On Jan. 20, 1881, a large crowd gathered in Honolulu Harbor to bid farewell to King David Kalakaua, who was leaving for a yearlong diplomacy tour around the world.
Less than a week after he left, in part to work on labor negotiations with other countries, a foreign ship entered Oahu’s bustling harbor carrying Chinese laborers sick with smallpox — a disease that 30 years prior had killed 10% of the Native Hawaiian population.
Before his departure, Kalakaua had appointed his sister, Princess Lili‘uokalani, to govern in his place. It was a huge responsibility for any ruler – let alone an acting ruler who had no way to communicate with the king.
The decisions Lili‘uokalani made to keep people safe – and the pushback she received from angry citizens and frustrated business owners who didn’t want to quarantine or close down business activity – should sound familiar to people living through the coronavirus pandemic today.
Which is why Kahuku High School teacher Kaleolani Hanohano has been using the story of Lili‘uokalani to help her students face the challenges of today.
Hawaii’s long history of dealing with foreign diseases made the Hawaiian monarchy ahead of its time when it came to addressing health issues. And Hanohano is not the only teacher looking to the past for lessons on how to get through the coronavirus pandemic of 2020.
“What is the very uniquely Hawai‘i practice that will allow your haumana (students) to not only survive through this, but thrive through this?” says Mehanaokala Hind, who is part of a group of kumu hula who imposed a 30-day kapu in their schools to help stop the spread of COVID-19.
When smallpox hit Honolulu in 1881, Lili‘uokalani summoned her cabinet and shut down Oahu. Interisland travel ceased. Ships were prohibited from taking on new passengers and the sick were immediately isolated. Guards were posted throughout the island and even in front of people’s houses to ensure no one was breaking quarantine.
“Our Queen knew the formula,” says Hardy Spoehr, the former director of Papa Ola Lokahi, a nonprofit dedicated to Native Hawaiian health research.
The kingdom already had laws for sanitation and public safety, but the smallpox quarantine angered many business owners – especially sugar growers who relied on foreign labor to work on plantations. Residents were getting restless, and many were fined and even arrested for leaving their homes.
This story accompanies an episode of Civil Beat’s Offshore podcast. Listen to the episode at the bottom of the article to hear more about people breaking out of quarantine during the pandemic and the start of Hawaii’s public health system.
These regulations would have been viewed as extreme in many parts of the world in the early 19th century, but they made sense to people in a country so fatally impacted by epidemics.
Western diseases decimated the Hawaiian people in the decades after Capt. James Cook first visited the islands in 1778. Hawaiians had no immunity to these new diseases. From cholera and measles to whooping cough and influenza, there were too few Western doctors and traditional Hawaiian healers were overwhelmed.
“The missionaries may have had one or two doctors but that’s in all of Hawaii,” Spoehr explains, “so the people had to use traditional practices because that’s all they had.”
He says that the amount of loss and despair Hawaiians experienced wouldn’t be understandable today. Everyone lost loved ones — even the monarchy. Losing so many of their citizens prompted the monarchy to implement progressive public health measures that are still in place today.
In 1850, Kamehameha III formed the Board of Health, a committee of doctors and advisors to enforce sanitation rules, collect health data, mandate vaccinations and license physicians.
The BOH was ahead of its time. The United States wouldn’t form its own department of public health until almost a decade later.
The board passed many health regulations to protect the public: people had to keep their horses tied up, incoming vessels needed to be inspected and marked. There were even rules about the public keeping certain levels of cleanliness during the outbreak — an edict that Spoehr translates to basically being “wash your hands.”
Nine years later, Kamehameha IV and his wife Queen Emma used their own money to found The Queen’s Hospital. The medical facility — still in operation today — offered free health care to sick and disabled Hawaiians.
At a time when Western medicine seemed like the only salvation, Kamehameha V legalized kahuna laau lapaau – traditional plant medicine healers – after the practice was outlawed 50 years before.
During Kalakaua’s reign, 300 kahuna became licensed and many practitioners joined his advisory council. His Hawaiian Youths Abroad program produced the first international Hawaiian physician, Matthew Makalua.
When his successor, Lili‘uokalani, took the throne, she continued to consult Makalua and the Board of Health in her decisions regarding public health. So when Lili‘uokalani ordered a quarantine on Oahu to combat the smallpox outbreak, she had both history and science on her side.
Kaleolani Hanohano uses Hawaii’s history with diseases and the story of Lili‘uokalani’s quarantine in her classroom as a way for her students to better understand — and face — the current pandemic.
“She decides ‘This is a no brainer for me. I’m going to shut this place down,’” Hanohano says about the regent’s response to the respiratory disease.
Newspapers reported people breaking quarantine and being arrested on the street. The Hawaiian language paper, Ku‘oko‘a, detailed a mother-daughter duo escaping a quarantine hospital. The two made it a few miles before a police officer on horseback caught up with them.
The pandemic lasted for five months and ultimately claimed about 300 lives. Though there were over 800 cases, the quarantine was viewed as successful because the disease didn’t reach any of the other islands. The leadership demonstrated by Lili‘uokalani is why Hanohano calls Hawaii’s last queen the “hero of my curriculum.”
The teacher of 30 years was disappointed in the lack of resources available for students about what’s happening in the world. She felt like her high schoolers needed something relatable and tangible, so along with her university professor and colleagues, they created a “COVID Curriculum” to give their students context on the current pandemic.
Each lesson covers subjects from history to science. Students learn about how transmission occurs, how soap kills bacteria, and how pandemics impact the local economy.
The lecture dedicated to Queen Lili‘uokalani and the 1881 smallpox epidemic challenges students to grow their own leadership and decision-making skills. Hanohano urges her class to define what being a good leader means for themselves. Will they be as innovative and mindful in their actions as Lili‘uokalani?
She’s also updated other curriculum with a more timely approach.
In earlier years, she would have her students illustrate their mookuauhau – genealogy – like a family tree. But now, her class must also indicate family members who are essential workers, elderly, and most at risk of contracting illnesses.
Not only do they have to record important data like ages and ethnicities, but they also have to build a resiliency plan if someone gets sick. Hanohano says that most of her students’ parents are service workers, so she challenges them to think about the bigger implications to the community if even one person in their family was infected.
Her students have come to understand the current pandemic and its necessary restrictions in a whole new way. They think of social distancing and mask-wearing as protection for themselves, their families and also their community, Hanohano says.
In September, a group of hula teachers committed to a 30-day kapu to help stop the spread of the coronavirus.
In Hawaiian tradition, being under kapu often means something is taboo or forbidden. But Hanohano explains that a kapu can also be protective.
With the focus on mauli ola or wellbeing, each halau implemented practices like eating healthy foods and being mindful of the environment, in addition to mask-wearing and hand-washing.
“I leaned on my cultural side and thought ‘What would hula people do?’” says Mehanaokala Hind, who is also the director of community engagement at the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.
Even though the kapu only lasted for 30 days, the teachers are hopeful that their students will continue these new practices into the future.
By calling on uniquely Hawaiian ideals and values, the teachers encourage others to look to what they know and do what they can in their own way, a kuleana or responsibility that Hanohano can relate to when she teaches Hawaii’s history in her classroom.
Hanohano and her colleagues felt that there wasn’t enough information for their students when they created the “COVID Curriculum” back in April. So when she teaches it, she reminds her students of the hard decisions their ancestors had to make back then.
“Lili‘uokalani had to go with her gut. She had to go with her love for her people and her home, which many of us can identify with,” Hanohano says.
Civil Beat is a small nonprofit newsroom that provides free content with no paywall. That means readership growth alone can’t sustain our journalism.
The truth is that less than 1% of our monthly readers are financial supporters. To remain a viable business model for local news, we need a higher percentage of readers-turned-donors.
Will you consider becoming a new donor today?