Stephanie Launiu is a Native Hawaiian lifestyle and cultural writer. She has a degree in Hawaiian Pacific Studies. She lives in Hilo.
"One day when I was about nine years old, some men came to our house and dragged my mama away kicking and screaming. I never saw my mama again..."
My grandmother told me this story several times while I was growing up. I think she told the story whenever she thought I was being a brat or not appreciating my own mother. She didnʻt scold me. She just told the story again. And the story stuck. It was pretty haunting to think of that happening to anyone. I wondered if it was true.
After working on our family genealogy a couple of years ago, a cousin of mine found out that the story Grandma told was indeed true. My great-grandmother, Kawaikoeahiokekuahiwi, had been taken to the leper colony at Kalaupapa, Molokaʻi in 1910 when she was about thirty-one with a 9-year-old daughter left to be raised by relatives. Although others in the family may have known my great-grandmotherʻs destiny, how do you tell a nine-year-old that her mother had become part of the ʻliving deadʻ? They never did.
Kalaupapa was a death sentence. No one ever got to leave once they disembarked the cattle ship they rode over on from Oʻahu. Many got dumped overboard offshore and had to swim to land. Kawaikoeahiokekuahiwi remarried at Kalaupapa and had three more children before she died there in 1920. All of her babies would have been removed from the island shortly after birth. We are trying to find out what happened to those babies because it means that our family circle is larger than we once thought.
My grandmother lived a full life. She had twelve children of her own and now has scores of descendants. Unfortunately, she died in 1990 long before we found out where her mother was taken to that long ago day.
So Iʻm going to tell you the story of Kalaupapa...
Between 1866 and 1969, the Hawaiian and then the American government exiled more than 8000 people to the isolated Kalaupapa peninsula, Kalawao County, Island of Molokaʻi. About 90% of them were Native Hawaiian. Understanding the history of Hawaiʻi requires that we learn about the painful parts that have left scar tissue on too many of Hawaiʻiʻs families.
When British Captain James Cook landed at Waimea, Kaua'i in 1778, it was the first recorded incident of Native Hawaiians being introduced to non-Polynesian foreigners. The Hawaiian Islands, surrounded by thousands of miles of Pacific Ocean, remain the most isolated inhabited islands on earth. Their introduction to foreign technology such as guns, canned food, textiles, and simple items like mirrors, also brought with it diseases unknown to them. Over the next century as more foreigners and whaling ships landed in the islands, the Native Hawaiian population was reduced to about one-tenth what it had been in 1778. The indigenous people died of everything from venereal diseases to measles and the common cold.
By the mid-1800ʻs, the dreaded scourge of leprosy had also landed in the islands. But before it would have itʻs full effect on the population, another scourge instilled widespread fear in people. The smallpox epidemic of 1853-1854 killed 8% of Hawaiʻiʻs remaining native people in a mere eight months! Native Hawaiians were being wiped out by the thousands.
After the epidemic was over, there was little that the Hawaiian government felt it could do to stop the spread of leprosy. The Christian missionaries had, by then, been preaching the gospel and converting Hawaiians to Christianity for more than 25 years. The Bible is replete with metaphors comparing "lepers" to anything unclean. And Jesus Christ himself is quoted as saying that "nothing unclean can enter the kingdom of heaven".
The perfect storm had formed. The ingredients of fear, paranoia and lack of modern medical knowledge were brewing. In 1865, Kamehameha V on the advice of his foreign advisors, signed "An Act to Prevent the Spread of Leprosy" making leprosy a crime, and the hunt was on for anyone who exhibited symptoms like sores or red spots on their skin. After arrest and isolation in a government hospital in Kalihi on Oʻahu, the unlucky "patients" were herded onto cattle ships bound for the most isolated spot known in the islands. Kalaupapa on the island of Molokaʻi.
Kalaupapa had become the place of forced exile for those with leprosy.
A Testament to the Human Spirit
In the beginning years of exile, there was reported widespread lawlessness at Kalaupapa. In ancient Hawai'i, a small village of Native Hawaiians had lived in the area sustaining themselves by raising sweet potatoes for export. The Hawaiʻi Board of Health mistakenly assumed that if they dumped leprosy patients offshore, they would somehow make it to land and become self-sufficient by growing their own food and making use of old houselots left behind.
On January 6, 1866, the first group of nine men and three women leprosy patients were dropped off. By October of the same year, the settlement had grown to 101 men and 41 women isolated from the world. It soon became evident that most of the patients were either too sick or demoralized to live self-sufficiently. Without hope or will to live, some turned to vice and immorality. As the word got out about the terrible conditions at Kalaupapa, Hawaiian families began hiding their afflicted relatives so that they wouldnʻt be found and sent to Kalaupapa. Others sacrificed their futures to go into isolation with their loved ones to serve as a "kokua" or helper. These "na kokua" gave up their rights to leave Kalaupapa in the future. They provided needed comfort to their loved ones and others in isolation. They were the able-bodied who did the physical labor of building, raising crops and livestock.
The Hawaiʻi Board of Health tried to improve conditions by building a hospital, homes for the patients, and delivering supplies of food and clothing. Two Hawaiian kings, William Charles Lunalilo and David Kalakaua supported additional help for the isolated settlement. Congregational ministers, Mormon elders, and Catholic priests opened churches there.
The biggest change arrived in 1873 with a Catholic priest named Joseph De Veuster, lovingly known as Father Damien. Born in Belgium, Father Damien answered the call to serve the leprosy patients now numbering about 700. He rode to Kalaupapa on a cattle ship with 50 more patients whose fates had been sealed.
With Father Damienʻs arrival, Kalaupapa slowly became a place to live and not just to die. He offered hope and love to the hopeless. Father Damien learned to speak the Hawaiian language. He helped to build houses and devise a water system. He embodied hope for the future by planting trees on the barren peninsula. He organized a school and started a band and a choir. He provided medical care to the sick and helped to bury those who died. Perhaps most importantly, he became the voice for the leprosy patients as he demanded better support from the government and his church.
Eventually, Kalaupapa became a self-contained community where leprosy patients (today the disease is called Hansenʻs Disease) arrived to live out their lives. Although they were torn from their loved ones in other parts of Hawaiʻi, the Hansenʻs Disease patients lived as best they could in Kalaupapa. They began small businesses, a few stores opened, and even a bar. People fell in love; babies were born.
There are many stories about simple people who made the best of their lives after being diagnosed with Hansenʻs Disease. One such person was John Taylor Unea who was sent to Kalaupapa in 1893 with his 16 year old son. Both had been diagnosed with Hansenʻs Disease. Unea left a wife and daughter behind in Hilo. Unea, who was 37 at the time of his arrival, lived for another 27 years before dying at Kalaupapa. During his time there, he ran the general store, taught at the school and recorded Kalaupapaʻs first census in 1900.
Sainthood for Father Damien and Mother Marianne
"His cassock was worn and faded, his hair tumbled like a school-boy’s, his hands stained and hardened by toil; but the glow of health was in his face, the buoyancy of youth in his manner; while his ringing laugh, his ready sympathy, and his inspiring magnetism told of one who in any sphere might do a noble work, and who in that which he has chosen is doing the noblest of all works. This was Father Damien."
- Charles Warren Stoddard, who visited Kalaupapa in 1884
Father Damien had lived at Kalaupapa for 12 years when he was diagnosed with Hansenʻs Disease. Contrary to popular belief, the disease is not highly contagious. But Damien had not done anything to protect himself from the disease or to separate himself from the people of Kalaupapa. He ate from the same poi bowl as the patients; he willingly shared his pipe with others. And he often bandaged open sores without sanitation. Father Damien was 49 years old when he died on April 15, 1889.
At his bedside was Mother Marianne Cope who had come to Kalaupapa with the Sisters of St. Francis in 1883. Mother Marianne lovingly carried on the work of Father Damien. Her wholehearted acceptance of the call to serve at Kalaupapa is recorded in a letter she wrote: "I am hungry for the work and I wish with all my heart to be one of the chosen Ones, whose privilege it will be, to sacrifice themselves for the salvation of the souls of the poor Islanders…. I am not afraid of any disease, hence it would be my greatest delight even to minister to the abandoned 'lepers.'"
After Father Damienʻs death, Mother Marianne ran the Home for Boys and the Bishop Home for Girls in addition to overseeing the general population at Kalaupapa. Although she never contracted Hansenʻs Disease, she chose to live out her life among the outcasts she loved. Mother Marianne Cope died at Kalaupapa at the age of 80 in 1918.
Both Father Damien and Mother Marianne were canonized as Saints by the Catholic Church. Pope Benedict XVI canonized Saint Damien on October 11, 2009 in a ceremony at the Vatican. On October 21, 2012 Pope Benedict canonized Saint Marianne in a ceremony at the Vatican.
In 1969, the State of Hawaiʻi ended its policy of isolating those with Hansenʻs Disease and sending them to Kalaupapa. By 1946, sulfate drugs were able to cure and control the disease, and by 1969 patients could be deemed non-infectious. On December 22, 1980, the Kalaupapa National Historical Park was dedicated to preserving the memories and experiences of those who were forcibly exiled there.
You can now take a day trip to visit Kalaupapa. About two dozen patients still choose to live there, although they are now free to leave and return at will. Kalaupapa looks like a small rural neighborhood with well-kept yards. Donʻt expect to interact with the residents. Most choose to stay inside their homes when tours are taking place. Although there are several ways to get to Kalaupapa, there is only one tour company to take you around Kalaupapa. No one is allowed to walk around freely. There is no road access to Kalaupapa. Kalaupapa is surrounded on three sides by ocean, and 2,000 foot cliffs on the fourth.
All visitors must obtain a permit to enter the Kalaupapa Settlement. Children under the age of 16 are not allowed into the settlement.
Visitor Permits are secured by Damien Tours for individuals and groups. Persons that do not prearrange their visit to the park with Damien Tours (808) 567-6171 will be denied access to the park.
To get to Kalaupapa visitors must travel by one of the following methods:
By Air: The park can be reached by air from O'ahu, Maui, and Ho'olehua, Molokaʻi. Scheduled small aircraft serve Kalaupapa Airport (LUP) daily from Oʻahu through Makani Kai Air (877.255.8532 toll free) or (808.834.5813). Charter air service can also be arranged through Makani Kai, or Molokai Outdoors (877.553.4477 toll free) or (808.553.4477).
By Mule: Youʻll descend the 2,000 foot sea-cliffs on the back of a sure-footed Molokaʻi mule. Contact Kalaupapa Rare Adventure, LLC (800.567.7550 toll free, or 808.567.6088) for rates and reservations. The mule-ride operation is located on topside Molokaʻi off Highway 470.near Pala'au State Park and the Kalaupapa lookout.
On Foot: The trail to Kalaupapa descends 26 switchbacks with a nearly 2,000 foot elevation change over 3.5 miles. The trail is considered strenuous and only fit persons should try to hike down. There is no medical facility at Kalaupapa. Trail can be wet and muddy in the winter and hot and humid in the summer. Footing can be slippery. We recommend a rain jacket, brimmed hat, sunscreen and water. At the bottom of the trail, visitors must connect with the commercial tour. The mule-ride operation can also arrange your place on the tour and allow you to walk down.
By Boat: It is against the law to come within 1/4 mile of the Kalaupapa shoreline. Access by boat within the quarter mile offshore park boundary requires a special use permit.
© 2014 Stephanie Launiu
Stephanie Launiu (author) from Hawai'i on January 25, 2016:
@RobertLevine: Mahalo! I will look for the book. I haven't heard of it, but it does sound intriguing. Aloha, Stephanie
Robert Levine from Brookline, Massachusetts on January 25, 2016:
Stephanie, have you read the book-length poem The Folding Cliffs, by W. S. Merwin? The main character is a 19th-Century Native Hawaiian woman on the run from the British Navy, which suspects that she has contracted leprosy and want to exile her to Molokai. I highly recommend it.
Stephanie Launiu (author) from Hawai'i on November 23, 2014:
@GeorgeneMBramlage: Thank you for the nice comment. It is very interesting to me that a book about Hawai'i should be the topic of discussion in a place as distant as Virginia. Aloha, Stephanie
Georgene Moizuk Bramlage from southwestern Virginia on November 22, 2014:
Excellent article with nice use of photos. I just finished moderating a Book Club's discussion of the book "Moloka'i" by Alan Brennert. So I will be back to read more of your articles.
Stephanie Launiu (author) from Hawai'i on February 15, 2014:
Thanks Billybuc...Iʻve been away from Hubpages for a while, but thereʻs no place like home. Itʻs good to know that writers like you are still here.
Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on February 15, 2014:
A testament to the human spirit indeed. Thank you for sharing this important information.