“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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