The following post is probably the longest post I have ever written, and certainly the hardest. I find it very difficult to talk and write about the things that are closest to me.
This is a story that needs to be told, but I didn’t know where to start. I guess I’ll start where the story usually starts for me, and hope I can tell it properly from there.
When people hear I am from Moloka’i, Hawai’i, they have one of two reactions. Either they say “Moloka’i? Which one is that?” or they say “Moloka’i!?! Really!?! The one with the leper colony?”
And it’s true. My island is known first and foremost because of its unusual and tragic history: because Kalaupapa peninsula was used as a place to banish patients suffering from Hansen’s Disease (to use its proper, medical, name), a place to isolate them from society for fear they would spread their affliction to the rest of the population.
Moloka’i lies in the middle of the Hawaiian archipelago, middle in age and middle in size. The island is shaped like a dolphin: curving its flippers out on the dry western end, its mouth on the wetter side of the island marked by the valley of Halawa. Along the stomach of the dolphin lie deep valleys and steep cliffs plummeting over 3,000 feet into the sea. Spread out at the base of these cliffs is Kalaupapa peninsula: a flat stretch of land punctuated by the rise of Kauhako crater, a small shield volcano which erupted long after the rest of the island had been formed, creating the peninsula.
In ancient times and the 19th century the only access to the peninsula was via a steep, treacherous trail up the cliff-face, or by sea. In the 1840s and ’50s the entire peninsula planted in sweet potatoes which were shipped off to California to feed hungry gold miners. When the gold rush boom died off the farmers began to move away from the peninsula. At the same time, Hawai’i experienced a health crisis. The population of the kingdom had already been devastated by outbreaks of smallpox, influenza and other infectious diseases that the Polynesians had no natural immunity against. Now a new threat loomed: leprosy.
In the 19th century leprosy was a poorly misunderstood disease, and the stigma against it was enormous. When the disease began to spread among Hawaiians, the country went into panic mode. Beginning in 1864 Kalaupapa peninsula was cleared of all its former residents and in 1866 islanders diagnosed with leprosy were sent on a one-way trip to the peninsula: never to return to their former lives, and never to see their family and friends again.
Tragically, what 19th century doctors didn’t know is that leprosy, despite its terrible historical reputation, is not an easy disease to catch. Between 93-95% of the world’s population is naturally immune to Hansen’s disease (yes, that means they can’t catch it under any circumstances). Even the 5-7% who are susceptible to the disease are only likely to catch it after extended exposure. Unfortunately the stigma against leprosy means that people are reluctant to seek treatment, increasing the chances of spreading it to family members. And particularly unfortunately for Hawaii, Pacific Islanders are one of the ethnic groups most susceptible to leprosy. Even so, it’s quite likely that many of those who were sent to Kalaupapa peninsula did not actually have Hansen’s disease: there was no actual diagnostic test, and skin cancer, eczema, syphilis (at the time, leprosy was thought by some doctors to be a form of syphilis) and a number of other skin ailments could be easily mistaken for the dreaded disease.
When Kalaupapa was first made a leper colony the Kingdom of Hawaii was in such a panic over the disease that little provisions were made for the sufferers: no houses were built, no hospital was established, no doctors or medical supplies were sent to assist the patients. Instead, they were deposited at Kalawao, a cold, damp settlement tucked at the base of the cliffs. They were sent without food as it was hoped they would grow their own supplies, but most were too ill, and the cold climate and lack of sun conspired against those who tried, or medical supplies.
The suffering of the earliest patients at Kalawao was immense: written accounts from the period tell of patients dying of pneumonia and starvation, begging for poi (fermented taro, the staple of the Hawaiian diet) with their last breath. The settlement was completely lawless, and stronger patients took advantage of weaker patients. Children and the elderly (the youngest patient sent to Kalawao was 6, the oldest 104) and those in advanced stages of the disease had no hope of survival. Their only hope was that a family member would make the ultimate sacrifice, and would go into exile with them as a ‘kokua’ or helper.
Just getting to the peninsula could be a hazard. In one notorious instance a storm came up as the boat carrying a new load of patients approached the rocky landing at Kalawao, and the boat was unable to dock. The captain panicked, and, unwilling to carry the patients back to Honolulu, ordered them to be thrown over the side, forcing them to swim to the rocky shore in the heavy seas. Not everyone made it.
Devastated by the situation on the peninsula, and facing public outcry over situations like the one above, the government sought desperately to improve life for the patients, but the fear of leprosy was so great that it was almost impossible to convince anyone to work on the peninsula to support the patients there. Finally the Catholic church found four priests who volunteered to serve in the colony in rotation, to limit their chances of catching the dread disease. On May 10, 1873 the first priest, Father Damien, arrived at the settlement, and, at his own request, stayed there permanently.
Damien was more than a priest: he built houses, bandaged wounds, grew food, and dug seemingly endless graves. His presence helped to create a community, and inspired others who came to serve and help. A dozen years after he arrived he contracted leprosy himself, and in 1889 he passed away from its effects.
Damien’s legacy made the peninsula a much more pleasant place to live, with churches, hospitals, homes for children who were sent to the peninsula without their parents, and entertainment facilities. In 1907 Jack London visited the peninsula, and wrote an article in defense of its civility, describing races and fun, the prosperous residents, the humane treatment, and the relative safety of exposure to leprosy.
Still, for all these amenities, for all its beauty, the peninsula was a place of exile, a prison.
It would remain a prison for most of the 20th century, with those suffering from Hansen’s disease being sent there well into the 1940s, even after the introduction of effective drugs for treating the disease. Only in 1969 were patients allowed to move away from peninsula, and by then, many of the remaining patients had spent almost their entire life on the peninsula, and did not want to leave. After some discussion, most of the patients stayed in the prison that had become their home. Some moved away, some ventured out for visits, some never left at all. At their request, the peninsula will become a national park once the last patient passes away. When I was born there were over 75 patients: now there are 13, seven of whom live permanently at Kalaupapa.
As well as a national park, Kalaupapa will always be a memorial, and its now a sacred site: Father Damien was made Saint Damien of Moloka’i, and the first nun to serve at Kalaupapa, Mother Marianne, will become Saint Marianne this October.
For me, and for every child growing up on Moloka’i, the story of Kalaupapa and Kalawao was as much a part of my childhood mythology and history as Disney’s Cinderella is for most other children. We knew the story of Father Damien, visited the churches he built on the ‘topside’ portion of the island, took annual school field trips to the lookout at the top of the pali, with its views out over the peninsula, and knew more about Hansen’s disease than any other 10 year olds in the US.
But for all I grew up with the story, I never got to visit the peninsula. Kalaupapa used to keep people in: now it keeps people out. Access is still incredibly difficult: by air, by sea, or by that same trail up the steep cliff-face. And even with a boat, a plane ticket or really good knees, you can’t just visit Kalaupapa. Children younger than 16 are not allowed to visit the peninsula, and even adults can only visit either as part of an official tour or with an invitation from a resident of the peninsula. I couldn’t afford the first, and an opportunity for the second never arose.
Until this trip. During my last visit home I was privilege enough to have the opportunity to go down to Kalaupapa, and even stay the night. It was an experience that is almost indescribable, but I’ll try my best to tell you about it tomorrow.