Pacific Postcards

Disease, Colonization, and Power Dynamics in the Pacific (Kalei Stambaugh)

Of the seven Hawaiian Islands, Molokai is one of the more quiet, underdeveloped, isolated, rural islands. With a population of less than 8,000 residents and sparse tourism, Molokai is quite different compared to some of the more well-known Hawaiian Islands. From the International Mission Photography Archive, the photograph of the View of Kalawao leper settlement, Molokai, Hawaii, helps to convey the story and history of how this island has become what it is today. The photograph features a leper settlement, which is where those infected with leprosy, primarily Native Hawaiians, were forced to live, quarantine, and often die, to avoid spreading the disease to others. This photograph presents a mere glimpse of the severe effects that resulted from American and European endeavors in the Pacific.

The event of disease spreading to Natives is quite common in maritime history and colonization in the Pacific. In Chapter 3 of The Sea Is My Country: The Maritime World of the Makahs, author Joshua Reid details some of the impacts that European disease had on the Native Makah people. Reid argues that European diseases essentially acted as a compelling factor in the power shift between the once almighty Makahs and the Non-Native nations. Similarly, scholar R.D.K. Herman in his article, Out of Sight, Out of Mind, Out of Power: Leprosy, Race, and Colonization in Hawai’i, discusses the extent to which leprosy in Hawaii discloses how colonization and Non-Native interests suppressed and diminished Native power, contrary to common belief. The presence of the leper colony on the edge of the water enclosed by large standing cliffs pictured in the photograph of the View of Kalawao leper settlement, Molokai, Hawaii provides viewers with a deeper understanding of the effects that the Non-native presence had on the Native Hawaiians. When contextualized with Reid and Herman’s arguments it becomes evident that this photograph is working to convey how Non-Native presence in Native lands led not only to isolation and disease, but the shift in power and near destruction of Native populations.

When taking a first glance at the photograph of the View of Kalawao leper settlement, Molokai, Hawaii it looks to be a fairly appealing image of large, majestic cliffs meeting up with the vast Pacific Ocean. Then your eyes are guided to the beach where bunches of houses rest with a nice view of the ocean and lots of nature all around. However, this photograph possesses much more than a serene view of nature. Those quaint little houses on the beach and slightly inland are home to those infected with the leper disease. These houses are not a destination for a vacation getaway, but rather a last resting place. They are located so close to the water because the White settlers who took the sick Native Hawaiians to Molokai wanted to engage as little as possible with the sick. Therefore, they simply dropped them off on the beach, built their settlements, and left them to be. Now take a look back to those large, majestic cliffs. This location for the leper settlements was chosen with a purpose. The photographed cliffs are actually some of the highest sea cliffs in the world and are acting as a barrier to keep the sick isolated. Since the cliffs rise so high, there is no way for one to simply climb up them to explore the rest of the island. A person would need to boat around them in order to leave the settlements and get to another location on the island. This brings up the apparent lack of boats or any ways of water transportation in the photograph. Being located on the water, one might think boats would be pictured to serve as a means of transportation, communication, and delivering resources to those living on the beach. Yet no boats are seen in this photograph since the purpose of this leper settlement was to isolate those living there. This supports that these houses were not set up to care for the sick here, but moreover to separate them from the healthy and let them die off. 

This photograph shows how the White settlers who placed the sick Native Hawaiians on this island were not doing so to care for them away from the healthy, but to leave them, isolate them, and let them pass. The White settlers did this as an attempt to decrease Native numbers and then assert power over the Native Hawaiians and take control of their lands. The archive this photograph was categorized in further demonstrates this. The View of Kalawao leper settlement, Molokai, Hawaii is part of the International Mission Photography Archive. The goals of Missions are carried out by Christians who send individuals to set boundaries, often geographical, to care for and educate those people in their ways. Now why might a photograph of a leper settlement be part of this archive? Well, that is what is taking place in the photograph. The Native Hawaiians are being taken to live in this geographical boundary by White Christian settlers, where they are to be “cared for” under their jurisdiction. By complying to White views in handling the disease, the Native Hawaiians are allowing themselves to be directed in their ways. The overarching goal of missionaries is to proclaim Christian faith on those they come into contact with. This is what is happening to the Hawaiians as they are being sent to this island to die, leading to a decrease in their population, and allowing for Christians, or White settlers, to assume control over their lands. The ideas depicted in this photograph are further reinforced when looked at in comparison to Reid and Herman’s arguments.

Joshua Reid’s book describes the history of the Makah in the Pacific and their relations with Non-Native nations. Throughout the first couple of chapters in the book it is evident that the Makah are a superior power in the Pacific and more specifically, the borderland region of the current day west coast of the United States. One of the Makah’s most crucial advantages was having strength in numbers. Growth of trade interactions between the Non-Natives and the Makahs led to the introduction of Non-Native Forts onto the indigenous lands in hopes of more mutually beneficial trade relations. The admittance of settler-colonial people from Non-Native nations allowed for the spread of various European diseases to the Native people. Lacking the immunological protection that Non-Natives had, the Makah population declined rapidly from the introduction of these Non-Native diseases. Additionally, these new diseases plagued the leading Makah chiefs and killed them, leaving less experienced Makah chiefs in control of their people and trade. Reid stated that “the high mortality and loss of experienced chiefs threatened to undermine the ability of the People of the Cape to control the cadi borderland” (Reid, 117). Due to disease the Makah people lost the advantage they once had in manpower and their most knowledgeable chiefs. As a result, the Makah failed to control and remain in power over the Non-Natives and the borderland. The Non-Native colonization of Native land brought disease which resulted in a power shift from the Makah people to the Non-Native nations. 

The photograph of the View of Kalawao leper settlement, Molokai, Hawaii further demonstrates Reid’s same argument being colonization leads to disease which then results in a shift in power. Similar to the events regarding the Makah, leprosy developed in Hawaii in correlation with the Non-native colonization on Hawaiian lands. Prior to the leprosy outbreak White settlers were already looking to expand and increase their role in Hawaiian land and government in hopes of economic and political gain. The leprosy epidemic helped White settlers to do so as thousands of Hawaiians were classified as “lepers” and compelled by the White settlers to be sent to the island of Molokai to isolate themselves. As previously discussed, the photograph archive categorization describes these actions to be missionary efforts. The majority of those sent to the Kalawao leper settlement, pictured in the primary source, went there to quarantine and in the end die. This led to a large decrease in the Native Hawaiian population and in turn, paved the way for the White settlers to rise to power and gain control in Hawaiian government and land policies. While the history of the Makah and disease and the events of the Hawaiians and leprosy took place decades apart, both of these instances illustrate the path of colonization or settlement to disease to the transfer in power dynamics between Natives and Non-Natives. These events pertaining to correspondence between colonization, disease, and power struggles are further explored in Herman’s article. 

  In Out of Sight, Out of Mind, Out of Power: Leprosy, Race, and Colonization in Hawai’i, R.D.K. Herman uses various sources of discourse to depict his argument which demonstrates how with the outbreak of disease, White settlers already inhabiting the islands used their, deemed to be, advanced knowledge of disease and ability to rule to isolate the Hawaiians and assert power over them. When the disease of leprosy first broke out, the missionary settlements in Hawaii claimed the cause was the fault of the Hawaiians themselves. Herman stated that “missionaries built a pervasive discourse that combined all their dissatisfactions with Hawaiians into blaming Hawaiians for their own deaths.” (Herman, 277). The White settlers characterized the Hawaiians to be unfit to govern themselves and that the continuing decline of the Native Hawaiian population was evidence that they were in need of intervening by the Americans. This was far from the truth, but the argument was driven by White settlers who were determined to benefit from the Hawaiian Islands economic and military potential. Therefore, they pushed their claims that their initiatives were correct and best fit to guide Hawaii’s state of leprosy. 

Now in control of the disease outbreak the White settlers utilized “the power of leprosy to mobilize the segregation of a particular group: Hawaiians.” (Herman, 283). Herman explains that the White settlers, to an extent, used and exaggerated the contagiousness of leprosy to isolate those infected or even just suspected to be infected, mainly all Native Hawaiians, on the island of Molokai. There they remained at the leper settlement until they died. Herman also described that White settlers were more directly targeting Native Hawaiians to send them to the Molokai leper settlements. He states that “the quarantine policy itself was unevenly administered. Foreigners stricken with the disease were given the privilege of leaving the country” (Herman, 289). While Native Hawaiians were forced from their home island to isolate and die off at the leper settlements in Molokai, foreigners infected were simply allowed to travel back to their home country, thus revealing the White settlers underlying intentions with leper settlements. This also connects back to the idea the photograph archive implies by describing the settlements as missions. In the context that the settlements were acting as missions then it supports that the Native Hawaiians would be sent to Molokai and the foreigners, also White Christians, were not. White settlers presumably used this disease to assert their power and control over the Native Hawaiians by depopulating them and forcing them under their preferred idea of disease control. Herman concludes that “the leprosy epidemic legitimized the Hawaiian loss of resources and sovereignty and naturalized the shift in power.” (Herman, 289). Herman’s article illuminates the history behind the photograph of the View of Kalawao leper settlement, Molokai, Hawaii. What may seem to be a group of white cottages used to house and care for those sick from disease, is really an articulate plan carried out by White settlers meant to suppress Native Hawaiians and gain power in Hawaii. 

The photograph of the View of Kalawao leper settlement, Molokai, Hawaii paired with Joshua Reid and R.D.K. Herman’s arguments help to depict how the introduction of disease came from Non-Native colonization and not only leaves the Native people isolated and plagued with sickness and death but is a strong contributing factor in the overtaking of their power and control of their lands. Disease is witnessed to be only one of the beginning negative influences brought to the Natives by Non-Natives. While the story of the Makah is not over and there is still much to be understood regarding the relations and power struggles of Native Makahs and the Non-Natives, the Native Hawaiians fate is evident today. Molokai remains a quiet and isolated island home to many Native Hawaiian descendants from the leprosy era, however the White settlers' influence can be seen throughout the rest of Hawaii. In summation, the leprosy policy introduced by the White settlers was a factor that led to the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy and the annexation of Hawaii. America now governs the island of Hawaii and Native Hawaiians have been reduced to an inferior race on their own home islands as only about 26% of the state of Hawaii’s population is of Native Hawaiian descent. Though there are other factors that contributed to this shift in power and depopulation of the Hawaiians, the history behind the photograph of the View of Kalawao leper settlement, Molokai, Hawaii, is one compelling element responsible for this outcome.




R. D. K. Herman. Out of Sight, Out of Mind, Out of Power: Leprosy, Race, and Colonization in Hawai’i. Kamehameha Schools, 2010.

Reid, Joshua L. The Sea Is My Country:The Maritime World of the Makahs, an Indigenous Borderlands People . Yale University Press, 2018. 

View of Kalawao leper settlement, Molokai, Hawaii, ca. 1920-1940. International Mission Photography Archive, ca.1860-ca.1960.
“U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts: Hawaii.” Census Bureau QuickFacts. Accessed March 11, 2021. 
“International Leprosy Association - History of Leprosy.” Molokai, Hawaii (USA) | International Leprosy Association - History of Leprosy. Accessed March 11, 2021.

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