“The whole tale of my life is better to me than any poem”

[Dots between square brackets indicate cuts made by Sidney Colvin. For full, correct and critical edition of this letter see Mehew 6, 2180.]

To James Payn [Colvin 1911, 3, pp. 154-6]

Honolulu, H.I., June 13th, 1889

My dear James Payn,

I get sad news of you here at my offsetting for further voyages: I wish I could say what I feel. Sure there was never any man less deserved this calamity; for I have heard you speak time and again, and I remember nothing that was unkind, nothing that was untrue, nothing that was not helpful, from your lips. It is the ill-talkers that should hear no more. God knows, I know no word of consolation; but I do feel your trouble. You are the more open to letters now; let me talk to you for two pages. I have nothing but happiness to tell; and you may bless God you are a man so sound-hearted that (even in the freshness of your calamity) I can come to you with my own good fortune unashamed and secure of sympathy. It is a good thing to be a good man, whether deaf or whether dumb; and of all our fellow-craftsmen (whom yet they count a jealous race), I never knew one but gave you the name of honesty and kindness: come to think of it gravely, this is better than the finest hearing.

James Payn (1830-1898), English novelist. RLS had been intimate with him as sub-editor of the Cornhill Magazine under Leslie Stephen in the ‘70’s. In 1883 Payn had succeed Stephen [https://upload.wikimedia.org]

We are all on the march to deafness, blindness, and all conceivable and fatal disabilities; we shall not all get there with a report so good. My good news is a health astonishingly reinstated. This climate;

Today climate change presents Pacific Islands with unique challenges including rising temperatures, sea-level rise, contamination of freshwater resources with saltwater, coastal erosion, an increase in extreme weather events, coral reef bleaching, and ocean acidification. Projections for the rest of this century suggest continued increases in air and ocean surface temperatures in the Pacific, increased frequency of extreme weather events, and increased rainfall during the summer months and a decrease in rainfall during the winter months.
In Hawai’i, annual rainfall has decreased and surface temperatures have risen during the last several decades, but it is unknown whether these trends will persist or change with global climate change. Coastal areas will be at increased risk due to greater hurricane wind speeds and coastal inundation due to the combined effects of sea-level rise and storm surges. [www.fws.gov]

these voyagings;

RLS’s voyagings in the South Seas [https://www.gutenberg.org]

these landfalls at dawn;


new islands peaking from the morning bank;


new forested harbours;


new passing alarms of squalls and surf;


new interests of gentle natives,

RLS with Kalakaua, King of Hawaii, 1889 [https://i.pinimg.com]

– the whole tale of my life is better to me than any poem.

I am fresh just now from the […] leper settlement of Molokai,

The leper settlement of Molokai, Hawaii, 1880s [https://i.pinimg.com]

playing croquet with seven leper girls,

The Charles R. Bishop Home for Unprotected Girls and Women at Kalaupapa, Molokai, ca. 1900 [https://cdn.cnn.com]
The girls and women of the Charles R. Bishop Home, Kalaupapa, Molokai, ca. 1900 [https://cdn.cnn.com]
Leper girls at the Bishop Home, Kalaupapa, Molokai, ca. 1900 [https://cdn.cnn.com]

sitting and yarning with old, blind, leper beachcombers in the hospital, sickened with the spectacle of abhorrent suffering and deformation amongst the patients, touched to the heart by the sight of lovely and effective virtues in their helpers: no stranger time have I ever had, nor any so moving. I do not think it a little thing to be deaf, God knows, and God defend me from the same! – but to be a leper, or one of the self-condemned, how much more awful! and yet there’s a way there also. ‘There are Molokais everywhere,’ said Mr. Dutton, Father Damien’s dresser;

Ira Barnes (‘Brother Joseph’) Dutton (1843-1931), an American protestant converted to Catholicism in 1883, had arrived at Molokai in 1887. He spent the rest of his life in devoted service to the lepers, and never contracted the desease [https://alchetron.com]

you are but new landed in yours; and my dear and kind adviser, I wish you, with all my soul, that patience and courage which you will require. Think of me meanwhile on a trading schooner, bound for the Gilbert Islands, thereafter for the Marshalls, with a diet of fish and cocoanut before me;

RLS on board of the schooner Equator, 1889 [https://i.pinimg.com]

[…] – bound on a cruise of – well, of investigation to what islands we can reach, and to get (some day or other) to Sydney, where a letter addressed to the care of R. Towns & Co. will find me sooner or later; and if it contain any good news, whether of your welfare or the courage with which you bear the contrary, will do me good. – Yours affectionately (although so near a stranger),

Robert Louis Stevenson

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"I have a perfect right to object to the publication of private letters"

[As usual, for correct and critical edition of this letter see Mehew 6, 2178.]

To Charles Baxter

[Baxter Letters, pp. 249-50 http://www.hathitrust.org]

[Envelope marked “Private”]

[Honolulu, ? 6 June 1889]

My dear Charles,

The last mail we are likely to receive has come in, and I fear I am to go away with your last (pardon me) a little shirty letter for farewell. Well, it can’t be cured, but I would fain hope your pain ful feelings will blow over, and indeed I think you will come to see I was right (as to the matter; in the manner I daresay I was very far amiss), that I have a perfect right to object to the publication of private letters, and that whether the public wants to read them or not is nothing to the purpose.

RLS’s Letters, edited by Bradford A. Booth and Ernest Mehew for Yale University Press, 1994-1995 [www.kosho.or.jp]

To the public I may be an object of unwholesome curiosity; to my private friends I would like to remain a private friend like any other, and to enjoy the priviledge of writing in confidence. It may seem hard to conceive, but I like my doings being published just as little as you would. – Ah, you say, and you are going to write a book about them! – Even so, Charles; but then I shall choose for myself.

RLS’s letters to Charles Baxter will not be published until 1956 [https://images-na.ssl-images-amazon.com]

I have at last definite news of Colvin, which alarms and distresses me. If I had had it in time, I would have given up this cruise and come home. Pray remember, if ever he should be in want of help, you are to strain my credit to bursting, and mortgage all I possess or can expect, to help him. I hope this is strong enough; if I return to find myself deep in debt, I shall be only pleased if it was done for Colvin.

Sidney Colvin (1845-1927) one of RLS’s closest friends, in 1884 had become the Keeper of the Department of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum. As part of his new role, Colvin lived since then into apartments in the museum. RLS had often stayed with him there [https://upload.wikimedia.org]

All other directions as before.

I shall draw a new will in case we all go down, and file it here in the Consulate.

First page of RLS’s last will, Samoa 11 May 1894, National Records of Scotland, SC70/1/358 pp 182-189 [https://pbs.twimg.com]
Residence of the British Consul, Beretania street, adjoining Washington Place, Honolulu [https://upload.wikimedia.org]

The address till further notice is to be care of R. Towns and Co., Sydney,

Robert Towns (1794-1873) founder of the shipping company, Sidney [https://upload.wikimedia.org]

where I wish you would send me a flageolet of the best description with all needful appliances. The one I have is very inferior: it is a D, as I should rather like the new one to be. I hope it will last the cruise, but it is already split, is very hard to clean, and the keys do not unscrew, so that a small accident may put out my pipe.

RLS playing his flageolet, Honolulu 1889 [https://upload.wikimedia.org]

The voice, flageolet, guitar, and taropatch make up our band;

Lloyd Osbourne playing the taropatch or ukulele [www.capitalcollections.org.uk]

a magic lantern with Scripture pictures is the attraction for the eye.

A magic lantern projector, Edinburgh late 19th century. The popularity of photographic lantern slides grew from the 1870’s, becoming something of a popular craze. Shows of such slides on subjects such as travel and science, as well as for pure entertainment, were common in the late 19th century [https://lyonturnbull.blob.core.windows.net]
Magic lantern slide with the Jewish priests carrying the Arc [https://i.etsystatic.com]
Schooner yacht Casco, lantern slide, 1888. A lantern slide is a positive image on a glass slide intended for use with a slide projector or ‘magic lantern’. Lantern slides may either be made from photographic or non-photographic images [www.capitalcollections.org.uk]

We shall give them several Hawaiian songs, Freut euch des Lebens,

Il segretto, ‘Carnival of Venice’,

‘Nights of Seville’, etc.; and if the natives are not pleased, you bet the performers will enjoy themselves.

“Hawaiian feast”, with Lloyd Osbourne in the centre. The image is from the photograph album entitled ‘The Cruise of the Casco’, 1888 [www.capitalcollections.org.uk]

[RLS’s deletion: “Now you see what a thing it is: you don’t suppose I want all that published.”] Another thing we shall want out at Sydney is full advertisements and price lists of really fine magic lanterns. The idea is to begin the panorama there, and when it is ready, carry it to some of the islands in style, and get more stuff for it, thus making it feed itself.

Can you send us these two, then: (1) A.1. flageolet (2) price lists of A.1. magic lanterns for public performances, full rigged for cities and metropolises; and receive the benediction of the Island Nights [written above the deleted ‘Teriitera Variety’] Entertainment Troup.

RLS’s South Sea tales were to be first published as ‘Island Nights’ Entertainments’ in 1893.

Walk up, ladies and gentlemen! Wish we had Henley here: bet he could learn to sing second; besides we could put him in a glass case, as a specimen Beritani.

RLS’s friend, William Ernest henley (1849-1903). Beritani is the Hawaiian spelling for Britisher [https://upload.wikimedia.org]

The object of the present show is to take the place of the yacht as something to interest and amuse the natives.

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“I have seen sights that cannot be told, and heard stories that cannot be repeated”

[Dots between square brackets indicate cuts made by Sidney Colvin. For full, correct and critical edition of this letter, see Mehew 6, 2176.]

To Sidney Colvin [Colvin 1911, 3, pp. 151-4]

Honolulu, [early] June 1889

My dear Colvin,

I am just home after twelve days’ journey to Molokai, seven of them at the leper settlement,

Molokai leper settlement, late 19th century [https://i.ebayimg.com]

where 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.

Young Hawaiian boys with leprosy, banished
to the remote island settlement of Kalaupapa,
away from their families and friends [www.fic.nih.gov]

I used to ride over from Kalawao to Kalaupapa (about three miles across the promontory, the cliff-wall, ivied with forest and yet inaccessible from steepness, on my left),

Molokai northern promontory, with the two leper settlement of Kalawao and Kalaupapa.
Kalawao leper settlement, Molokai island, Hawaii, late 19th century [www.nps.gov]
Kalaupapa leper settlement, Molokai island, Hawaii [https://88446202.weebly.com]

go to the Sisters’ home,

Charles Reed Bishop (1822-1915), a wealthy Honolulu banker and philanthropist, had founded the Home for leper girls at Kalaupapa in 1888 [https://upload.wikimedia.org]
The Home for leper girls at Kalaupapa was run by a group of Franciscan Sisters of Syracuse, New York, led by Mother Marianne Cope (1836-1918; canonized Saint Marianne of Molokai in 1912) [https://religionnews.com]
Mother Marianne Cope (1836-1918) in her last year, with the girls of the Bishop Home [https://media.npr.org]

which is a miracle of neatness, play a game of croquet with seven leper girls (90° in the shade), got a little old-maid meal served me by the Sisters, and ride home again, tired enough, but not too tired.

The Charles R. Bishop Home and grounds [www.nps.gov]

The girls have all dolls, and love dressing them. You who know so many ladies delicately clad, and they who know so many dressmakers, please make it known it would be an acceptable gift to send scraps for doll dressmaking to the Reverend Sister Maryanne, Bishop Home, Kalaupapa, Molokai, Hawaiian Islands.

“Interior of the Bishop Home”, 1904 [https://88446202.weebly.com]

I have seen sights that cannot be told, and heard stories that cannot be repeated: yet I never admired my poor race so much, nor (strange as it may seem) loved life more than in the settlement. A horror of moral beauty broods over the place: that’s like bad Victor Hugo, but it is the only way I can express the sense that lived with me all these days. And this even though it was in great part Catholic, and my sympathies flew never with so much difficulty as towards Catholic virtues. The passbook kept with heaven stirs me to anger and laughter. One of the sisters calls the place ‘the ticket office to heaven.’ Well, what is the odds? They do their darg, and do it with kindness and efficiency incredible; and we must take folks’ virtues as we find them, and love the better part. Of old Damien, whose weaknesses and worse perhaps I heard fully, I think only the more.

Father Damien (1840-1889; canonized in 2009), born Jozef De Veuster, the famous Belgian Roman Catholic missionary priest, went to Molokai in 1873 and devoted the rest of his like to caring for the lepers and improving conditions at the settlement. He had died of leprosy on 15 April 1889, just a few weeks before RLS’s arrival.[https://upload.wikimedia.org]

It was a European peasant: dirty, bigoted, untruthful, unwise, tricky, but superb with generosity, residual candour and fundamental good-humour: convince him he had done wrong (it might take hours of insult) and he would undo what he had done and like his corrector better.

Father Damien with his orphan boys in Kalawao [www.swordofthespirit.net]
Saint Damien of Molokai on his deathbed, 14 April 1889 [https://upload.wikimedia.org]

A man, with all the grime and paltriness of mankind, but a saint and hero all the more for that. The place as regards scenery is grand, gloomy, and bleak.

The cemetery next to St. Philomena church, Kalaupapa, Molokai [https://s.hdnux.com]

Mighty mountain walls descending sheer along the whole face of the island into a sea unusually deep;

The cliffs of Molokai, 1700 feet high [https://external-preview.redd.it]

the front of the mountain ivied and furred with clinging forest, one viridescent cliff: about half-way from east to west, the low, bare, stony promontory edged in between the cliff and the ocean; the two little towns (Kalawao and Kalaupapa) seated on either side of it,

Molokai promontory [www.thisweekhawaii.comg]

as bare almost as bathing machines upon a beach;

Bathing machines at Portobello Beach, Edinburgh, stereograph, 1860s-1890s [www.laurelcottagegenealogy.com]

and the population – gorgons and chimaeras dire.

Hawaiian leper boys, Molokai, 1920s [https://storage.googleapis.com]

All this tear of the nerves I bore admirably; and the day after I got away, rode twenty miles along the opposite coast and up into the mountains: they call it twenty, I am doubtful of the figures: I should guess it nearer twelve; but let me take credit for what residents allege; and I was riding again the day after, so I need say no more about health.

The view down to Kalaupapa from a turn in the steep, more-than-three-mile cliff trail [www.stripes.com/polopoly_fs]

Honolulu does not agree with me at all: I am always out of sorts there, with slight headache, blood to the head, etc. I had a good deal of work to do and did it with miserable difficulty; and yet all the time I have been gaining strength, as you see, which is highly encouraging. By the time I am done with this cruise I shall have the material for a very singular book of travels: names of strange stories and characters, cannibals, pirates, ancient legends, old Polynesian poetry, – never was so generous a farrago.

I am going down now to get the story of a shipwrecked family, who were fifteen months on an island with a murderer: there is a specimen.

From the ‘Daily Alta California’, 21 April 1889: Captain and crew of the Wandering Minstrel had been schpwrecked on Midway Island in February 1888. There they found a seaman abandoned by another shipwrecked crew because suspected of murder. The men of the Wandering Minstrel were rescued on 6 April 1889. The story became the germ of the plot for RLS and Lloyd’s ‘The Wrecker’ [https://cdnc.ucr.edu]

The Pacific is a strange place; the nineteenth century only exists there in spots: all round, it is a no man’s land of the ages, a stir-about of epochs and races, barbarisms and civilisations, virtues and crimes.

Hilo Bay, Hawaii, late 19th century (?). Surfing is believed to have been invented in the Polynesian islands in the 18th century [https://i.dailymail.co.uk]

It is good of you to let me stay longer, but if I had known how ill you were, I should be now on my way home. I had chartered my schooner and made all arrangements before (at last) we got definite news. I feel highly guilty; I should be back to insult and worry you a little. Our address till further notice is to be c/o R. Towns & Co., Sydney. […] That is final: I only got the arrangement made yesterday; but you may now publish it abroad. […] – Yours ever,


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“My horror of the horrible is about my weakest point”

RLS’s account of his visit is to the leper colony on Molokai island, Hawaii.

[As usual, dots between square brackets indicate cuts made by Sidney Colvin. For full, correct and critical edition of this letter see Mehew 6, 2174.]

To his Wife [Colvin 1911, 3, pp. 147-51]

Kalawao, Molokai [22 May 1889]

Dear Fanny,

I had a lovely sail up.

RLS embarked for Molokai on the S.S. Kilauea on the afternoon of 21 May 1889 [https://img.newspapers.com]

Captain Cameron and Mr. Gilfillan,

Archie Gilfillan was purser of the steamer. His notes about RLS’s voyage to Molokai were published in Arthur Johnstone’s “Recollections of RLS in the Pacific”, 1905.

both born in the States, yet the first still with a strong Highland, and the second still with a strong Lowland accent, were good company; the night was warm, the victuals plain but good. Mr. Gilfillan gave me his berth, and I slept well, though I heard the sisters sick in the next stateroom, poor souls.

Two Franciscan Sisters from Syracuse, New York were also on board with RLS: Sister Crescentia Eilers (second from right, while serving at the Branch Hospital for Lepers in Kakaako, Honolulu, in 1886) and Sister M. Irene Schorp (not in this picture) [https://upload.wikimedia.org]

Heavy rolling woke me in the morning; I turned in all standing, so went right on the upper deck. The day was on the peep out of a low morning bank, and we were wallowing along under stupendous cliffs. As the lights brightened, we could see certain abutments and buttresses on their front where wood clustered and grass grew brightly. But the whole brow seemed quite impassable, and my heart sank at the sight. Two thousand feet of rock making 19° (the Captain guesses) seemed quite beyond my powers.

However, I had come so far; and, to tell you the truth, I was so cowed with fear and disgust that I dared not go back on the adventure in the interests of my own self-respect. Presently we came up with the leper promontory: lowland, quite bare and bleak and harsh, a little town of wooden houses, two churches, a landing-stair, all unsightly, sour, northerly, lying athwart the sunrise, with the great wall of the pali cutting the world out on the south.

Molokai leper colony was founded on Kalaupapa Promontory, a place chosen for its isolation. The pali is a precipitous cliff-wall [https://thumbs-prod.si-cdn.com]
Molokai [https://hawaiim3.imgix.net]

Our lepers were sent on the first boat, about a dozen, one poor child very horrid, one white man, leaving a large grown family behind him in Honolulu, and then into the second stepped the sisters and myself.

People and goods brought ashore in rowboats from the steamer, Kalaupapa, Molokai, early 20th century [https://cdn.cnn.com]

I do not know how it would have been with me had the sisters not been there. My horror of the horrible is about my weakest point; but the moral loveliness at my elbow blotted all else out; and when I found that one of them was crying, poor soul, quietly under her veil, I cried a little myself; then I felt as right as a trivet, only a little crushed to be there so uselessly. I thought it was a sin and a shame she should feel unhappy; I turned round to her, and said something like this: ‘Ladies, God Himself is here to give you welcome. I’m sure it is good for me to be beside you; I hope it will be blessed to me; I thank you for myself and the good you do me.’ It seemed to cheer her up; but indeed I had scarce said it when we were at the landing-stairs, and there was a great crowd, hundreds of (God save us!) pantomime masks in poor human flesh, waiting to receive the sisters and the new patients.

Lepers, Molokai [https://imgix.ranker.com]
Father Damien (St. Damien of Molokai) at the leper colony, Kalawao, Molokai. He had just died when RLS arrived at Molokai [www.researchgate.net]

Every hand was offered: I had gloves, but I had made up my mind on the boat’s voyage not to give my hand; that seemed less offensive than the gloves. So the sisters and I went up among that crew, and presently I got aside (for I felt I had no business there) and set off on foot across the promontory, carrying my wrap and the camera. All horror was quite gone from me: to see these dread creatures smile and look happy was beautiful. On my way through Kalaupapa I was exchanging cheerful alohas with the patients coming galloping over on their horses; I was stopping to gossip at house-doors; I was happy, only ashamed of myself that I was here for no good.

Leper settlement at Kalaupapa, Molokai [https://88446202.weebly.com]
Kalaupapa village, Molokai [https://i.pinimg.com]
Kalaupapa leper colony, 1905 [https://88446202.weebly.com]

One woman was pretty, and spoke good English, and was infinitely engaging and (in the old phrase) towardly; she thought I was the new white patient; and when she found I was only a visitor, a curious change came in her face and voice – the only sad thing, morally sad, I mean – that I met that morning.

Oldest patient at Kalaupapa, who died in 2015, aged 92 [https://kitv.images.worldnow.com]

But for all that, they tell me none want to leave.

Father Damien and the Kalawao Girls Choir at Kalaupapa, Molokai, 1870s [https://s1.ibtimes.com]
Molokai promontory [https://robbreportedit.files.wordpress.com]

Beyond Kalaupapa the houses became rare; dry stone dykes, grassy, stony land, one sick pandanus; a dreary country; from overhead in the little clinging wood shogs of the pali chirruping of birds fell; the low sun was right in my face; the trade blew pure and cool and delicious;

I felt as right as ninepence, and stopped and chatted with the patients whom I still met on their horses, with not the least disgust.

Lepers of Molokai, from J. London’s ‘The Cruise of the Snark’, 1911 [https://s3.amazonaws.com]

About half-way over, I met the superintendent (a leper) with a horse for me, and O, wasn’t I glad!

Ambrose K. Hutchison (top) (c. 1856-1932), Kalaupapa, 1920s. His identification in the image is based on the opinions of his relatives. He was a leprosy patient at the Molokai Settlement from 1879 until his death, and became the resident Superintendent there. He was a half-blood, his father being from Edinburgh [https://upload.wikimedia.org]

But the horse was one of those curious, dogged, cranky brutes that always dully want to go somewhere else, and my traffic with him completed my crushing fatigue. I got to the guest-house, an empty house with several rooms, kitchen, bath, etc. There was no one there, and I let the horse go loose in the garden, lay down on the bed, and fell asleep. Dr. Swift woke me and gave me breakfast,

Kalawao guest house, Molokai, no date. Dr Sidney Bourne Swift was the resident physician at the leper colony [www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/kala/pdf/B7KalaSetPeriod.pdf]

then I came back and slept again while he was at the dispensary, and he woke me for dinner; and I came back and slept again, and he woke me about six for supper; and then in about an hour I felt tired again, and came up to my solitary guest-house, played the flageolet, and am now writing to you. As yet, you see, I have seen nothing of the settlement, and my crushing fatigue (though I believe that was moral and a measure of my cowardice) and the doctor’s opinion make me think the pali hopeless. ‘You don’t look a strong man,’ said the doctor; ‘but are you sound?’ I told him the truth; then he said it was out of the question, and if I were to get up at all, I must be carried up. But, as it seems, men as well as horses continually fall on this ascent: the doctor goes up with a change of clothes – it is plain that to be carried would in itself be very fatiguing to both mind and body; and I should then be at the beginning of thirteen miles of mountain road to be ridden against time. How should I come through?

Kalaupapa Village, Molokai [https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia]

I hope you will think me right in my decision: I mean to stay, and shall not be back in Honolulu till Saturday, June first. You must all do the best you can to make ready.

Dr. Swift has a wife and an infant son, beginning to toddle and run, and they live here as composed as brick and mortar – at least the wife does, a Kentucky German, a fine enough creature, I believe, who was quite amazed at the sisters shedding tears! How strange is mankind! Gilfillan too, a good fellow I think, and far from a stupid, kept up his hard Lowland Scottish talk in the boat while the sister was covering her face; but I believe he knew, and did it (partly) in embarrassment, and part perhaps in mistaken kindness. And that was one reason, too, why I made my speech to them. Partly, too, I did it, because I was ashamed to do so, and remembered one of my golden rules, ‘When you are ashamed to speak, speak up at once.’ But, mind you, that rule is only golden with strangers; with your own folks, there are other considerations. This is a strange place to be in. A bell has been sounded at intervals while I wrote,

now all is still but a musical humming of the sea, not unlike the sound of telegraph wires;

the night is quite cool and pitch dark, with a small fine rain;


one light over in the leper settlement,


one cricket whistling in the garden,

my lamp here by my bedside, and my pen cheeping between my inky fingers. […]

[23 May 1889]

Next day, lovely morning, slept all night, 80° in the shade, strong, sweet Anaho trade-wind.



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“His body’s under hatches, – his soul, if there is any hell to go to, gone to hell”

 [As usual, dots between square brackets indicate cuts made by Sidney Colvin. For full, correct and critical edition of this letter see Mehew 6, 2172.]

To Will H. Low [Colvin 1911, 3, pp. 142-3]


Honolulu, (about) 20th May ’89

My dear Low,

[…] – The goods have come; many daughters have done virtuously, but thou excellest them all […].

[…] I have at length finished The Master; it has been a sore cross to me; but now he is buried, his body’s under hatches, – his soul, if there is any hell to go to, gone to hell;

RLS probably refers to the last two lines of the 18th century song ‘Tom Bowling’, by Charles Dibdin: “For, though his body’s under hatches, / his soul is gone aloft”. It was also one of Henry David Thoreau’s favourite songs.

and I forgive him: it is harder to forgive Burlingame for having induced me to begin the publication, or myself for suffering the induction.

Edward L. Burlingame (1848-1922) was editor-in-chief of Scribner’s Magazine, New York, publishing a serialization of RLS’s novel, ‘The Master of Ballantrae’ [https://upload.wikimedia.org]

– Yes, I think Hole has done finely; it will be one of the most adequately illustrated books of our generation; he gets the note, he tells the story – my story:

William Brassey Hole drew 10 illustration for the serialisation of ‘The Master of Ballantrae’ [https://illustratingstevenson.files.wordpress.com]

I know only one failure – the Master standing on the beach.


– You must have a letter for me at Sydney – till further notice. Remember me to Mrs. Will H., the godlike sculptor,

Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907), generally acknowledged to be the foremost American sculptor of the late 19th century, noted for his evocative memorial statues and for the subtle modeling of his low reliefs. RLS refers to him as the ‘goldlike sculptor’, cfr. R.W. Emerson’s poem ‘Painting and sculpture’ [https://1.bp.blogspot.com]

and any of the faithful. […] If you want to cease to be a republican, see my little Kaiulani, as she goes through – but she is gone already.

Archibald Scott Cleghorn 1835-1910, an Edinburgh-born Scot, originally a merchant in Honolulu and later collector General of Customs, married Princess Miriam Likelike (1851-87), a sister of King Kalakaua. Their daughter, Process Kaiulani, was born in 1875 [https://images.findagrave.com]
Princess Victoria Kaiulani (1875-1899), Crown Princess of Hawaii, in 1889, aged 14. RLS was a frequent visitor to Cleghorn’s in Waikiki, Honolulu and often sat talking to the Pricess under a giant banyan tree. Kaiulani left Honolulu on 10 May 1889, to go to school in England, on the steamer taking RLS’s mother to San Francisco. She became heir-apparent after the king’s death, returned to Hawaii in 1897 and died there of pneumonia in 1899 [https://i.pinimg.com]
Princess Kaiulani (at right) in the branches of her beloved banyan tree, the first one planted by her father, Archibald Scott Cleghorn, in their Ainahau Estate in Waikiki, Honolulu. Ainahau was torn down in 1955 to make room for the Princess Kaiulani Hotel and other real estate properties. At that time cuttings from the Ainahau Banyan Tree were planted at the corner of King Street and Keeaumoku Street and the tree that grew from the cuttings stood at that location until 1967 when it was chopped down after court battles and much controversy. [www.hawaiinewsnow.com]
In 1967, cuttings of Princess Kaiulani’s banyan tree were taken planted at Magic Island in Ala Moana Park, Honolulu: that tree is still standing today. King Kalakaua died in San Francisco in 1891, while Kaiulani was studying in England. His sister Lydia Liliuokalani became queen and Princess Kaiulani became the crown Princess of the Hawaiian Kingdom. But she never became queen because Liliuoklanai was deposed in 1893 [https://i.pinimg.com]

You will die a red: I wear the colours of that little royal maiden, Nous allons chanter à la ronde, si vous voulez!

RLS’s French quoting is from a verse of Fortunio’s Song in Alfred de Musset’s comedy ‘Le Chandelier’, 1835, set to music by Offenbach in 1850. The composer included it in his song cycle ‘Les Voix Mysterieuses’, 1852 and in his one-act operetta ‘La Chanson de Fortunio’, 1861.

only she is not blonde by several chalks, though she is but a half-blood, and the wrong half Edinburgh Scots like mysel’.

Sent to Northamptonshire, England in 1889 at the age of 14, Kaiulani was given a private education at Great Harrowden Hall [www.thekaiulaniproject.com]

But, O Low, I love the Polynesian: this civilisation of ours is a dingy, ungentlemanly business; it drops out too much of man, and too much of that the very beauty of the poor beast; who has his beauties in spite of Zola and Co.

‘Poppies’, an oil on canvas painting by Princess Ka’iulani, 1890 [http://farm5.staticflickr.com]

As usual, here is a whole letter with no news: I am a bloodless, inhuman dog; and no doubt Zola is a better correspondent. – Long live your fine old English admiral – yours, I mean – the U.S.A. one at Samoa; I wept tears and loved myself and mankind when I read of him: he is not too much civilised.

Lewis Ashfield Kimberley (1830-1902), Rear Admiral in the US Navy, whose 3 warships were wrecked in the Samoan hurricane; he led the cheers from his flagship Trenton as the British Calliope steamed to safety [https://upload.wikimedia.org]

And there was Gordon, too;

An illustration from 1885 depicting the death of General Charles Gordon in Khartoum, Sudan [https://i.guim.co.uk]

and there are others, beyond question. But if you could live, the only white folk, in a Polynesian village; and drink that warm, light vin du pays of human affection and enjoy that simple dignity of all about you

P. Gauguin, Three Tahotians, 1899 [www.bl.uk/britishlibrary]

– I will not gush, for I am now in my fortieth year, which seems highly unjust, but there it is, Mr. Low,

RLS with King Kalakaua, Honolulu, 1889 [http://4.bp.blogspot.com]

and the Lord enlighten your affectionate,


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“The Master is finished, and I am quite a wreck and do not care for literature”

[Dots between square brackets indicate cuts made by Graham Balfour. For full, correct and critical edition of this letter see Mehew 6, 2171.]

To his Mother [Balfour, II, pp. 64, 67]

Honolulu [? 20 May 1889]

[…] I had been twice to lunch on board [scil.: of the Cormorant], and H.B.M.’s seamen are making us hammocks;

Naval hammocks [https://sites.google.com]

so we are very naval. But alas, the Cormorant is only waiting her relief, and I fear there are not two ships of that stamp in all the navies of the world.

HMS Cormorant was an Osprey-class sloop launched at Chatham in 1877. The Osprey class were of composite construction, with wooden hulls over an iron frame. T he primary purpose of ships of the class was to maintain British naval dominance through trade protection, anti-slavery, and surveying. In 1879 she served on the Australia Station, in April 1886 she was on the Pacific Station, and became a receiving ship at Gibraltar on 1889 [https://upload.wikimedia.org]

The Master is finished, and I am quite a wreck and do not care for literature.

The first edition cover of ‘The Master of Ballantrae’, published by Cassel in 1889 [https://upload.wikimedia.org]
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“I think it needful to warn you not to be in a hurry to suppose us dead”

The reference in the first paragraph is to the publication in the press, which Baxter had permitted, of one of RLS’s letters written during the earlier part of his voyage. RLS had remonstrated, always greatly disliking the publication of private letters during the writer’s lifetime; and now wrote to soften the effect of his remonstrance.

[As usual, dots between square brackets indicate cuts made by Charles Baxter. For full, correct and critical edition of this letter see Mehew 6, 2165.]

To Charles Baxter [Baxter Letters, pp. 247-8: http://www.hathitrust.org]

[Honolulu, 9 May 1889]

My dear Charles,

I am appalled to gather from your last just to hand that you have felt so much concern about the letter. Pray dismiss it from your mind. But I think you scarce appreciate how disagreeable it is to have your private affairs and private unguarded expressions getting into print. It would soon sicken any one of writing letters. I have no doubt that letter was very wisely selected, but it just shows how things crop up. There was a raging jealousy between the two yachts; our captain was nearly in a fight over it.

On 31 Aug 1888, while the yacht Casco was in harbour on Hiva-oa in the Marquesas, there had been great excitement at the arrival of the British yacht Nyanza on a round-the-world voyage. Friendly meetings had taken place. The Nyanza was at Honolulu when the Casco arrived and the frienship was renewed. A letter to Baxter from Lloyd postmarked Tahiti 6 Oct 1888 had been published in the Scotsman of 8 Dec 1888 and reprinted in the Honolulu Bulletin of 30 Jan 1889. Unfortunately, Lloyd had described the Nyanza as a ‘large, lofty, ugly schooner’. In his Voyage of the Nyanza (1892), J. Cumming Dewar, her owner, had his revenge by saying that the Casco appeared to be ‘more suited for sailing about San Francisco Bay than for a cruise across the ocean’ [www.rarebooks.co.nz; Cf.Mehew 6, p. 294 n. 2]
The yacht Casco [https://search-bcarchives.royalbcmuseum.bc.ca]

However, no more; and whatever you think, my dear fellow, do not suppose me angry with you […]; although I was annoyed at the circumstance – a very different thing. But it is difficult to conduct life by letter, and I continually feel I may be drifting into some matter of offence, in which my heart takes no part. […]

I must now turn to a point of business. This new cruise of ours is somewhat venturesome; and I think it needful to warn you not to be in a hurry to suppose us dead. In these ill-charted seas, it is quite on the cards we might be cast on some unvisited, or very rarely visited, island; that there we might lie for a long time, even years, unheard of; and yet turn up smiling at the hinder end.

RLS’s South Seas cruises [http://robert-louis-stevenson.org]

So do not let me be ‘rowpit’ [= sold by auction] till you get some certainty we have gone to Davie Jones in a squall,


or graced the feast of some barbarian in the character of Long Pig.

Cannibal feast, Fiji. The expression ‘Long Pig’ was a translation of a term formerly used in some Pacific islands for human flesh as food [www.thesun.co.uk]


I have just been a week away alone on the lee coast of Hawaii,


the only white creature in many miles, riding five and a half hours one day, living with a native, seeing four lepers shipped off to Molokai,

Father Damien (1840-1889) stands with patients outside his church on Molokai Island. He served at the island’s leper colony, eventually contracting the disease himself [https://r.hswstatic.com]

hearing native causes, and giving my opinion as amicus curiae, as to the interpretation of a statute in English; a lovely week among God’s best – at least God’s sweetest works – Polynesians. It has bettered me greatly. If I could only stay there the time that remains, I could get my work done and be happy; but the care of […] my family keeps me in vile Honolulu, where I am always out of sorts,

Main Street, Honolulu [https://themetropoleblog.files.wordpress.com]

amidst heat and cold and cesspools and beastly haoles. What is a haole? You are one; and so, I am sorry to say, am I. After so long a dose of whites, it was a blessing to get among Polynesians again even for a week.

RLS, prob. 1889. The Hawaiian word ‘haole’ originally meant ‘outsider’ and was applied to all foreigners; it gradually came to mean white only.

Well, Charles, there are waur haoles than yoursel’, I’ll say that for ye; and trust before I sail I shall get another letter […] with more about yourself. Ever your affectionate friend,



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