Oh, hello, I’ve just been sitting here marveling over Kalaupapa, Hawaii, once a leper colony and home still to about a dozen senior citizens who were exiled there between 1866 and 1969. No big thing.
(Dear smarties: Despite my headline, for the duration of this piece, I’m calling it leprosy and not Hansen’s disease, because these people didn’t have Hansen’s disease in the year 1900 or whatever. They had leprosy. It was called leprosy. They were exiled as lepers, not as, uh, Hanses. I mean . . . Hans. Sons of sons of Hans.)
Located on a chunk of peninsula on the north side of the island of Molokai, Kalaupapa is a natural prison; sheer, 2,000-foot sea cliffs—some of the highest in the world—block the settlement off on three sides. The only access to the rest of the island is by a foot trail along the ocean. The original native population was killed by a series of epidemics in the 1800s, so you can see how the story writes itself: the Hawaiian government was like, “Oh, hey, there’s an outbreak of a highly communicable disease—let’s shuttle everybody off to the spot where everyone already died off from disease without infecting us. Thanks for testing that out for us, native dudes.” More than 8,000 people were exiled there over a century and change, beginning, reportedly, with three women and nine men who were dumped overboard and told to swim. The overwhelming majority were native Hawaiians. You know this story.
In 1873, the Catholics took over and the community was managed and nursed by a young Belgian priest, Father Damien (fka Joseph de Veuster), and a young German nun, Mother Marianne Cope (fka Barbara Koob), both of whom advocated for the patients and established homes and medical facilities for them. I guess it probably helped; Jack London visited Kalaupapa in 1908 (why? why would you take a trip to a leper colony?), expecting to find a hellhole, but after chilling with the population, watching horse races and joining in on dinnertime sing-alongs, he wrote that he was “having a disgracefully good time along with eight hundred of the lepers, who were likewise having a good time.” Father Damien and Mother Marianne are now hailed in Hawaii and beyond, with a statue of the former standing in the capitol building in Honolulu and latter having been canonized in 2009.
This shocked me to read it: It was estimated that at some point, every patient on Kalaupapa either gave birth to or fathered at least one child while s/he lived there. But state law mandated that any child born to a leper be whisked away and put up for adoption, right, and then most of those kids were lied to about their origins, so they never knew where to look for their birth parents, should they want to.
Can you imagine an entire community of people who’ve had their babies forcibly taken from them immediately after birth? In addition to living with a disfiguring, disabling, painful disease? That often blinds you? Like, if that data checks out, then 100 percent of the people in this village suffered in these ways. People synthesize that kind of trauma in myriad ways, I realize, but think about the magnitude of personal suffering afoot in this place, man. Or the likelihood of the magnitude. And it was still kind of a party, sounds like.
Kalaupapa is a national park today, although you have to get clearance from the Hawaii State Department of Health before you can go there and take the donkey-led tour around the settlement and see the church and Father Damien’s memorial and such, and kids under 16 aren’t allowed. Once the last inhabitant dies, the DOH will transfer authority to the Department of Hawaiian Homelands and it’ll (probably—what am I, a wizard) be open to the public.
As if geology and the DOH hadn’t done enough to segregate it from the rest of Hawaii, Kalaupapa is in Kalawao County—a separate county from the rest of Molokai, which is part of Maui County—and it clocks in as the second-smallest county in the U.S., after Loving County, Texas (pop. 71). In 2011, the USPS considered shuttering the community’s tiny post office, but everyone raised holy hell about it because it would require 80-year-old leprosy patients, who have no Internet access or cell phone service, to either take a mule across the island or fly to another island to get their mail. So, the USPS backed off. I’m sure they’re probably, like the DOH and everyone else who’s ever been involved with this place, just waiting around for everybody on Kalaupapa to die off.
Above all, I’m blown away to hear that there’s a small community of patients still living there. Who are, of course, free to go, and who decline, because their home is in exile.