Father Damien

By Robert Louis Stevenson, 1890
Father Damien


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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” 

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 Hawaiians; 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 understand 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.