Moloka’i-an island with a tragic past

Hawaii had never really entered my radar until I started planning a trip to Maui last year. We had a fabulous time and look forward to returning to Maui and the other Hawaiian islands sometime in the future. One of the things that so entranced me while there was looking out of my hotel window and seeing two of Hawaii’s other islands, Lana’i and Moloka’i. I knew very little about Lana’i except that it was exceptionally undeveloped, although it does boast an exquisite Four Seasons Resort. Moloka’i I knew was an island with a tragic history; for more than 100 years it was home to a leper colony.

The clouds are somewhat in the way but hopefully you can make out the land mass of Moloka’i.

For our recent trip to California I bought Moloka’i, a novel by Alan Brennert to read on the plane. My trip to Hawaii definitely generated interest in me for learning more about a place that is an American state but is in so many ways, still a separate one with its own language, culture, and incredible history. Moloka’i tells the story of Rachel, a young girl who contracts leprosy at the end of the 19th century and is sent to Moloka’i. (The correct term for the disease today is Hansen’s disease and was decreed as such by the Hawaii state legislature in the 1980s.)  She is raised in a home for orphaned girls since parents and other family members were not allowed to come with their children, even though in Rachel’s case she is only seven years old. (Beginning in the 1860s the Kingdom of Hawaii exiled persons suffering from the disease to Moloka’i. The quarantine policy was not lifted until 1969.)


Molokai is one of the saddest books I have ever read, not just due to its physical descriptions of the tragic  nature of Hansen’s disease, but also its emotional effects and scars. Families were torn apart by it and the majority of those who contracted it never saw their loved ones again. The book noted that the first group of individuals sent to Moloka’i in the 1860s were essentially taken there to die, “to remove the problem from the situation” as there was nothing there, no buildings or other care facilities of any kind. When the character of Rachel arrives 30 years later, things have improved somewhat in the settlement where the patients are housed, but overall they are still largely forgotten by the government, most likely on purpose. Those suffering from Hansen’s disease were stigmatized their entire lives and moreover their relatives became pariahs themselves unless they moved somewhere where no one knew them.

The Kalaupapa Peninsula was occupied by the state leprosarium until 1969 when Hawaii’s isolation laws were abolished. While some patients left the island, many others remained there at the place where a significant number had spent the majority of their lives. In Kalaupapa they could live their lives freely and at peace without feeling like outcasts and stigmatized. The state allowed those who remained to stay on the island for the rest of their lives. Kalaupapa was named a National Historic Park in 1980 and after the last patient dies or moves away, the peninsula will be administered by the National Park Service. Its residents hope that Moloka’i will not become commercialized like Hawaii’s other islands, but always serve as a reminder of the suffering and segregation that took place on Kalaupapa, specifically the 8000 patients that were exiled there in the 104 years that the Act to Prevent the Spread of Leprosy was law. (The act forced people with leprosy or anyone suspected of having the disease to be secluded on land that was set apart.)


One night when dining at Merriman’s, an amazing restaurant located on Maui’s Napili Bay, the island of Moloka’i was our view until the sun set and the bay and island were shrouded in complete darkness. The book mentions how modern innovations like electricity did not come to Kalaupapa until long after the rest of Moloka’i and the other islands had gotten it. I can’t even begin to imagine the loneliness and isolation the patients felt at night in Kalaupapa, being able to see the rest of the world during the day but then at night trapped in an abyss of darkness.

People with no connection to Kalaupapa (those who aren’t realtives of patients or are state or federal workers) can visit the peninsula, but all visitors must be at least 16 years old and have a permit from the state health department. A maximum number of 100 visitors are allowed on the property a day (including state and federal workers) to ensure that the lives of its residents are neither disturbed nor intruded upon and treated with the utmost respect and privacy.

The Kalaupapa Guided Mule Tour offers visitors the chance to tour the settlement. The tour originates in the Moloka’i uplands where visitors are introduced to the mule which will lead them down the 1,770 feet of sea cliffs (considered to be the highest sea cliffs in the world) for a 2.9 mile trail ride, with 26 switchbacks to the remote settlement. (Not only were patients banished to Moloka’i, an already remote island when compared with Oahu and Maui, they were sent even deeper into it once there.) The tour visits the grave site of Father Damien, the brave and valiant Belgian priest who loved his parish when no one else did, as well as St. Philomena Church, where Father Damien preached to his congregation, the settlement, and its historic buildings. (An interesting fact about Father Damien and the misconceptions about Hansen’s Disease-of the more than 1,000 people who came to Kalaupapa to help the patients in the course of its history, Father Damien was the only worker who actually contracted the disease and died from it. It was not the highly contagious disease people thought it to be.)


Although the tour is expensive ($199) and extremely grueling (four hour total of mule riding), it seems like it would be an incredible experience and the greatest way to pay respect to all those who lived and lost their lives there. One thinks of Hawaii and envisions glitz and glamor, sun and beaches, and yet all gloriously beautiful places have their dark pasts too. Moloka’i’s Kalaupapa Peninsula is one of them.

If you have ever been to Molokai or even just read the book, I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences.

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  • Reply
    My United States Historical Attractions Bucket List - The Red Headed Traveler
    July 26, 2016 at 8:22 am

    […] my trip to Oahu, I seriously looked into going to the island of Molokai for the day, specifically the Kalaupapa National Historic Park which was once home to the infamous […]

  • Reply
    February 1, 2019 at 3:19 am

    i live on the island of Molokai and our beautiful island does have a very dark past… not just kalaupapa but many places.. Molokai is known as a very sacred island and should remain that way… you have a lot to learn, when you get the chance you should read up on Mo’omomi i think you would find it interesting… i hope the next time you visit the islands you have a great time… if you ever want to know anything you can go to any elder and ask and i’m sure they would love to talk about our history!

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