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Fear and Loathing in Hawaii: 'Colony'

Detail from the cover of <i>Colony</i>.
Detail from the cover of <i>Colony</i>.

For 100 years, sufferers of leprosy were banished to Molokai, the part of Hawaii that even today is referred to as the "last island" for its lack of development. John Tayman chronicles the paranoia that exiled nearly 10,000 people in Colony: The Harrowing True Story of the Exiles of Molokai.

In the middle of the 19th century, details about leprosy were both incomplete and frightening. Coming on the heels of a smallpox epidemic that claimed thousands of lives, news of the disease struck fear in the population at large.

Beginning in 1866, victims were banished to Molokai and similar remote locales. The panic and extreme caution would not be undermined until far later, when it was found that leprosy is caused by simple bacteria -- and is not nearly as contagious as had been feared.

Still, it wasn't until 1969 that the law requiring leprosy patients to live on Molokai was rescinded. Colony is based on letters, journals, newspaper accounts, medical documents and interviews with surviving patients.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, authors Robert Louis Stevenson and Jack London visited Molokai and wrote about life on the colony.

Luckily for its residents, the island also attracted devoted caretakers, such as the priest Father Damien, a Belgian who went to work with the patients there in 1873. Damien died of leprosy in 1889; a statue of the priest stands in a hall of the U.S. Capitol.

Tayman, the author of Colony, is a former editor of Outside magazine.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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