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Open Access Publications from the University of California

“Suppose for a moment, that Keanu had reasoned thus”: Contagious Debts and Prisoner–Patient Consent in Nineteenth-Century Hawai‘i


This article considers the 1884 criminal case and medical archive of Keanu, a Native Hawaiian prisoner sentenced to death in the Hawaiian courts for murder. Keanu’s sentence was commuted to “life in prison” after he consented to experimental leprosy (Hansen’s disease) inoculations. The article examines the tensions between Keanu’s prisoner–patient value and US imperialism as a discourse of social debt in nineteenth-century Hawai‘i. It argues that the figure of the prisoner–patient raises broad questions about the historical function of racialization, criminalization, and disease across medical discourse at that time. More specifically, it interrogates how those discourses were constructed around the figure of Keanu and reveals a transformation in his status from devalued social death to that of valuable social debt.

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