More sensitively referred to today as Hansen’s disease, after the Norwegian doctor who identified the bacteria that causes it, leprosy first appeared in Hawai‘i around the 1830s. As with other foreign diseases that decimated the native population, the illness struck Hawaiian families particularly hard. Before long a public panic had erupted, and in 1865 the Kingdom of Hawai‘i passed An Act to Prevent the Spread of Leprosy, which required the arrest of “any person alleged to be a leper” and authorized the Board of Health “to send to a place of isolation all such patients as shall be considered incurable or capable of spreading the disease of leprosy.”
Little wonder, then, that the disease became known to Hawaiians as ma‘i ho‘oka‘awale, or “the separating sickness.” The cruel irony is that it’s now known that leprosy is in fact one of the least contagious of all infectious diseases, and only about 5 percent of the human population is even susceptible to it.
The first exiles, nine men and three women, were deposited on the harsh windward side of the peninsula in 1866, without access to adequate shelter, food or water. New outcasts arrived regularly and many quickly perished. Somehow, however, the community managed to eke out the basics of survival and even organized a church congregation within the first year.
At the colony’s peak in the early 1900s, more than a thousand patients resided in the settlement, which eventually had its own police station, movie theater and other facilities. The tragedy of isolation continued, however. Newborns were immediately taken from their patient mothers for fear they would be infected. Railings and other devices kept the patients separate from staff. Visitors were escorted by police and could talk with patients only through a prison-style screen to prevent touching.
Years later one patient described the agony of being torn from his home: “They told me right out that I would die here, that I would never see my family again. I heard them say this phrase, something I will never forget. They said, ‘This is your last place. This is where you are going to stay and die.’ That’s what they told me. I was a 13-year-old kid.”
In 1941 an antibiotic cure was discovered, and five years later it began to be administered to the Kalaupapa patients. Complete treatment could take a number of years, but once a patient was declared noncontagious, they were free to leave the settlement. The patients called this being “paroled.” Many, however, chose to remain in the beautiful place that had long been their home.
“Kalaupapa used to be a Devil’s Island, a gateway to hell, worse than a prison,” wrote the late patient-activist Bernard Punikai‘a. “Today it is a gateway to heaven. There is spirituality to the place. All the sufferings of those whose blood has touched the land—the effect is so powerful even the rain cannot wash it away.”