The State of Aloha

An American merchant ship slowly made its way to the shores of Oahu. It docked in Honolulu Harbor on Feb. 10. Nobody was happy to see the ship, the Charles Mallory, come in from San Francisco. The large yellow flag displayed on the ship saw to it that everyone should stay back: a serious infection was onboard. It was 1853.

The ship remained in isolation off a reef just beyond what is now modern-day Kalihi. The strict quarantine remained in effect for close to two months. By the end of March, the crew reported no new cases, the infected patient had survived, and it soon set sail and left.

In May, however, the disease broke out on Oahu. Smallpox had come to the islands. The people of the Kingdom of Hawaii were sadly accustomed to epidemics. Centuries of living in relative isolation on the islands made Native Hawaiian populations vulnerable to foreign diseases.

In 1804, for example, Kamehameha’s army was decimated by a strange and mysterious illness. No one can be certain of its origins. The result, however, was unambiguous: the future king’s invasion of Kauai was put off.

Bigger and deadlier epidemics, however, would come in the late 1840s. Scholars attribute this to the fact that ships were getting to the islands on a faster route from Mexico and California. When vessels had to make their way down the East Coast and South America, the infected sailor or passenger had either died or recovered. The world — even in the 19th century — was getting smaller.

The consequences for Hawaiians was disastrous. During the months straddling 1848 and 1849, the islands were devastated by a trifecta of disease. Mumps, whooping cough and influenza wiped out huge swaths of the native population on every island.

Dr. Dwight Baldwin, a missionary and trained physician stationed in Lahaina, wrote that trying to treat dying and diseased in every home was akin to “a raging battle, with all its turmoil and its sad scenes of death and carnage. Never was I driven so to distraction, week after week, and month after month, with no respite . . . without the sad remembrance of some suffering individual or families, who had requested me to visit them” but could not because Lahaina had no roads. Those stricken with disease found no solace or cure. Many ran into the ocean to cool off only to die.

Just three years later, a new disease had spread. Smallpox is an ancient malady. The virus brings to the infected fever, fatigue and vomiting; they develop small, red blisters, or pox, on their body and faces. Survivors developed small scars that remain on their bodies for the rest of their lives.

It’s an ancient virus. Ancient Egyptians were discovered to have traces of the smallpox scars on their mummified faces. It ravaged Asia and came to Europe after the Crusades in the 11th century. Europeans took it with them to the Americas and in 1853, it had finally come to the islands.

Although the numbers are unreliable, the consensus is that thousands died. Over the summer, from June to August, the dead were gathered on horse-drawn carts. Piled on top of each other with legs and arms sticking out for all to see. Entire villages were emptied.

On Maui, the government was helpless. The police rounded up patients to remote spots and left them there to fend for themselves without medicine or a helping hand. The epidemic did not abate until October.

Renowned Native Hawaiian scholar and Lahainaluna graduate Samuel Kamakau saw “the land is become empty; the old villages lie silent in a tangle of bushes and vines, haunted by ghosts and horned owls, frequented by goats and bats.”

Every family lost someone to the disease. Hundreds of bodies were buried on the outskirts of Honolulu, Kona and Lahaina. Survivors carried the pockmarks on their faces and bodies.

Many believed that the native population was doomed for extinction. Newspaper editors opined that the extinction of indigenous peoples was inevitable. Fortunately, they were wrong. Native Hawaiians bounced back over a great deal of time. Gradually, into this century, the native population has returned. As for smallpox, vaccines later became widespread and available.

In 1980, the World Health Organization officially declared the smallpox disease contained and eradicated from the face of the Earth. The scars of smallpox remained for those in the islands. Other epidemics would reach the islands, but the smallpox disease was the last major one to ravage the population; at least for now.

* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer, currently with the Office of the Public Defender, who grew up on Maui. His email is 808stateofaloha@gmail.com. “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Sarah Ruppenthal’s “Neighbors.”