In Jack London’s, Cruise of the Snark (1911), The First Letter in the Important Series of First-Hand Impressions for Which the Companion Has Sent Mr. London Around the World, London wrote on Hansen’s Disease, commonly known as Leprosy, “Not so was the leper and his greatly misunderstood and feared disease treated during the Middle Ages in Europe. At that time the leper was considered legally and politically dead. He was placed in a funeral procession, and led to the church, where the burial service was read over him by the officiating clergyman. Then a spadeful of earth was dropped upon his chest and he was dead—living dead.”
Leprosy has been feared and misunderstood as a hereditary disease, a curse, or a punishment from the Gods, beginning with its earliest account in an Egyptian papyrus document written around 1550 B.C. In Europe during the Middle Ages, leprosy sufferers had to wear special clothing, ring bells to warn others that they were close, and even walk on a particular side of the road, depending on the direction of the wind.
Even the best ideas have a shelf life, what the British would call “a sell-by date”. Up until about 2000, a simple postage stamp stood as one of the great values in modern American society. These days, not so much. Digitize that previously posted document using the camera in your Android phone, zap it into cyberspace, and it arrives in front of its intended audience in a few seconds…..even if the sender, recipient, or both happen to be out snowshoeing at the time.
In the 1860’s, as Hansen’s Disease ravaged the Kingdom Of Hawaii, King Kamehameha V signed a document entitled “Act to Prevent the Spread of Leprosy”. The act created an isolated colony on a gorgeous but remote sliver of land on the North shore of Moloka’i known as Kalaupapa. Upon receiving a diagnosis of Hansen’s Disease, any resident of the Hawai’ian Kingdom was immediately quarantined and shipped off to Kalaupapa. Between 1860 and 1960 that one-way trip, in effect a life sentence, was bestowed upon almost 10,000 people.
Moloka’i is a long, narrow, mountainous island of about 75 miles in length. It runs roughly East-West. Its West end is 25 miles across the treacherous Kaiwi Channel from the neighboring island of O’ahu. One can stand atop Moloka’i’s Sea Cliffs, toss a baseball a few yards in a Northerly direction and the baseball will free-fall 2,000 feet straight down before splashing into the ocean below. In Cruise of the Snark, Jack London penned, “When the Snark sailed along the windward coast of Molokai, on her way to Honolulu, I looked at the chart, then pointed to a low-lying peninsula backed by a tremendous cliff varying from two to four thousand feet in height, and said: The pit of hell, the most cursed place on earth.”
Kalaupapa lies on a small peninsula of land below Moloka’i’s Sea Cliffs. The spot was specifically chosen for King K’s colony because it was almost impossible to get to, or escape from. A Belgian priest named Father Damien De Veuster moved to Kalaupapa in 1873 to help tend to the sick, only to find the living conditions almost inhuman. Father Damien worked furiously to improve housing, medical care, and living conditions for the inhabitants. He largely succeeded before contracting and ultimately succumbing to Hansen’s Disease himself in 1884.
Effective treatment for Hansen’s Disease was developed around 1940. The disease was eradicated by 1960 through the use of clofazimine. All inhabitants of Kalaupapa had long since been cured when, in 1969, King Kamehameha’s Act to Prevent the Spread of Leprosy was finally repealed, and the State of Hawai’i considered closing Kalaupapa. At that time, hundreds of former patients and their children were living there, had never known another home, and were reluctant to leave. The Feds stepped in and declared Kalaupapa a National Historical Park.
When the last resident dies off (which will occur in the next 20-25 years) the Park will be opened to the public. In the meantime, the only way to visit is to obtain a (very limited) Federal permit, then travel via private boat through extremely hazardous waters, by small plane via Kalaupapa’s 2000′ air strip, or by donkey via an old dirt pathway winding down through the Sea Cliffs.
Recently, the United States Postal Service published a list of Post Offices it intends to close due to budget constraints. On that list is the Post Office at Kalaupapa. Right now, the only way for Kalaupapa’s last 100 residents (10 of whom are former patients) to do their banking, receive medicines, and collect their social security checks is via their Post Office. A review of keeping the Kalaupapa Post Office open under humanitarian grounds, despite its lack of financial feasibility, is underway at USPS.
As for Father Damien De Veuster, Pope Benedict XVI canonized the Belgian priest as Saint Damien of Molokai in 2009.