The isolated Kalaupapa peninsula was the site of an infamous leprosy settlement between 1866 and 1969. Throughout those years, anyone in Hawaii diagnosed with leprosy, now formally known as Hansen’s disease, was forced into exile on the peninsula under the Kingdom of Hawaii’s 1865 “Act to Prevent the Spread of Leprosy”. The 1865 Act gave Hawaii’s Department of Health administrative authority over the settlement — a role it still holds.
The peninsula juts out of Molokai’s northern coast and is separated from the island’s mainland, or “top side,” by steep, towering sea cliffs. According to Guinness World Records, Kalaupapa’s cliffs are the highest sea cliffs in the world, descending over 3,300 feet to the sea surface. The peninsula itself has an area of about five square miles and is encompassed by Kalawao County.
History as a Leprosy Colony (1866-1969)
Approximately 8,000 people total were sent into exile on the peninsula — what Robert Louis Stevenson called “a prison fortified by nature” — over the years. Most of the patients were Native Hawaiian: in 1903, 85 percent of the men and 97 percent of the women were Hawaiian. (Before it was designated as a settlement, the peninsula was for 900 years home to traditional Hawaiian communities until they were virtually wiped out by a series of endemics in the 1800s. By 1900, non-patient Native Hawaiians were absent from all of Kalaupapa, according to the National Park Service.)
Father Damien attracted substantial attention to the settlement after arriving there in 1873 to take care of and offer spiritual guidance to patients. He is considered a “martyr of charity” by the Catholic Church for eventually contracting and dying of Hansen’s disease. He became Hawaii’s first saint in 2009 for significantly improving the living conditions in the settlement.
During the settlement’s peak — at the dawn of the 1900s — nearly 900 patients lived on the peninsula. By 1924, the number had dwindled to 485.
Michael Maruyama, chief of the Department of Health’s Hansen’s Disease Branch estimates that every patient on Kalaupapa at some point gave birth to or fathered at least one child while in exile, which indicates that thousands of children were born to settlement patients. State laws required that any child born to a leprous patient be immediately taken away and put up for adoption. And because the disease was severely stigmatized, many of those children were lied to about their roots.
Some of those children didn’t find out about their roots until late in life. Others likely died never having a clue.
Although the isolation requirement was lifted more than 40 years ago, many of the settlement’s patients chose to stay there. According to Maruyama, the peninsula is today home to 18 remaining resident patients.
The remaining patients are guaranteed medical care, housing and small pensions just as they were before 1969, according to Maruyama.
The rest of the population is divided into DOH and National Park employees who are hired to live and work in the settlement, says Maruyama.
The settlement was established as a National Historical Park in 1980. However, access is still strictly regulated. Visitors who are not invited by one of the residents can only go to the settlement in a tour by mule.
Anyone below the age of 16 is prohibited from visiting or living on the peninsula, according to Maruyama. The Census Bureau reports that in 2009 nearly half of the 136 housing units in Kalawao County were vacant.
The Associated Press in July 2011 reported that the U.S. Postal Service is considering closing the peninsula’s only post office.
Once the last patient dies, DOH will transfer authority over the peninsula to the Department of Hawaiian Homelands, says Maruyama.
President Barack Obama in 2009 signed into law the Kalaupapa Memorial Act of 2009, which authorizes the non-profit Ka ‘Ohana O Kalaupapa to create a memorial listing the names of all the patients sent to Kalaupapa.
According to Anwei Skinsnes Law, a Kalaupapa scholar who is heading the project, the organization is using admission registers and other information that is in the public domain (which includes any records dating to 1931 and earlier, as of 2011) for the memorial.
So far, the organization has compiled 7,000 names of the patients sent to Kalaupapa between 1866 and 1931, says Skinsnes Law.
Because information on the remaining patients is not yet in the public domain, Ka ‘Ohana O Kalaupapa is “currently working out procedures for that in order to follow all relevant privacy laws,” she said. “This summer we are taking the list of names around to the different islands so that family members and others can preview them and help ensure that their relatives are included.”