Visiting Hawaii’s Golden Cage: The Leper Colony on Molokai

What I’m about to tell you might be hard to believe: The photo you see above is of a prison. Not a view from a prison, but a prison in itself. I’m sure you’re confused. Let me explain.

In 1865, King Kamehameha V and the Hawaii Board of Health created the “Act to Prevent the Spread of Leprosy” in an attempt to do just that: Control the highly-contagious disease that seemed poised to become nothing short of a major epidemic on the islands. The plan was simple: Take everyone who was infected and quarantine them off from the rest of society. A remote location called the Kalaupapa Peninsula (KA-LOU-PAPA), shown in the photos of this post, was chosen as the location. Sporting the highest sea cliffs in the world and rough seas off shore, it was the obvious choice at the northern end of the lightly-populated island of Molokai.

View of the Kalaupapa Peninsula from the hike down the sea cliffs

Upon the law’s enactment in January of 1866, a group of 12 people became the first “patients” to be shipped off to Kalaupapa. Here, their new life began in a commune of their “own kind.” Surviving the disease was a long shot, most suffering from a combination of deformities, upper respiratory problems, and nerve damage. Saintly figures such as Father Damien – who was officially canonized by the Catholic Church a few years ago in 2009 – tried to give the patients the dignity that the government did not through treatment, comfort, and community. Thousands more, many misdiagnosed, would be forced into exile over the years, some given only a day’s notice before they were taken from their families and exiled to Molokai.

This went on for about 80 years before a cure was discovered in the 1940s that changed everything. The patients, now drastically improved, began to really create a life for themselves. They could hold jobs, attend sporting events, and enjoy theater, art, and dance. Although Hawaii’s official policy was not retracted until 1969, the forced isolation of leprosy patients came to an end twenty years earlier in 1949. At this time, celebrities such as Shirley Temple and John Wayne came to Kalaupapa to perform and helped to change the public perception of the now-curable disease.

Furthering the “stuck in time” feel is the fact that tours are given in an old school bus

Interestingly enough, although the patients were free to leave, many decided to stay. The scenery is an easy explanation as to why – and was no doubt part of it – but more to the point was the fact that Kalaupapa had become a place for them to call home, a place they felt accepted, welcomed, and understood. When the patients were made free to leave, Hawaii put forth a rule that once you left, you could not return. Stories told today at Kalaupapa say that many who decided to leave regretted it after only a few months, faced with a public that, despite the efforts of many, was still uneasy of those who had leprosy.

Today, nine patients still live at Kalaupapa. A visit to the peninsula today almost feels like a visit to the set of the television show LOST, where small, plantation-style homes sit in the shadow of majestic, breathtaking scenery, seemingly frozen in time, complete with decaying old vehicles. In addition to the patients, about a hundred staff members, from doctors and nurses to National Forest personal, also call Kalaupapa home. At its prime, there were a total of four churches and eight bars. Today, the four churches are still there yet only one bar remains. There’s a gas station that sells fuel for $5.10 a gallon, and each resident is entitled to seven gallons a week.

Buildings at Kalaupapa were built in plantation style

The peninsula is closed to the public except for those with permits for the tour. There are three options for entrance: Hike a three-mile trail down the sea cliffs, join a mule tour, or fly in on a scenic flight from Molokai airport. Regardless of how one enters, everyone joins the same daily tour, which goes around the complex in an old yellow school bus. For more information on access, go here.

Sitting on the beach before hiking back up the cliffs, staring out over the water and hearing the waves crash into the rocks, I had a thought. Maybe I shouldn’t refer to it as a prison. Perhaps “golden cage” is more appropriate.

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