Colonizing Leprosy: Imperialism and the Politics of Public Health in the United States

By Michelle T. Moran | Go to book overview

CHAPTER TWO
Creating a Colonial Disease

U.S. understandings of leprosy emerged in a colonial setting from contests that unfolded among political officials, physicians, and patients. For Western settlers of the Hawaiian Islands, the disease came to represent both a physical and symbolic “native” threat to the process of civilization. These colonials found in medicine a useful tool both for combating the perceived threat of leprosy and for implementing imperial policies through the categorization, management, and containment of Hawaiians. Public health policy in Hawai‘i provided Euroamericans a means of ameliorating the possible danger that arose daily from the cross-cultural contacts in marketplaces, plantations, and villages, among presumably healthy white settlers and potentially diseased Hawaiians. Identifying and removing people with leprosy became centrally important to the economic stability of Euroamerican business interests and to the political success of their efforts to establish themselves as the appropriate leaders of the islands. For Hawaiians, leprosy policies became emblematic of Western efforts to dominate their society and erase indigenous practices. Many Hawaiians rejected the idea that people who contracted leprosy should be isolated from their communities, and they opposed regulations that worked to divide families and restrict patient autonomy. Colonials interpreted such resistance as a further demonstration of native inferiority and claimed that the rapid spread of leprosy throughout the islands demonstrated the presumed primitivism of Hawaiians. By casting the disease as a threat to civilized progress, as well as to the survival of Hawaiians, Western officials justified their intervention in Hawaiian domestic arrangements and community organization.

Examining the sites where Euroamericans and Hawaiians clashed over leprosy, however, reveals the limitations of colonial leprosy policy, and the provisional and contingent nature of Western rule.1 The late 1800s marked a critical moment in the ongoing struggle over who would rule the Hawaiian Islands, as westerners gained political ascendancy by imposing the “Bayonet

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