In 1865, leprosy was spreading throughout the Hawaiian islands, and with little understood about the disease, fears were running high. Kamehameha V signed “An Act to Prevent the Spread of Leprosy”. Nearly 3000 cases had been reported, so a hospital was built on Oahu, and the next year the first exiles were sent away. With limited land available, a colony was established on a small peninsula off the island of Molokai.
Sarah Vowell writes in Unfamiliar Fishes:
Kalaupapa Peninsula, is isolated sliver of land cut off from the rest of the island by the steepest sea cliffs on earth. “A prison fortified by nature”, Robert Louis Stevenson called it after spending a week there in 1889. Exile was permanent and patients were at times removed from their homes by force. Legally mandated segregation remained Hawaiian law until 1969, which was twenty-three years after the arrival of a cure” (p. 172)
The original colony was established at Kalawao, but soon the establishment was moved to Kalaupapa, on the other side of the island. Hansens disease is very damaging to the skin and nerves, but not to the organs, thus many patients lived long lives. These patients made Kalaupapa their home. A more detailed time line can be found here.
Eventually in the 1940s, more was learned about this disease which came to be known as “Hansen’s disease” and while a cure was not discovered, medical advances allowed the disease to be managed. Legally mandated segregation was now revoked until 1969. The residents were given the option of remaining at Kalaupapa for the remainder of their lives, and the area was turned into a national park.
Today the peninsula can be visited by a tour which involves riding mules down the nearly 2000′ cliff, and is the subject of many facinating books. Check out:
|Molokai, by Alan Brennert (2003) – An historical fiction about Rachel, a young girl who is diagnosed with leprosy and ripped from her family to be sent to the leper colony.|
|The Colony: The Harrowing True Story of the Exiles of Molokai, by John Tayman (2006) – An in-depth history of the establishment of the colony, and the history of the settlement, including the patients as well as the people who came to care for them.|
|No Footprints in the Sand: A Memoir of Kalaupapa, By Henry Nalaielua and Sally-Jo Bowman (2006) – Henry was sent to Kalaupapa as a boy in the 1930s. Due to medical advances, he was able to leave the colony, but Kalaupapa continued to be his home.|
- Kalaupapa Guided Mule Tour (www.muleride.com)