania by the Western colonial powers. The Catholics and the Protestants were competing for all the pagan souls living out there among thousands of islands. The Protestants had a more condescending attitude toward their Pacific target population than did the Catholics which could help explain why they were behind in the conversion game. When Father Damien, a Catholic priest who the newspapers called the “Hero of Molokai,” rose to celebrity status on account of his selfless work among the lepers, the Protestants couldn’t take it anymore. They had to bring him down. They used the same playbook that our rogue political party is using today–lies, disinformation and character assassination, just the kind of behavior that could tick off Robert Louis Stevenson.

The article in the paper that Belle had shown to RLS was really a letter, an “open” letter from the Protestant Rev. Dr. C.M. Hyde to one of his higher-ups, the Rev. H.B. Gage, Honolulu, Aug. 2, 1889. These two well paid professionals who pushed the importance of obeying the Ten Commandments listed in Exodus 20, which still includes “not to bear false witness,” conspired to publicly slander Father Damien, fooling themselves that it could help their Protestant agenda, even though their victim had been dead for months. After reading and digesting the contents of Dr. Hyde’s opinion, the aftermath is preserved for us by an eyewitness, Belle herself, in her book “This Life I’ve Loved”:

“One afternoon we were summoned to the Oxford Hotel, the whole family assembling. Giving instructions that no one was to be admitted under any circumstances, Louis announced with unusual gravity that he had written something he wanted us to hear. When we had taken our seats round the center table he stood before us with a manuscript in his hand. I had never seen him so serious or so deeply stirred. He explained that the article he had written would probably involve him in a suit for libel, which, if lost, might mean poverty for us all. He felt he had no right to print it without consulting us, but hoped we would take the risk, for he wanted to publish it at his own expense and send a copy to prominent people all over the world. Whether we should do this or not rested with us. He would abide by our decision.”

“Then, in his deep voice vibrant with emotion, with heightened color and blazing eyes he read aloud the Father Damien Letter. Never in my life have I heard anything so dramatic, so magnificent. There was deep feeling in every sentence–scorn, indignation, biting irony, infinite pity–and invective that fairly scorched and sizzled. The tears were in his eyes when he finished. Throwing the manuscript on the table he turned to his wife. She, who never failed him, rose to her feet, and holding out both hands to him in a gesture of enthusiasm, cried, ‘Print it! Publish it!’ Of course we all agreed though we were so shaken we could hardly speak.”

“While the manuscript was at the printers, Louis, Lloyd and my mother made out a long list of the people to whom it was to be sent, including the Pope of Rome, Queen Victoria, the President of the United States. Later, Lloyd and I spent days folding, addressing and mailing the pamphlets. When eventually Charles Scribner’s Sons published it the royalties were sent to the lepers at Molokai.”

An old newspaper with very fine print and framed is another object taking up space within the Stevenson Cottage in Saranac Lake. The descriptive card with it is over a century old and looks it. It says:

“RLS had copies of the celebrated Father Damien letter printed in Sydney in March 1890 for private circulation. The Honolulu ‘Elele’ secured one and printed many copies which were distributed by native boys all over the island for the purpose of creating a sensation. They were successful and secured Dr. Hyde’s dismissal.

“Presented by Henry A. Taylor of Honolulu.”

The date on the Elele is May 10, 1890.


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