Damien of Molokai: the Leper Saint, by Robert Louis Stevenson

Damien of Molokai: the Leper Saint, by Robert Louis Stevenson

Michael E. Daniel

Damien of Molokai: the Leper Saint
by Robert Louis Stevenson with introduction by Rev. F.E. Burns PE
(A Little Book Company, 2009, 86pp, $15.00. ISBN: 978-1-90607-705-1. Available from Freedom Publishing)

Reviewed by Michael Daniel

For over 120 years young readers have enjoyed such Robert Louis Stevenson books as Kidnapped and Treasure Island. These have been translated into many languages and inspired many films, including a 1938 Russian version, which this reviewer first encountered in the course of learning a song from it while studying Russian at school.

Despite Stevenson's popularity, his letter written in defence of St Damien Jozef de Veuster, better known as Damien of Molokai or the leper saint, is less well known, despite the influence it had at the time in establishing St Damien's reputation.


Fr F.E. Burns, a retired priest of the Archdiocese of Melbourne, outlines in the introduction the background of Stevenson's letter. Rev Gage, a Presbyterian minister from California, had written to the Rev Hyde, a fellow Presbyterian minister from Honolulu, in 1889 asking for details about Fr Damien, then recently deceased. Hyde responded that far from being a saint, Damien was a narrow-minded religious bigot who had no hand in the reforms in the treatment of lepers on the island and had contracted leprosy himself due to sexual immorality.

The letter was published in various magazines around the world, including The Sydney Presbyterian in which Stevenson, then staying in Sydney, read it.  His "Open Letter to the Rev. D. Hyde" was sent to the Sydney Morning Herald early in 1890. Although they were delighted to receive a manuscript from such an eminent writer, the editor judged the contents to be too provocative for publication. Instead, it was later published in Edinburgh.

The full text of the "Open Letter", the central piece in this short publication, is an extremely well written defence of Fr Damien. Significantly, it was the work of a Presbyterian demanding fair play of another Presbyterian in assessing Fr Damien.

Stevenson did not believe that Damien was perfect. However, he systematically challenged and refuted Hyde's outrageous allegations, beginning with the one that Damien did not volunteer to go to Molokai and ending with the allegation that he was sexually impure. Stevenson was able to make such a spirited defence of Damien because he had visited Molokai soon after Damien's death and learned first hand of the excellent work he had accomplished before his untimely death aged 49 in 1889.

Throughout the letter, Stevenson suggested that Hyde was in fact motivated by jealousy in that Catholics rather than Presbyterians were gaining converts due to their work amongst the lepers and also by hypocrisy, in that Hyde lived in comfort in his manse in Honolulu, while Damien lived a Spartan life on Molokai.

Stevenson even further argued that Hyde's letter, rather than serving to destroy Damien's reputation, would ultimately lead to his vindication and to his being proclaimed a saint of the Catholic Church, a prophecy which was to be fulfilled in 2009.

The letter had an almost immediate effect, with many, including the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII), donating money to the leprosium of Molokai. To his credit, Hyde realised he had gone too far and sought to redeem himself through organising donations to the work of the boys' home on Molokai.

However, sadly the phenomenon of character assassination of those who lead lives of self-service for others is still with us. One only need think of the vitriol that was heaped on Pope Benedict XVI before and during his recent visit to the UK.

The Prophesy of Robert Louis Stevenson is an inspiring read by one of the great writers of literature and serves, if nothing else, as a call for fair play in judging the actions and motives of others, an approach more urgently needed now than when Stevenson wrote his "Open Letter."

Michael E. Daniel teaches at a Melbourne secondary school.

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