Saturday, June 9, 2012

Leprosy in Paradise

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Kalaupapa photo exhibit in the lobby of
Honolulu City Hall

I was just in Hawai'i for work and, while waiting in the lobby of Honolulu Hale (or city hall), I came upon a photo exhibit that was really inspirational. It made me aware of a group of people honoring their ancestors who, for many generations, were exiled to an island called Kalaupapa because they had contracted leprosy.

I knew of leprosy in the Bible but really thought that was something that occurred long in the past. I didn't realize there were people in recent decades, and even a few still today, who have to deal with the effects of the disease. The photos were so compelling because they showed victims of leprosy today.

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Photos of Kalaupapa residents disfigured by leprosy

As soon as I returned home, I looked it up and discovered the first documented case of leprosy in Hawaii occurred in 1848 and began spreading rapidly.  By 1866, when my ancestors were cleaning up after the Civil War, leprosy victims in Hawaii were being forced to an isolated island called Kalaupapa.
"Folklore and oral histories recall some of the horrors: the leprosy victims, arriving by ship, were sometimes told to jump overboard and swim for their lives. Occasionally a strong rope was run from the anchored ship to the shore, and they pulled themselves painfully through the high, salty waves, with legs and feet dangling below like bait on a fishing line. The ship's crew would then throw into the water whatever supplies had been sent, relying on currents to carry them ashore or the exiles swimming to retrieve them." Source
In 1873 a Catholic priest named Father Damien de Veuster began living among the leprosy victims and helped them build a community despite their illness.

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Father Damien de Veuster

A quick google search brings up lots of information about Father Damien and even a trailer for a 1999 movie. After sixteen years of caring for the people in this leper colony in paradise, he contracted and died of the disease. Today, he is considered the spiritual patron of outcasts.

In the 1940s, leprosy, which is now known as Hansen's disease, was put in remission by the development of drugs that fight the disease and those who contracted it who are still living are no longer contagious.

Kalaupapa is now a national historic park where many families in Hawai'i can reconnect with a grandparent or relative once considered "lost." Only a handful of former residents still live in the colony but by choice rather than being kept there against their will, as many were in the past.
"It is a place where past suffering has given way to personal pride about accomplishments made in the face of great adversity. It is a place where we can reconsider our responses to people with disfiguring disabilities or illnesses. It is a place where the land has the power to heal - because of its human history, natural history and stunning physical beauty." Source
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Photographer Wayne Levin installing one of his photos of Kalaupapa today
I have since learned that the photo exhibit I stumbled upon is titled Ka 'Ohana O Kalaupapa: E Ho'ohanohano a E Ho'omau and features 100 historical and contemporary photos of the residents of Kalaupapa and their family members along with scenes from Kalaupapa.

The more recent photos were taken by Hawai'i photographer Wayne Levin, a longtime Kona resident, who began taking photos of the residents of Kalaupapa in 1984. He also produced a book, "Kalaupapa: A Portrait" which is now out of print.

For more blog entries, visit my Blog Home Page or check out my Haywood County Line Genealogy Site.

1 comment:

  1. Modern treatment of leprosy is with MDT (multidrug therapy) provided free of charge to all patients by the World Health Organiszation. For details see their leprosy website on