Located on the tiny island of Molokai, with the ocean on one side and giant 1,600-foot cliffs on the other, are the Kalawao and Kalaupapa Leper Colonies – described by Robert Louis Stevenson as a “prison fortified by nature.”
There are no roads that lead to Kalaupapa – only a torturous mountain path accessible by hiking, or by riding on the back of a mule.
The colony was founded in Kalawao in 1866 with a hospital, two churches and several homes. It served as the home of the U.S. Leprosy Investigation Station in the early 1900s, but moved three miles away to Kalaupapa shortly after because it offered a warmer, drier climate and easier access to the sea.
Historically referred to as leprosy, Hansen’s disease is a chronic infection caused by harmful bacteria that targets the nervous system. The infection manifests without any symptoms and remains this way for several years, at which time sufferers can develop granulomas of the nerves, respiratory tract, skin and eyes. Despite former beliefs, leprosy is actually not very contagious, though the social stigma attached to those with the disease is rather pronounced.
The disease first made its way to Hawaii in the mid-1800s, along with other eastern diseases brought to the islands via trade. The Hawaiian government formed an isolated quarantine in 1866, and moved all those affected by the disease there, a common practice at the time. At its peak, approximately 1,200 men, women and children were exiled to this island prison.
Father Damien, a Belgian priest, settled at Kalawao in 1873, and after sixteen years of caring for the physical, spiritual, and emotional needs of those in the colony, he contracted leprosy himself, and died in 1889.
Father Damien brought a great deal of attention to the colony, and was canonized as a Catholic saint in 2009.
In the 1940’s, medical advances, as well as the discovery of sulfone drugs, essentially eliminated Hansen’s Disease and its contagious effects. Despite this fact, Kalaupapa was a quarantine site through 1969 when forced quarantine was repealed, more than a century after its founding, and a decade after Hawaii officially became a state.
Opponents of the repeal of forced isolation fought for the rights of Kalaupapa citizens to remain in the colony. Although there were no active cases of leprosy at the time, these opponents believed that some survivors were so scarred by the disease that reintegration to modern society would be difficult – impossible, even. Approximately 14 former sufferers live in the colony today.
Kalaupapa is now a U.S. National Park, and home to a dwindling population, those of whom are outnumbered exponentially by those in the cemetery – where an estimated 2,000 graves lie unmarked, in addition to those with headstones.
You can still visit the former leper colony – though only with express permission, and prior arrangements made through Damien Tours or the Hawaii Department of Health.