Kalaupapa: Beauty Among Exile

Kalaupapa: Beauty Among Exile

PeninsulaKalaupapa for me was a place of immense contrast. Incredibly beautiful, with its pristine sandy beaches and towering sea cliffs, it was hard to imagine the grim history it hosted and the struggle of those that had lived here.

The isolation law for individuals suffering from leprosy (now referred to as Hansen’s disease) was enacted by King Kamehameha V in 1866 in “an act to prevent the spread of leprosy.” The isolation law meant that those exhibiting signs of the disease were tested, then taken from their homes and sent to Makanalua Peninsula on Molokai’s west side. The original settlement was on Kalawao, the east side of the peninsula, before moving to the current settlement in Kalaupapa. The isolation law remained in effect until 1969, during which time some 8,000 men, women and children were exiled there.

Kalaupapa is now a small community which sits at the base of some of the highest sea cliffs in the world, towering up to 2,000 feet above sea level. Surrounded by these cliffs, it is impossible to achieve any road access, and the only way down is by riding a mule, or hiking as we did, down the 3.2 mile, 1,600 ft high trail composed of 26 switchbacks.


The morning was incredibly clear, bright blue skies illuminated the peninsula which was now emerging from the early morning mist. The sea rolled out forever, a carpet of deep blue. We set off, gingerly making our way down the steep rocky trail. My gaze kept falling back on that endless ocean, with the surf crashing down on this place which was already shrouded with the weight of our curiosity. As we scrambled down, we tried to point out churches, lighthouses, any points of reference from the scraps of information that we had already.

After the 26 switchbacks had been conquered, our shaky legs found us following the trail along the coast that would take us to the entrance of the settlement. We had arranged a tour and were the first ones to arrive. Now, on an aside, any Trails of Freedom readers will know that Leigh Anne and I are not of the “tour guide” variety. We try to stray from the trails that are often tread and any beach with more than ten people on it is considered a tourist spot. However, when a tour is the only way to get to a place, especially a place as historically and culturally important as Kalaupapa, we will make an exception.


With time to spare, we walked our way to the beach and sat, taking it all in. Once again it was hard to imagine this as a place of exile. The blue ocean curled into the striking pepper-colored sand which was curtained with trees bursting with flowers. I lay back and thought of all the pain that had existed here, all the parents and children who had been separated from their families and sent here, undeniably beautiful but so isolated… so lonely…

We made our way back to the area where we were to meet. An old school bus sat by some bleachers to the side of an area of bleached grass. The sun was hot now and giant flies buzzed furiously around our faces. Others arrived and after the mule train had made its slow descent, we boarded the bus and took off, rattling across the field and into the Kalaupapa Township. I wedged open the ancient windows of the school bus as we drove past an endless row of graveyards scattered along the side of the road. Again, it was this stark contrast, these ocean views lined from end to end with graves. There are fourteen cemeteries on the peninsula but fewer than 1,000 of the 8,000 patients who died at Kalaupapa have marked graves.


The bus driver was an old local guy with beard and cowboy hat. I found out later that his name was Eldon “Buzzy” Sproat and he was 75 years of age. Although I knew he had done this many times, the way his eyes would light up as he told a joke or a funny story, the sides of his eyes crinkling, I knew he was incredibly fond of this place and had experienced a lot of the history here. In fact, it was his stories which made the settlement seem a lot more accessible to our imaginations. His first hand experiences here made it real, it all had happened, and fairly recently too, not just in black and white photos. His eyes would look down at the floor when he told a sad story, “We asked him, this guy at school ‘hey, why you live with your grandma, where you Mum?’ and he didn’t know. But she had been taken away here; people just didn’t know it existed,” he said. He told another story of a boy who had been taken here and his family didn’t know of his whereabouts for thirty years. He’d say when families did know, they could visit but would be separated by a screen and wouldn’t be allowed to touch their loved one. He’d sit back and look at a building and say “imagine that.” Other stories, he’d recount with a cunning smile. His friend, a patient here with no limbs, would drive to pick them up which resulted in comical scenarios and he would be laughing at the memory.

We stopped at various sites, churches, statues, graveyards. At one point I walked into a little white house on the side of the new church. The walls were covered with old photos of those who had come here. In many photos, those pictured were at very advanced stages of leprosy. One particular photo stays in my memory. In it, two young girls stood side by side. They were both wearing the same pretty white dress and little black shoes. They had identical braids tied up with ribbons and their skinny brown arms hung by their sides, unable to find an appropriate pose. One girl smiled shyly at the camera while the other’s expression is lost in deep folds of skin. It looked as if she was wearing a silicon Halloween mask, her appearance was so distorted. It was grotesque no doubt, but I couldn’t stop looking, searching for some semblance of the little girl underneath.


I wondered what it must have felt like, to change so dramatically into something so …dreadful. I wondered if they had mirrors on Kalaupapa, if this little girl had been aware of her appearance or been able to closely trace her decline. Or did she simply have to feel her face and conjure up her own image. Did people tell her? Or could she look around and find those who were in a similar state and guess that she too must look like this.

There were boys, all piled up in portrait, all at different stages of decline. In another photo a woman was posing for a portrait in 1900’s dress, her face falling away. I could have stared at these faces for hours, searching for emotion, clues. It was time to go, but the images stayed with me. I’d look at houses, rooms, backyards with bicycles and try to imagine the people living there years ago, what they had to go through to get here and wondered about those who lived here now.

With the advent of Sulfone drugs in the 1940’s, the disease was put into remission and sufferers were no longer contagious. The isolation law was abolished in 1969, but many of the patients here wanted to stay, understandably, after having assimilated to life here. In fact, for many, life on Kalaupapa seemed to be pleasant enough given the circumstances. In an article by Jack London written in 1908, he describes the horse races of July 4th, patients who caught fish to sell to the Board of Health, farmers too, choirs and dance groups. He describes families that had risked becoming infected to come and live with their sons or daughters who were patients. Today approximately fourteen former sufferers live there with their families and descendents.


We drove on to Kalawao. It is probably time to introduce Father Damien, and it’s surprising that anyone can say this much about Kalaupapa without having discussed him already. Father Damien, a Belgian priest arrived on Kalaupapa in 1873. During his time here he transformed the settlement, building churches, schools, hospitals and houses. It was through Father Damien that awareness of Kalaupapa and Hansen’s disease reached the world. He died here in 1889, afflicted by the disease he had given his life to. He was canonized as a Catholic saint in 2009. There were others too, who gave their lives to support those suffering from the disease. Mother Marianne Cope spent almost 30 years on Kalaupapa before she died here in 1918 at the age of 80. She became a saint last year. Brother Dutton who arrived in 1886, took over the work from Father Damien after he became too Ill to work. Kalawao was the site where Father Damien had built the first church on the peninsula – it was magnificent. Some of the world’s highest sea cliffs towered above us and the jagged coastline stretched away before disappearing into mist.

At Kalaupapa airstrip we had picked up an elderly Asian woman and her family. They held flowers and sat patiently until we got to this church in Kalawao. It appeared as if they had made the pilgrimage all the way here to pay their respects to Father Damien’s grave. We left them at the church praying and crying, while we continued on the tour. I wondered what the connection was. Had the old lady been a patient here? Were her parents taken here? It was easy to forget the fairly recent history here, how many people would hold memories of this place still.


We drove onwards to the lookout at Kalawao valley for lunch. The bus driver pointed out to sea where Mokapu Island stood, a rocky mound, stark with no vegetation. He informed us that it was here that those suffering from leprosy were originally dropped off into the ocean, left to swim ashore. Left to fend for themselves. Left to die. The first shipment of patients was on January 6 1866, with a boatload on 9 men and 3 women.

We drove back, passing the innumerable gravesites. Once again I tried to place the stories of those torn from their families or dropped off out to sea in this setting. The landscape was undeniably beautiful and now built up with various houses and facilities. Fruit trees and gardens flourished. It was clear that over time, the pain and utter isolation had disintegrated with the help of those such as Father Damien and Mother Marianne. In London’s article he says, “the segregation of Lepers on Molokai is not the horrible nightmare that has been so often exploited…It was patients that they resented bitterly the sensational and untruthful way in which they have been exploited in the past.” And yet, the graves didn’t lie. 8,000 people had still died here, and although it had become markedly better living conditions, no doubt there had been a sense of community, it didn’t erase the fact that they were sick, and it certainly didn’t erase the past. Those who had come here originally had been cut off from the world with no family and nothing to survive. I thought of the bus driver’s stories of those who hadn’t seen their family for years. I thought of the photo of the two little girls and the faces in the portraits of so many others. No, it was hard to ignore the grave sites and the fact that so many had died here from such a horrible disease. And yet, it was also uplifting to think of the absolute determination to live that had existed here too. In this sense, I prefer to think of the patients as London witnessed them in 1908, with the love and support of so many: “Riders flower garlanded, singing and laughing and riding like the wind.”

  • Prices at time of article were $75 for the mule ride and tour, $50 for hike and tour.