Honoring the People of Kalaupapa


Last June, the strength, resilience and contributions of the people of Kalaupapa were officially recognized when Gov. David Ige signed into law a bill designating January as “Kalaupapa Month.”

The bill notes that the people of Kalaupapa have “overcome the most difficult of circumstances” and states that the purpose of the act is to “serve as an annual reminder of the importance of Kalaupapa and the significant sacrifices and contributions of its residents throughout the history of Hawaiʻi.”

The month of January was selected because it marks the anniversaries of several important historical events at or related to Kalaupapa, most notably the arrival on Jan. 6, 1866, of the first 12 Hawaiian citizens forcibly removed from their ʻohana and relocated there because they were believed to have contracted leprosy (now known as Hansen’s disease).

January is also the birth month of both Father Damien and Mother Marianne Cope who are beloved by the people of Kalaupapa for dedicating their lives to caring for the patients there until their own deaths. Both Father Damien and Mother Marianne have been canonized (conferred sainthood) by the Catholic Church.

It is possible that Hansen’s disease arrived in Hawaiʻi as early as the 1830s. Kalaupapa was established when the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi passed “An Act to Prevent the Spread of Leprosy” in 1865 and purchased 800 acres of land on the isolated Kalaupapa peninsula on the northern coast of Molokaʻi to separate people with the disease from the general population. At the time, it was not understood how the disease was transmitted and there was no cure.

One of the names Hawaiians had for the disease was “maʻi hoʻokaʻawale” (separating sickness) because it separated its victims from their loved ones. Because of the disfiguring aspects of the disease, there was great fear associated with it and suspected victims were often aggressively pursued by the government and relocated to Kalaupapa. There was no medical test to determine whether someone had contracted the disease, and in the hysteria of the time, it is likely that many healthy people were erroneously exiled to Kalaupapa.

In the early days, government funding for Kalaupapa was shamefully inadequate; limited supplies were sent to the patients there (who, despite their illness, were expected to farm, fish and be self-sufficient) and there was no doctor or hospital to care for them. Had it not been for the kindness of the kupa ʻāina of that place, the hardship experienced by the people abandoned at Kalaupapa would have been far greater.

The peninsula we commonly refer to today as Kalaupapa is actually comprised of three ahupuaʻa: Kalaupapa on the west side, Makanalua in the center, and Kalawao to the east. The area was not barren or uninhabited, but home to a robust community of Native Hawaiians. However, in 1895, following the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom, the Republic of Hawaiʻi evicted the last of Kalaupapa’s kupa ʻāina to make room for more Hansen’s disease patients.

Despite the hardship and suffering that characterized the early years of the settlement, over time, the patients built a vibrant community of citizens from across the pae ʻāina defined not by the stigma of disease, but by their common humanity.

Eventually, a hospital was built at Kalaupapa along with a school, a post office, shops, and Catholic, Protestant and Mormon churches. Residents formed choirs, bands, sports teams and a variety of social clubs. By the 1940s, Kalaupapa even had its own Boy and Girl Scout troops. It became a town much like any other and at one time more than 1,000 people lived there. Over the past century and a half, some 8,000 people have called Kalaupapa home.

Its transformation was helped along by the advocacy of people like Father Damien, and by the leadership over the decades of people like Ambrose Kanewaliʻi Hutchison who arrived at Kalaupapa in 1879 and served as Kalaupapa’s resident superintendent for 10 years, and Bernard Punikaiʻa, who was sent to Kalaupapa in 1941 at the age of 11 and became an outspoken activist for Native Hawaiian rights and the rights of Hansen’s disease patients.

In 1873, just seven years after the first 12 Hawaiian citizens were banished to Kalaupapa, a Norweigan scientist, G. H. Armauer Hansen, identified the bacteria (named “M. leprae”) that caused leprosy in human beings. The disease was renamed “Hansen’s disease” in recognition of his discovery.

Early in the 20th century, Alice Augusta Ball, an African American scientist working at the University of Hawaiʻi developed an injectable leprosy treatment derived from chaulmoogra oil that became the most reliable way to control the disease and alleviate the suffering of Hansen’s disease patients until the 1940s when a cure for the disease – a sulfone therapy called Promin – was developed by an American scientist named Guy Faget.

Despite the miracle of a cure and the freedom to leave Kalaupapa that the cure afforded residents, many preferred to remain in the peaceful, joyful community that they, and those before them, had created.