In Hawaii, Family Heals Scars of Leprosy

But in 1965, Harada began an annual pilgrimage to Kalaupapa where he learned that his brother's life had been bittersweet. Paul found a loving wife of 50 years who had arrived herself at age 12. But they never had children; those who did had their babies taken from them at birth.

Historians say the story of Kalaupapa has often been racially charged and sensationalized, but the true narrative is one of love, loss and endurance.

"The Hawaiian people did not want to send family members away," said Law, who grew up in Hong Kong where her father, a doctor, worked with leprosy patients. "It's a story of great love and a great people."

Leprosy Reach Epic Proportions

By 1865, leprosy, or Hansen's disease, had reached epidemic proportions in the Kingdom of Hawaii. Numerous waves of foreign explorers had introduced the 3,000-year-old disease to an indigenous people who had little immunity. Fear spread and in 1866, King Kamehameha V signed a bill to isolate those with the disease.

In one heroic story translated from Hawaiian in 1906, Piilani describes hiding with her sick husband and son rather than be separated: "The chill or sorrow stole into my chest…seeing the power of government come hither to sever the sacred knot of holy marriage."

One of the least contagious of all communicable diseases, leprosy was once thought to be hereditary or a curse from God. A cure came with development of sulfone drugs, but the disease still carries a stigma in many parts of the world.

By 1980, Kalapaupapa was designated as a national historical park, dedicated to the preservation of its story. Today, 14 former "patients," all long cured, are still living in the small community among state and federal workers; another 10 are in a Honolulu hospital or living independently.

Surviving family members say that the memories of their lost ancestors were often hidden away out of pain, fear, and sometimes Western notions of shame.

For Anne Apo, the unanswered questions about her great grandfather -- John Taylor Unea – lay in a shoe box. The 49-year-old paralegal remembers finding the black and white photo of a "striking, impressive pure Hawaiian man, in a three-piece checkered suit, with a gold pocket watch, tie and a hat with a feather lei -- a face which held no story behind it."

Ancestors Gave Their Blessing

Apo's grandmother never spoke of her father -- "an impending silence always enveloped the room when his name was mentioned," she told

In 2006, Apo, who lives on Oahu, began her own research, but when she learned "Great Tutu" had leprosy, she closed the books. The information seemed "too personal to disclose" and an "intrusion" on his privacy.

But several months later while working for a Honolulu nonprofit, she received a grant proposal from Ka `Ohana O Kalaupapa.

"I found myself overcome and at a loss for words," she said. "This was a sign to me that my ancestors had given me their blessing and had come to show me the way to their past."

'Ohana was able to connect Apo with letters from Unea preserved at the Hawaii State Archives. "It was all divine intervention," she said. "He wanted us to know who he was and what he was about."

Unea was a "kokua" or helper, leaving his wife and family behind in the 1890s to care for his teenage son who had been sent to Kalaupapa. Appointed store manager, he was the settlement's "lifeline" to the outside world. He also served as a teacher and later conducted the settlement's first census in 1900.

  • 1
  • |
  • 2
  • |
  • 3
Join the Discussion
blog comments powered by Disqus
You Might Also Like...