- Editor’s Note
Approaching the island of Moloka‘i from the west, the traveler comes upon a wide, low strand—the longest white sand beach in the Hawaiian Archipelago—rising gradually onto a scrubby, desiccated plain. This is the blunt, leeward end of the narrow island—ten miles wide by thirty-eight miles long—lying east and west by the compass. The Pāpōhaku Beach on the west end is poorly vegetated, with low hills and shifting sand dunes. Moisture riding the easterly trade winds creates rain clouds and drenches the five-thousand-foot-high mountains in the windward and middle parts of the island, soaking the deep valleys and feeding abundant waterfalls. However, little moisture reaches the dry leeward soil.
Along the northeast coast, the traveler will encounter twelve miles of breathtaking fluted cliffs, the highest plunging more than 3,500 feet into the sea. A flat, rocky peninsula—shaped like the head of a shark—juts out from the island at the base of this line of cliffs. Its name is Makanalua, though it is commonly called Kalaupapa, which is also the name of a village on the western side of the peninsula. Few places in the Hawaiian Archipelago seem as isolated and desolate as this volcanic headland.
Robert Louis Stevenson described the northeast coast of Moloka‘i as “grand, gloomy, and bleak.” To this place, the Board of Health of the Hawaiian Kingdom began forcibly relocating men, women, and children with leprosy, to quarantine them from the rest of Hawai‘i’s population in 1866. Leprosy had begun to appear in the Islands as early as 1830, mostly among Native Hawaiians, whose immune systems had been weakened by the introduction a generation earlier of foreign diseases. Leprosy was but one of several infectious diseases that plagued the Native Hawaiian population. It ravaged and disfigured those who were afflicted and was thought to be highly contagious. Nevertheless, prior to the compulsory quarantine laws, people who suffered from the disease were cared for at home, within the intimacy of their families.
As more cases appeared, and the Kingdom’s foreign population grew, government health officials, along with leaders of the dominant Protestant church, panicked. They feared the disease would eventually infect everyone in the Islands. Moreover, Protestant church officials regarded leprosy [End Page vii] as the curse portrayed in the Bible; that is, evidence of the sinfulness of those who contracted it and who were therefore deserving of condemnation and isolation rather than compassion. In fact, leprosy is one of the least communicable of bacterial diseases, and only ten percent of people in the world are susceptible to its symptoms.
But no one knew that in January of 1866, when nine men and three women were herded through the surf and pushed ashore at Kalawao, the small settlement on the eastern side of the peninsula. The first to go, they were given no hope of ever returning to their families or communities. By fall of that year, the population in the quarantined colony was over a hundred souls. Eventually, eight thousand victims of leprosy—ninety percent of them Native Hawaiians—would be sent to Kalawao, then in 1890, gradually relocated to the village of Kalaupapa, just two miles away on the western side of the peninsula.
At first there was no shelter and little food or clothing in the settlement. The people subsisted mostly on meager supplies from occasional ships from Honolulu. And although conditions at the leper colony slowly improved, the isolation laws and poverty lasted until 1969, over a hundred years after the enforced segregation began, and nearly thirty years after a cure for leprosy had been discovered.
The first effective help for the lepers at Kalawao came in 1873, when Father Damien (born Joseph De Veuster) petitioned his Sacred Hearts Congregation to allow him to take up residence there on a rotating basis with other Catholic priests. Within days of arriving in the settlement, however, Damien decided to stay permanently. He was thirty-three and roughly fluent in the Hawaiian language, having already lived in the Islands for nine years. As a youth, he had worked on his father’s farm. Consequently, he was strong...