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On Molokai, a history of isolation opens up

From the late 19th to middle 20th centuries, the residents at scenic but foreboding Kalaupapa were forced to live there because they had leprosy. Today, visitors learn the history.

October 23, 2011|By Karen Leland, Special to the Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Kalaupapa, Hawaii — After hiking downhill 90 minutes on a three-mile trail with 26 switchbacks, we came to a clearing with a long, peaceful stretch of sandy white beach juxtaposed against the aqua ocean.

Almost anywhere else in Hawaii, this majestic site would be an indication of a five-star resort around the corner. But here on the remote peninsula of Kalaupapa, on the island of Molokai, the end of the trail had only a small collection of worn, sun-washed wooden bleachers on which we sat and waited for a yellow school bus to arrive and take us on a tour of this critical piece of Hawaiian history.

Surrounded by ocean and cut off from the rest of the island by some of the world's highest — 1,600-foot — sea cliffs, Kalaupapa was for more than a century the designated settlement for Hawaiians suffering from Hansen's disease, or leprosy. In 1865, as a preventive measure to stop the spread of the illness, King Kamehameha V signed a law setting aside land for isolating those afflicted.

By 1866, the first group of 12 patients had been sent to the original settlement at Kalawao, on the opposite side of the peninsula. In the next decades, an estimated 8,000 more would arrive, with as many as 1,000 people at a time in residence. By the late 1800s, most of the inhabitants had settled at less windy, warmer Kalaupapa on the leeward side. Beginning in 1946, the use of sulfone and, later, multi-drug therapies brought about effective treatment of the disease, and those who were once confined could come and go as they pleased.

Today, the 11 remaining residents at Kalaupapa are guaranteed a home here as long as they choose to stay. Visitors are allowed only by permit and must be escorted by an official tour guide.

Although this was my fifth trip to Molokai, this was my first time to Kalaupapa. I was with my friend Lynette Sheppard, who lives eight months of the year on the island with her husband, former National Geographic photographer Dewitt Jones.

Lynette has made the journey to Kalaupapa seven times. The last was five years ago, when the halau (hula group) she dances with was invited to perform in honor of the 50th wedding anniversary of two of the residents, who had met and married as young people at the settlement.

"I find Kalaupapa a very spiritual place," she said as we sat waiting for the tour guide to arrive. "With its rough and rugged cliffs, it's one of the most incredibly beautiful places in Hawaii, but the sadness still lives there. I think you can't really know Molokai without having seen this. It's a huge part of our history, and it's a place that still has a lot to teach about tolerance and compassion."

Within a few minutes of our arrival, another group of visitors, who had come down the trail by mule, appeared. All together, there were about 25 of us sitting quietly, our eyes scanning the verdant settlement a short distance away, which, from its pastoral look, betrayed no hint of its history.

The tour bus arrived and our guide, Beverly, gave us the lay of the land. Dressed in a casual blue Hawaiian shirt, she was cheerfully approachable, but her lightness gave way to a more serious tone as we drove into the settlement and she explained the significance of the buildings and sites.

The 3 1/2-hour tour of the grounds revealed to visitors the history and civic structure of Kalaupapa with its library, fire station, post office, store, churches, resident quarters, hospital ruins and even jailhouse.

In the official bookstore, I met Boogie, 59, who had Hansen's and had come to live at the settlement when he was 19. "I already had one brother and one sister who had been sent here before me," he said. When I inquired why he chose to stay after a cure made it possible to leave, he smiled and told me, "I'm happy here."

By far one of the most moving parts of the tour was the visit to St. Philomena Catholic Church, where Father Damien (canonized by Pope Benedict XVI on Oct. 11, 2009) preached.

Damien, born Joseph De Veuster in Belgium in 1840, arrived in Kalaupapa in 1873 and was instrumental in transforming it into a cohesive community. Together with Mother Marianne Cope (beatified in 2005) and Brother Joseph Dutton (a layman), they built houses, hospitals and churches.

In 1884, Damien contracted the disease but continued his work until his death five years later. His humble grave site sits beside St. Philomena church on a large stretch of grassy land overlooking the ocean. Damien's body was later moved to Belgium, but in 1995, the relic of his right hand was reinterred in his former grave.

The final stop on the tour ended where the story began for many of the settlement's early inhabitants — at the rocky cliffs overlooking the blue-green waters below. I sidled up to Beverly, who was leaning against the railing and gazing at the sea. "Is that where the ships used to drop people off?" I asked. I had read enough of Molokai history to know that the earliest patients were torn from their families, forced onto ships and thrown overboard into these waters.

"Yes," Beverly said as she shook her head. "They threw them into the sea with just one change of clothes and enough food for two days. There were women and children too. Many of them drowned before making it to shore."

We were both silent after that, and then I heard what Lynette referred to earlier as the sadness and spirituality of Kalaupapa. It's the whisper of waves crashing on the rocks, a mix of natural beauty and human sorrow, all churning together and rising up from the sea.

travel@latimes.com

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