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Kalaupapa National Historical Park (Kalaupapa Settlement)

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Kalaupapa Settlement
1866 established. Kalaupapa

Robert Louis Stevenson, who visited the leper colony on Molokai in 1889, wrote in Travels in Hawaii (1973), “They were strangers to each other, collected by common calamity, disfigured, mortally sick, banished without sin from home and friends. Few would understand the principle on which they were thus forfeited in all that makes life dear; many must have conceived their ostracism to be grounded in malevolent caprice; all came with sorrow at heart, many with despair and rage. In the chronicle of man there is perhaps no more melancholy landing than this.” Driving from the Kalaupapa airport and viewing the many rows of headstones cannot fail to elicit a profound realization that this was indeed a place where people were sent to die. The gravestones represent a small percentage of the approximately eight thousand people, mostly Hawaiians, who were torn from their lives and families to be exiled for life on this small spit of land.

A separate county under the administration of the State Department of Health, the Makanalua peninsula has housed people with Hansen's disease since January 6, 1866, when the first boatload of leprosy victims came ashore. Its four square miles include three ahupua‘a (traditional land division): Kalau-papa, Kalawao, and Makanalua. With a resident population of approximately 150, separated from the remainder of the island by a fifteen-thousand-foot cliff, a sense of isolation pervades this land.

During the 1830s, a number of well-documented cases of leprosy were reported among the Hawaiian population. Reports of the disease increased during the 1850s, and by the 1860s, expressions of concern resulted in King Kamehameha V signing an “Act to Prevent the Spread of Leprosy” on January 3, 1865. This law authorized the government to isolate anyone who might spread the disease if left “at large.” Makanalua Peninsula was selected as the place of confinement.

At the outset, little preparation was made to accommodate the sick people who were shipped here, as it was assumed that they could be self-sufficient. As late as 1873, when Father Damien arrived, access to food, water, clothing, and housing remained problematic. Medical treatment was another difficulty, as no resident physician lived in the settlement until 1879. Early on a state of lawlessness prevailed; however, the more devout residents gathered to form a church in the first year. On October 21, 1871, construction began on a Congregational church, Siloama (“the church of the healing spring,” ML19.2). A year later, the Catholic Church shipped a building prefabricated in Honolulu to Kalawao. It was dedicated to St. Philomena in 1872 (ML19.1). All that remains of the original settlement on the Kalawao side of the peninsula are a number of ruins and the successor buildings to these two initial churches.

In the early years, the leeward Kalaupapa side of the peninsula remained a Hawaiian fishing village, but in 1895 the provisional government forced the original inhabitants to leave. Slowly the Department of Health shifted its settlement to this more temperate side of the peninsula. In 1931, the territorial legislature, following the lead of Senate Public Health Committee chair Reverend Stephen L. Desha and committee member George P. Cooke, established the Board of Leper Hospitals and Settlement. This board administered the Kalaupapa settlement until 1949, when control was returned to the Board of Health. The Board of Leper Hospitals and Settlement redeveloped Kalaupapa, and most of the existing built environment associated with the Hansen's disease settlement derives from this period. In the 1940s, sulfone drugs were discovered to arrest and partially remit Hansen's disease, and rendered people afflicted with the disease noninfectious. The drugs began to be used in Hawaii in 1946, and between 1949 and 1969, only thirty-two people were admitted to Kalaupapa. In 1957, the Department of Health opened Kalaupapa for tours. However, the only visitors allowed on the peninsula came by invitation as guests of the patients, on tours sponsored by the patients, or on official government business. This visitation policy still remains in effect.

In 1969, the Department of Health's Committee on Leprosy concluded that the department's isolation policies were obsolete, and the people living in Kalaupapa were given the freedom to come and go as they pleased. Those who wish it remain in residence on the peninsula. Today, fewer than a dozen patients live in the settlement. On December 22, 1980, the settlement was designated a national historical park and the National Park Service maintains the buildings that are no longer used for health operations.

Writing Credits

Don J. Hibbard


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Don J. Hibbard, "Kalaupapa National Historical Park (Kalaupapa Settlement)", [Kalaupapa, Hawaii], SAH Archipedia, eds. Gabrielle Esperdy and Karen Kingsley, Charlottesville: UVaP, 2012—,

Print Source

Cover: Buildings of Hawaii

Buildings of Hawaii, Don J. Hibbard. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2011, 236-237.

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