Magazine article National Parks

Exiled to Paradise

Magazine article National Parks

Exiled to Paradise

Article excerpt

Kalaupapa National Historical Park celebrates the triumph of the human spirit over Hansen's disease.

AMBROSE T. HUTCHISON DISCOVERED the dying den on his second day at Kalaupapa in 1879. As Hutchison trod a dirt path in the shade of the coconut palms, a man wearing a white rag over his nose and mouth hurried The man pushed a wheelbarrow filled with stained and soiled rags to the entrance of a dilapidated hut, and then in one great heave, dumped the contents out. That's when Hutchison heard an "agonized moan" and realized there was a person in there.

"Hutchison watched in horror as a dying man crawled into the hut and collapsed face down. This "spectacle of inhumanity" filled him with such a sense of foreboding that Hutchison fled. Would he, too, die alone and abandoned? When a figure clothed in black appeared before him, his fate seemed certain. But it wasn't the grim reaper- it was a priest, wearing gold-rimmed glasses and a stiff, brimmed hat.

"Good morning," said the priest with a broad smile. "I am Father Damien."

Thus began a friendship that would change Hutchison's life forever.

Religious missionaries first mentioned seeing "remediless and disgusting cases" of leprosy, or Hansen's disease, in the Hawaiian Islands around 1823. Caused by the bacteria Mycobacterium leprae, the disease slowly damages the skin and nervous system, causing sores, decreased sensation, paralysis, loss of fingers and toes, and, back then, death. By 1865, fear of this ancient affliction was so great in Hawai'i that the government signed into law 77ie Act to Prevent the Spread of Leprosy. The legislation allowed authorities to confine "any person alleged to be a leper" and "assist in removing such a person to a place of treatment or isolation." Patients with mild symptoms were sent to Kalihi Hospital and Detention Center on Oahu; the worst were forced into isolation on the island of Molokai.

With its sandy beaches, misting rainbows, and lush valleys, Molokai's Kalaupapa Peninsula was a South Pacific paradise. But Hawaiian leaders sent victims of Hansen's disease here because of its Alcatraz-like inaccessibility, not its beauty. The world's highest sea cliffs separated the sick from the rest of Molokai; strong ocean currents, heavy surf, and tiger sharks deterred anyone from swimming away.

The first 12 patients arrived in January 1866, and as the rowboat took them from steamship to shore, they were told they'd never see their families again; they would die on Molokai. "Hawaiians are very resourceful people, but the first patients were out of their element as strangers in an unfamiliar place," says Ka 'ohulani McGuire, cultural anthropologist at Kalaupapa National Historical Park. "They were literally spit out onto the land, without any infrastructure, food, water, or clothing."

Too sick to hunt, farm, or fish, the patients began writing letters to religious institutions. Joseph De Veuster, better known as Father Damien (a Catholic priest from Belgium), had already spent nine years as a missionary on the Big Island when he responded to their cries for help.

He arrived in May 1873. Father Damien knew that serving these abandoned patients would be trying, but nothing prepared him for what he described as "the living cemetery that was Molokai." Drunkenness, gambling, and theft were rampant, the sickest patients were dumped into the dying den, and dead bodies were discarded into dark ravines, to become food for feral pigs. …

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