Liliʻuokalani Took Decisive Action to Stop the Spread of Smallpox

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Before becoming queen, Liliʻuokalani served as Queen Regent in 1881 while King Kalākaua was on his year-long world tour.

Shortly after the King’s departure, there was an epidemic of smallpox in the Kingdom. Liliʻuokalani imposed a strict quarantine and by doing so, prevented the spread of the disease from Honolulu to rural Oʻahu and to the other islands, arguably saving hundreds, if not thousands, of lives. Here is her recollection of that event in her own words:

The King has been gone but a few weeks when the startling news was in circulation that the smallpox had broken out in the city. It was supposed to have been introduced from China; but our past experience with the disease had shown us how fatal it might become to the Hawaiian people, and whatever the inconveniences it became necessary at all hazards to prevent its spread. Summoning the cabinet, I had all arrangements perfected to stay the progress of the epidemic. Communication between the different islands of the group was stopped. Vessels were absolutely prohibited from taking passengers. A strict quarantine of all persons infected or under suspicion was maintained; and so scrupulously and energetically were these regulations enforced, that when they were relaxed and quarantine raised, it was found that no case had been reported outside the place of its first appearance. But it was a serious thing to confine its ravages to the city of Honolulu, in which there were some 800 cases and about 300 deaths.

Liliʻuokalani’s establishment and enforcement of a quarantine to stop the spread of a deadly disease was a pono and a culturally appropriate response to which our kūpuna showed their respect by complying. Her quick and decisive action kept the smallpox epidemic from spreading beyond Honolulu and, with the vantage point of history, it is clear that her decision spared many lives and much sorrow.

Foreign diseases ravaged our people for the better part of the 19th century, wiping out entire families. Many of us would probably not be here today had Liliʻuokalani not taken steps to stop the epidemic in its tracks.

Make no mistake – Liliʻuokalani would have had to endure the critics. Her shutdown of communication and travel between islands would have surely angered the business community. But as she wrote, “…our past experience with the disease had shown us how fatal it might become to the Hawaiian people, and whatever the inconveniences it became necessary at all hazards to prevent its spread.”

As it was 140 years ago, in this moment, our personal decisions and actions are critical to stopping the spread of another dangerous disease in our community.

One obvious way to help stop the spread of COVID-19 is by getting vaccinated.

Unfortunately, there has been a great deal of misinformation promulgated about vaccines over the years, most of it generated more recently via social media. And the seemingly rapid development of the COVID-19 vaccines has only inflamed these fears.

But what most people donʻt realize is that the science behind creating vaccines is not new. It has been around for more than 200 years. And that is how the pharmaceutical companies were able to develop COVID-19 vaccines so quickly.

The first vaccine was created in 1796 by a British doctor – ironically, to fight the deadly smallpox virus.

Today, with modern science and technology, there are now vaccines to fight more than 20 life-threatening diseases. According to the World Health Organization, every year vaccines prevent two to three million deaths worldwide from diseases like diptheria, tetanus, pertussis, influenza, and measles. And because of the smallpox vaccination, there has not been a case of smallpox anywhere in the world since before 1980.

The politicization of a life-saving invention like a vaccine is tragic. Because some people have chosen, for whatever reasons, to spread false information, other people will suffer and some will die.

Even if one remains unconvinced that the COVID-19 vaccine is safe and effective, why isn’t everyone respecting and following pandemic safety guidelines (mask-wearing, social-distancing, hand-washing, and getting tested if requested)? Why do these guidelines generate such disrespect, outrage, and pointless rebellion within our community?

Following these guidelines shows aloha. It is reflective of the “collective” mindset of our kūpuna – a mindset that puts the wellbeing of the whole ahead of the comforts of the individual “whatever the inconveniences.”

In an 1855 speech delivered at the opening of the legislature, Alexander Liholiho Kamehameha IV, in response to the horrific death toll suffered by Native Hawaiians from various introduced diseases over the previous 70 years said, “…our first and great duty is that of self-preservation. Our acts are in vain unless we can stay the wasting hand that is destroying our people.”

We each have a kuleana to do our part to make sure that our lāhui, and the larger community, is not devastated by this disease which may “only” kill 1% of its victims, but can last for weeks or months, and leaves up to 20% of survivors with permanent damage to their hearts, vascular systems or lungs.

This is a long, exhausting journey for everyone, but the pandemic is not pau yet. For the time being, and for the sake of our lāhui, we must take this seriously. We must collectively “stay the wasting hand that is destroying our people,” and do everything within our power to stop the spread of COVID-19 “whatever the inconveniences.”


Liliʻuokalaniʻs quote taken from Hawaiʻi’s Story by Hawaiʻi’s Queen.