The Hawaiian Archipelago, by Isabella L. Bird

A Chapter on the Leper Settlement on Molokai.

In 1865, the Hawaiian Legislature, recognizing the disastrous fact that leprosy is at once contagious and incurable, passed an act to prevent its spread, and eventually the Board of Health established a leper settlement on the island of Molokai for the isolation of lepers. In carrying out the painful task of weeding out and exiling the sufferers, the officials employed met with unusual difficulties; and the general foreign community was not itself aware of the importance of making an attempt to “stamp out” the disease, until the beginning of Lunalilo’s reign, when the apparently rapid spread of leprosy, and sundry rumours that others than natives were affected by it, excited general alarm, and not unreasonably, for medical science, after protracted investigation, knows less of leprosy than of cholera. Nor are medical men wholly agreed as to the manner in which infection is communicated; and, as the white residents on the islands associate very freely and intimately with the natives, eating poi out of their calabashes, and sleeping in their houses and on their mats, there was just cause for uneasiness.

The natives themselves have been, and still are, perfectly reckless about the risk of contagion, and although the family instinct among them is singularly weak, the gregarious or social instinct is singularly strong, and it has been found impossible to induce them to give up smoking the pipes, wearing the clothes, and sleeping on the mats of lepers, which three things are universally regarded by medical men as undoubted sources of infection. At the beginning of 1873, it was estimated that nearly 400 lepers were scattered up and down the islands, living among their families and friends, and the healthy associated with them in complete apathy or fatalism. However bloated the face and glazed the eyes, or however swollen or decayed the limbs were, the persons so afflicted appeared neither to scare nor disgust their friends, and, therefore, Hawaii has absolutely needed the coercive segregation of these living foci of disease. When the search for lepers was made, the natives hid their friends away under mats, and in forests and caves, till the peril of separation was over, and if they sought medical advice, they rejected foreign educated aid in favour of the highly paid services of Chinese and native quacks, who professed to work a cure by means of loathsome ointments and decoctions, and abominable broths worthy of the witches’ cauldron.

However, as the year passed on, lepers were “informed against,” and it became the painful duty of the sheriffs of the islands, on the statement of a doctor that any individual was truly a leper, to commit him for life to Molokai. Some, whose swollen faces and glassy goggle eyes left no room for hope of escape, gave themselves up; and few, who, like Mr. Ragsdale, might have remained among their fellows almost without suspicion, surrendered themselves in a way which reflects much credit upon them. Mr. Park, the Marshal, and Mr. Wilder, of the Board of Health, went round the islands repeatedly in the Kilauea, and performed the painful duty of collecting the victims, with true sympathy and kindness. The woe of those who were taken, the dismal wailings of those who were left, and the agonised partings, when friends and relatives clung to the swollen limbs and kissed the glistering bloated faces of those who were exiled from them for ever, I shall never forget.

There were no individual distinctions made among the sufferers. Queen Emma’s cousin, a man of property, and Mr. Ragsdale, the most influential lawyer among the half-whites, shared the same doom as poor Upa, the volcano guide, and stricken Chinamen and labourers from the plantations. Before the search slackened, between three and four hundred men, women, and children were gathered out from among their families, and placed on Molokai.

Between 1866 and April 1874, eleven hundred and forty-five lepers, five hundred and sixty of whom were sent from Kahili in the spring of 1872, have arrived on Molokai, of which number four hundred and forty-two have died, the majority of the deaths having occurred since the beginning of Lunalilo’s reign, when the work of segregation was undertaken in earnest. At the present time the number on the island is 703, including 22 children. These unfortunates are necessarily pauperised, and the small Hawaiian kingdom finds itself much burdened by their support. The strain on the national resources is very great, and it is not surprising that officials called upon to meet such a sad emergency should be assailed in all quarters of the globe by sentimental criticism and misstatements regarding the provision made for the lepers on Molokai. Most of these are unfounded, and the members of the Board of Health deserve great credit both for their humanity and for their prompt and careful attention to the complaints made by the sufferers.

At present the two obvious blots on the system are, the insufficient house accommodation, involving a herding together which is repulsive to foreign, though not to native, ideas; and the absence of a resident physician to prescribe for the ailments from which leprosy is no exemption. Molokai, the island of exile, is Molokai aina pali, “the land of precipices,” in the old native meles, and its walls of rock rise perpendicularly from the sea to a height varying from 1000 to 2500 feet, in extreme grandeur and picturesqueness, and are slashed, as on Hawaii, by gulches opening out on natural lawns on the sea level. The place chosen for the centralization and segregation of leprosy is a most singular plain of about 20,000 acres, hemmed in between the sea and a precipice 2000 feet high, passable only where a zigzag bridle track swings over its face, so narrow and difficult that it has been found impossible to get cattle down over it, so that the leper settlement below has depended for its supplies of fresh meat upon vessels. The settlement is accessible also by a very difficult landing at Kalaupapa on the windward side of Molokai.

Three miles inland from Kalaupapa is the leper village of Kalawao, which may safely be pronounced one of the most horrible spots on all the earth; a home of hideous disease and slow coming death, with which science in despair has ceased to grapple; a community of doomed beings, socially dead, “whose only business is to perish;” wifeless husbands, husbandless wives, children without parents, and parents without children; men and women who have “no more a portion for ever in anything that is done under the sun,” condemned to watch the repulsive steps by which each of their doomed fellows passes down to a loathsome death, knowing that by the same they too must pass.

A small stone church near the landing, and another at Kalawao, tell of the extraordinary devotion of a Catholic priest, who, with every prospect of advancement in his Church, and with youth, culture, and refinement to hold him back from the sacrifice, is in this hideous valley, a self exiled man, for Christ’s sake. It was singular to hear the burst of spontaneous admiration which his act elicited. No unworthy motives were suggested, all envious speech was hushed; it was almost forgotten by the most rigid Protestants that Father Damiens, who has literally followed the example of Christ by “laying down his life for the brethren,” is a Romish priest, and an intuition, higher than all reasoning, hastened to number him with “the noble army of martyrs.”

In Kalawao are placed not only the greater number of the lepers, but the hospital buildings. Most of the victims are of the poorer classes and live in brown huts; but two of rank, Mrs. Napela and the Hon. P. Y. Kaeo, Queen Emma’s cousin, have neat wooden cottages on the way from the landing, with every comfort which their means can provide for them. The hospital buildings are about twelve in number, well and airily situated on a height; they are built of wood thoroughly whitewashed, and are enclosed by a fence. Although it is hoped that a leper hospital is not to be a permanent institution of the kingdom, the soft green grass of the enclosure has been liberally planted with algaroba trees, which in a year or two will form a goodly shade, and water has been brought in from a distance at considerable expense, so that an abundant supply is always at hand. The lepers are dying fast, and the number of advanced cases in the hospital averages forty. In the centre of the hospital square there are the office buildings, including the dispensary, which is well supplied with medicines, so that in the absence of a doctor, common ailments may be treated by an intelligent English leper. The superintendent’s office, where the accounts and statistics of the settlement are kept, and where the leper governor holds his leper court, and the post-office, are also within the enclosure; but the true governor and law-giver is Death.

When Mr. Ragsdale left Hilo as a leper, the course he was likely to take on Molokai could not be accurately forecasted; and it was felt that the presence in the leper community of a man of his gift of eloquence and influence might either be an invaluable assistance to the government, or else a serious embarrassment. In every position he had hitherto occupied, he had acquired and retained a remarkable notoriety; and no stranger could visit the islands without hearing of poor “Bill Ragsdale’s” gifts, and the grievous failings by which they were accompanied.

Hitherto the hopes of his well wishers have been fulfilled, and the government has found in him a most energetic as well as prudent agent. “It is better to be first in Britain than second in Rome;” and probably this unfortunate man, superintendent of the leper settlement, and popularly known as “Governor Ragsdale,” has found a nobler scope for his ambition among his doomed brethren than in any previous position. His remarkable power of influencing his countrymen is at present used for their well being; and though his authority is practically almost absolute, owing to the isolation of the community, and its position almost outside the operation of law, he has hitherto used it with good faith and moderation. He is nominally assisted in his duties by a committee of twenty chosen from among the lepers themselves; but from his superior education and native mental ascendancy, all immediate matters in the settlement are decided by his judgment alone.

The rations of food are ample and of good quality, and notwithstanding the increase in the number of lepers, and the difficulty of communication, there has not been any authenticated case of want. Each leper receives weekly 21 lbs. of paiai, and from 5 to 6 of beef, and when these fail to be landed, 9 lbs. of rice, 1 lb. of sugar, and 4 lbs. of salmon. Soap and clothing are also supplied; but, for all beyond these necessaries, the lepers are dependent on their own industry, if they are able to exercise it, and the kindness of their friends. Coffee, tobacco, pipes, extra clothing, knives, toys, books, pictures, working implements and materials, have all been possessed by them in happier days; and though packages of such things have been sent by the charitable for distribution by Father Damiens, it is not possible for island benevolence fully to meet an emergency and needs so disproportionate to the population and resources of the kingdom. Besides the two Catholic churches, there are a Protestant chapel, with a pastor, himself a leper, who is a regularly ordained minister of the Hawaiian Board, and two school-houses, where the twenty-two children of the settlement receive instruction in Hawaiian from a leper teacher. There is a store, too, where those who are assisted by their friends can purchase small luxuries, which are sold at just such an advance on cost as is sufficient to clear the expense of freight. The taste for ornament has not died out in either sex, and women are to be seen in Kalawao, hideous and bloated beyond description, decorated with leis of flowers, and looking for admiration out of their glazed and goggle eyes.

King Kalakaua and Queen Kapiolani have paid a visit to the settlement, and were received with hearty alohas, and the music of a leper band. The king made a short address to the lepers, the substance of which was “that his heart was grieved with the necessity which had separated these, his subjects, from their homes and families, a necessity which they themselves recognised and acquiesced in, and it should be the earnest desire of himself and his government to render their condition in exile as comfortable as possible.” While he spoke, though it is supposed that a merciful apathy attends upon leprosy, his hideous audience showed signs of deep feeling, and many shed tears at his thoughtfulness in coming to visit those, who, to use their own touching expression, were “already in the grave.”

The account which follows is from the pen of a gentleman who accompanied the king, and visited the hospital on the same occasion, in company with two members of the Board of Health.

“As our party stepped on shore, we found the lepers assembled to the number of two or three hundred — there are 697 all told in the settlement — for they had heard in advance of our coming, and our ears were greeted with the sound of lively music. This proceeded from the ‘band,’ consisting of a drum, a fife, and two flutes, rather skilfully played upon by four young lads, whose visages were horribly marked and disfigured with leprosy. The sprightly airs with which these poor creatures welcomed the arrival of the party, sounded strangely incongruous and out of place, and grated harshly upon our feelings. And then as we proceeded up the beach, and the crowd gathered about us, eager and anxious for a recognition or a kind word of greeting — oh, the repulsive and sickening libels and distorted caricatures of the human face divine upon which we looked! And as they evidently read the ill-concealed aversion in our countenances, they withdrew the half-proffered hand, and slunk back with hanging heads. They felt again that they were lepers, the outcasts of society, and must not contaminate us with their touch. A few cheerful words of inquiry from the physician, Dr. Trousseau, addressed to individuals as to their particular cases, broke the embarrassment of this first meeting, and soon the crowd were chatting and laughing just like any other crowd of thoughtless Hawaiians, and with but few exceptions, these unfortunate exiles showed no signs of the settled melancholy that would naturally be looked for from people so hopelessly situated. Very happy were they when spoken to, and quite ready to answer any questions. We saw numbers whom we had known in years past, and who, having disappeared, we had thought dead. One we had known as a Representative, and a very intelligent one, too, in the Legislature of 1868. On greeting him as an old-time acquaintance, he observed, ‘Yes, we meet again — in this living grave!’ He is a man of no little consideration among the people, being entrusted by the Board of Health with the care of the store which is kept here for the sale of such goods as the people require. All do not appear to be lepers who are leprous. We saw numbers who might pass along our streets any day without being suspected of the taint. They had it, however, in one way or another. Sometimes on the extremities only, eating away the flesh and rotting the bones of the hands or feet; and sometimes only appearing in black and indurated spots on the skin, noticed only on a somewhat close examination. This last sort is said to be the worst, as being most surely fatal and easiest transmitted. We saw women who had the disease in this stage, walking about, whom it was difficult to believe were lepers.

“If our sensibilities were shocked at the sight of the crowd of lepers we had met at the beach, walking about in physical strength and activity, how shall we describe our sensations in looking upon these loathsome creatures in the hospital, in whom it was indeed hard to recognise anything human? The rooms were cleanly kept and well ventilated, but the atmosphere within was pervaded with the sickening odour of the grave. At each end, squatted or lying prone on their respective mats or mattresses, were the yet breathing corpses of lepers in the last stages of various forms of the disease, who glanced inquisitively at us for a moment out of their ghoul-like eyes — those who were not already beyond seeing — and then withdrew within their dreadful selves. Was there ever a more pitiful sight?

“In one room we saw a sight that will ever remain fixed indelibly on the tablets of memory. A little blue-eyed, flaxen haired child, apparently three or four years old, a half-caste, that looked up at us with an expression of timorous longing to be caressed and loved; but alas, in its glassy eyes and transparent cheeks were the unmistakable signs of the curse — the sin of the parents visited upon the child!

“In another room was one — a mass of rotting flesh, with but little semblance of humanity remaining — who was dying, and whose breath came hurried and obstructed. A few hours at most, and his troubles would be over, and his happy release arrive. There had been fourteen deaths in the settlement during the previous fortnight. On the day of our visit there were fifty-eight inmates of the hospital.”

Though the lifting of the veil of mystery which hangs over the death valley of Molokai discloses some of the most woeful features of the curse, it is a relief to know the worst, and that the poor leprous outcasts in their “living grave” are not outside the pale of humanity and a judicious philanthropy. All that can be done for them is to encourage their remaining capacities for industry, and to smooth, as far as is possible, the journey of death. The Hawaiian Government is doing its best to “stamp out” the disease, and to provide for the comfort of those who are isolated; and, with the limited means at its disposal, has acted with an efficiency and humanity worthy of the foremost of civilised countries.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:41