Father Damien: An Open Letter to the Reverend Doctor Hyde of Honolulu from Robert Louis Stevenson, 1890

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Summary: Father Damien (Damien de Veuster, 1840-1889) was a Roman Catholic missionary from Belgium. He went to the leper settlement at Molokai in 1873, where he helped the sufferers of the disease. Damien himself contracted leprosy and died of it in 1889. RLS’s pamphlet, Father Damien (March 1890) was a response to a letter from Reverend C.M. Hyde published in The Presbyterian newspaper on 26 October 1889.

In the letter, Dr Hyde criticized Damien’s work at the leper settlement, which Stevenson took umbrage with. RLS was outraged that what he perceived as Damien’s selfless work with the lepers could be censured.

RLS’s response was deeply scornful, attacking Hyde personally. Indeed, his pamphlet was filled with such vitriol, he was convinced (wrongly) that he would be sued for libel.

In Father Damien Stevenson quotes passages from Hyde’s letter at length, refuting his statements point by point. For example, quoting Hyde RLS writes “ ‘Damien was dirty.’ He was. Think of the poor lepers annoyed with this dirty comrade! But the clean Mr Hyde was at his food in his fine house” (pp. 22-23). Indeed, the notion of Hyde’s “fine house” and wealth are recurring themes in RLS’s pamphlet: Stevenson criticizes Hyde and other religious men like him for professing philanthropy but living in luxury.

RLS recounts how he himself visited Damien’s grave and spoke with people who knew him: Stevenson felt that as a result he was able to understand Damien’s devotion to his cause, as well as his weaknesses. He then accuses Hyde of overlooking the fact that Damien was a man with human foibles but who was nevertheless heroic.

Stevenson concludes by arguing that Damien should symbolize a father figure for all of mankind and chastises Hyde for missing this (what was for Stevenson) crucial point: “and he was your father too, if God had given you the grace to see it” (p. 31).

Quotations from Father Damien: An Open Letter to the Reverend Doctor Hyde of Honolulu from Robert Louis Stevenson, 4th edn (Portland, ME: Thomas Mosher, 1899).

Image courtesy of Capital Collections