The Law of Exile in Hawaii
The Law of Exile established 1865
In 1865 the Hawaiian Kingdom, under the influence of foreigners claiming the best interests of the natives, set aside the most remote part of the kingdom in an effort to “save” the Hawaiians from a disease more frightening and misunderstood than truly contagious. “If we do not separate those who are sick, the native Hawaiians will be no more” was the belief among those in the Board of Health formulating the plan.
Hawaiians wanted to keep those with the disease, leprosy, at home where they could be cared for and loved.
But the foreigners wanted them gone. An American attorney drew up the paperwork, the king succumbed to foreign influences, and the policy was signed into law.
This was the beginning of the most painful time in Hawaiian history.
The Settlement on Moloka'i
The area, named Kalaupapa, was a small peninsula that spilled out into the sea on the northern side of Moloka’i. It was a natural prison. The peninsula was walled on three sides by the crushing sea. On the fourth side were majestic cliffs that dropped almost vertically for 2,000 feet to the land, and crashing waves--steep enough that cattle driven down the treacherous winding trail sometimes careened over the edge of the ribboning trail. Someone on the peninsula below might look up to see a cow hurdling through the air, bouncing from one rocky ledge to another. Then a small dot of a splash in the moaning sea below.
The cliffs and perilous sea seemed more than deterrent enough to prevent the exiled lepers from escape, especially considering that most of those sent to Moloka’i were either too weak or too sick to dare the cliffs. They probably thought of little but escape from pain and hunger and despair. For the most part these were not, after all, strong-bodied prisoners.
Conditions were horrible. Little food, no medical care, little protection from the elements, no law, It's not hard to realize why throughout history, exile was considered a fate worse than death.
The Pain of Separation
But nothing, they said, was worse than the separation from their loved ones. What might it be like to be herded onto a little steamer in the night, banished forever, to make whatever of a shattered life you could, and to die as best you could, alone?
In the early years, starting around 1866 when the first “inmates” were sent to Molokai, many with the disease went voluntarily. They did so because the laws of the land required it. All lepers were to report to the Board of Health for examination and, if confirmed with the disease, they would be shipped to Molokai, there to remain until they died. They did so for the sake of others, believing the disease, especially among the Hawaiians who had no time to build up immunity to the new disease, was highly contagious. They believed--everybody seemed confident in the beginning--that the disease would be brought under control in a short time.
That did not happen.
Father Damien Arrives in 1873.
Even after Father Damien came in 1873, bringing for many their first taste of acceptance and respect, the conditions improved too slowly and too late for thousands sent to Moloka’i. Father Damien wore all the hats imaginable: priest, carpenter, sheriff, doctor, gardener, advocate. He dug all the graves and laid to rest who he could as best he could, often two or three times a week.
Such was the inconsistency of the Board of Health in its handling of leprosy that, while Kalaupapa was surrounded by natural obstacles making escape impossible, the Hospital Branch at Ka’akako, the interim facility in Honolulu for housing those with the disease until they could be “transferred,” had for many years only a fence—only three feet high in some paces--to enforce their policy of segregation. Over this fence, almost unlimited contact was allowed between patients and others. The fence was short enough that a patient could step over, go home for the weekend, and return. [Of course, there were consequences, specifically, immediate shipment to Kalaupapa.]
How Did Elections Factor into the Policy of Exile?
Added to this inconsistency was something also disturbing: the ebb of leprosy patients sent to Kalaupapa on election years versus the flow sent on non-election years. Why? The Hawaiian block vote was strong. Legislators needed the vote of Hawaiians during election years, and they knew Hawaiians wanted to care for their lepers at home...so to keep the Hawaiians happy during election years, the number of exiled lepers went down. There was conflict between foreigners and Hawaiians over the issue, for sure.
Conflict Between Protestants and Catholics
There was also conflict between the Protestants and the Catholics over the issue. During these years and with exceptions aside, the Protestants wanted the lepers gone, while the Catholics provided the only care they received. For this main reason, many Hawaiians began leaving the Protestant churches for the Catholic church. This was happening during the 1880's.
During these years, Hawaiians feel a loss for which they have no name. They are listening to the last notes of a beautiful song they know they will never hear again.
And yet what hurts Hawaiians to the bone is this: their loved ones are being torn from their arms and shipped in the night to a remote peninsula on Moloka’i and left to die. This they cannot bear. That these loved ones have leprosy is not the issue for most Hawaiians, but only what it means: to separate the family is to thrust a knife into the very heart of what Hawaiians value most highly.
By the 1880’s, Hawaiians saw no distinction between missionaries, Protestantism, Westernization and Americanism. It was all the same. And together, it meant the end of Hawaii for Hawaiians. The Hawaiians were caught in no-man’s land: they had abandoned (willingly or unwillingly), their old ways decades before. So they had little to go back to. And yet there was nothing for them in the present, and nothing for them in the haole ways of foreigners, either.
They no longer knew what it was like to worship in the old ways, with no God to disapprove of things they held dear. And the new God mystified them.
By 1884, the naïve hope that leprosy could be easily eradicated had dissolved. What was left was the frightening reality that this disease was not going away. It was even more virulent, more widespread than ever and with no end in sight.
It was as if the end of the tunnel was in sight, and it was full of leprosy.
Leprosy, looming annexation, Westernization, the loss of independence—Hawaiians were losing everything, all around them.
The reality was hitting them full on—they had no future. The disease was no longer just among the poor. It had filtered through every level of society: the police, soldiers, band boys, pastors of churches, teachers, students…the islands were “full of leprosy.” And there was no end in sight.
During 1884, the number of patients still alive at Kalawao was about 800—many had already died. Crossings from Honolulu to Kalawao on the little steamer Moloki’i were no longer monthly, now they were weekly. By 1884, the disease had reached epidemic proportions. About 2% of the population had been diagnosed with leprosy, and it was ever-increasing. For each case diagnosed, there was no way of knowing how many latent cases were in the incubation phase and would manifest the next week or years later. It was feared that this was only the tip of the iceberg.
Many Hawaiians were reeling by the 1880’s. First the haoles bring their diseases, then they take over running the country, then they punish the Hawaiians for getting those diseases, then they break up their families by sending them away to die from the diseases.
The Hawaii they had known and loved was dying, and there was nothing they could do but watch it happen. It was a tragic time for Hawaiians, and for Hawaii.
The issue of leprosy in some ways became a litmus test for the time period. The topic was divisive and emotional. For many in Hawaii, this is still a charged emotional issue.
Not all went into exile voluntarily. Some were captured by bounty hunters. As word of the unbearable conditions at the settlement spread, and as Hawaiians became more distrustful of the political and personal motives of the foreigners who made the laws and ran the Board of Health, attitudes began to change. Resistance began to grow. Some with the disease went into hiding. They hid in the ravines, the hills, the caves and the cane fields. Helped by family and friends, they remained in hiding for months, sometimes for years.