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Tales from the Vault: The lepers of D'Arcy Island

Nov 04 2012
The leper colony on D'arcy Island. 

The leper colony on D'arcy Island.

Photograph by: B.C. Archives , Times Colonist

Both Big D'Arcy and Little D'Arcy islands, off the east coast of Vancouver Island near Victoria, are heavily forested, and have a lovely, peaceful appearance. This certainly belies their miserable past.

From 1891 until 1924, these islands were home to a lazaretto, or leper colony. People who were discovered to have leprosy were simply exiled there, with no possibility of reprieve.

The lazaretto was established by the municipal council of Victoria in 1891. They did it in response to five Chinese lepers being discovered in a shack in Chinatown.

The traditional horror of this disease moved the council to action. Leprosy, or Hansen's disease as it is formally called, is an ancient curse of mankind. It goes back as far as recorded history, and probably beyond. It is caused by a bacterium, and is not very contagious. People living in close and unsanitary conditions, though, can contract it much more easily. It can take many years to manifest itself.

What it does makes the horror understandable. The bacterium damages the body's peripheral nervous system. The victim, then, loses the sense of pain. In consequence, he or she can be injured or infected and not be aware of it. Also, the body is greatly disfigured. Plaques can develop on the skin, while other parts of the body can wither away.

Strange physical appearances are common, such as faces with leonine (or lion-like) characteristics. Fingers and toes disappear. Tissue in the body can swell. When the swelling occurs in the nose and throat, breathing is more difficult, and patients can even suffocate. So fear of this disease is fully justified.

The city councillors knew leprosy would frighten the public, so they had to act. The first thing they did was to request, from the provincial government, the use of D'Arcy Island. On April 22, 1891, this was granted. A few days later, it was reported in a local paper that it would be useful for a "garbage crematory." Obviously the council was trying to avoid panic. But soon the truth was out.

On May 5 there was an article in a local paper about the proposed colony. By then preparations were in full gear. On May 13, men and materials were taken to the island to construct the necessary buildings. These had already been designed by architect John Teague. On May 20, everything had been prepared, and the lepers were ready to be sent.

To judge from the local newspaper, the citizens approved. The headline in the Daily Colonist on May 21, 1891, reads: "Effectual measures taken to prevent leprosy becoming rooted in Chinatown," and goes on to say: "The five lepers of Victoria [will be] properly isolated." The lepers themselves are horrifyingly depicted: "More repulsive human beings would be hard to imagine. Each was a total physical wreck, and their features were so distorted, disfigured and swollen as to be almost out of human semblance." The article goes on to describe the excellent facilities that have been created for the victims, and finishes with saying that: "the city authorities will visit the lepers periodically and see that their wants are supplied."

No mention is made of any medical care for the lepers. There was none. Desperately sick people were simply being dumped on an island, and left to fend for themselves.

The lepers knew what was in store for them. The same article says "all of them made strenuous objections to leaving the city." They dreaded their fate so much that "a guard was placed over the house on Fisgard Street where they had been living" to prevent them from escaping. One attempted suicide. They knew their lives were effectively over.

Whether or not they liked it, the lepers were sent to D'Arcy. For 15 years they lived alone on the island. The only exception was when a new sufferer joined them. The lepers would be visited by a supply ship every three months, with a medical officer along for a checkup. They had to get their own water, which was sometimes seriously lacking. If someone died between visits, no one in the outside world would know of it.

Ironically, there already was a lazaretto in Canada, where the sufferers were treated well. It was in New Brunswick, and was an actual hospital for lepers. The federal government ran it, and had the necessary medicines to alleviate the suffering. The Victoria city government wanted the federal government to take charge here as well, but it refused. Expense was not likely an issue, since there were few lepers involved. But there was another factor. The patients in New Brunswick were Caucasian. Those at D'Arcy Island were all Chinese, and by the 1890s, prejudice against the Chinese was strong.

In 1897, Dr. R.L. Fraser became chief medical officer. In 1899, he wrote that the lazaretto was "in a truly deplorable condition." Only one of the six lepers was able to work. The rest were in various states of debilitation. He implored the federal government to take over.

Other medical men voiced strong concerns. A report in a medical journal in 1898 by doctors Ernest Hall and John Nelson made clear how bad the situation was. But an even more graphic presentation was in a letter from Dr. Ernest Hanington of Victoria.

Writing to Sir William Osler, Canada's most prominent medical figure, he said: "I have been to the island twice, and it was a very painful experience." He catalogued the numerous problems on the island, and then described his final parting from the lepers: "The wretched beings, some in the last stages of the disease ... lined up on the beach and cried like children when we were leaving."

What finally forced a change in the D'Arcy situation was pressure from the B.C. government. It pointed out that the federal government was allowing Chinese immigration, and collecting a substantial head tax from the immigrants. Since the federal government was not allowing the B.C. government any veto, it should at least share some of the tax money. This could then be used to treat the lepers. The federal government agreed. In 1905, it gave some money, and services on D'Arcy improved.

This seems to have to have been the prod for the federal government to move. In 1906, it passed the Leprosy Act, and took over operations on D'Arcy. The colony now changed completely. It became a true medical facility, with a new attitude toward the lepers. The policy now was to repatriate as many as possible. In 1907, all residents were sent back to China. Seven were placed with the Presbyterian Mission to Lepers in Canton. The eighth chose to return to his family. New buildings were erected on D'Arcy, and it was now set to deal with new leprosy cases.

A handful of new cases came in over the years, but there were fewer residents than before. Now that there was a policy of repatriation, D'Arcy was merely a detention centre for some, until a steamship could be found to send them home. The few who stayed there had a resident caretaker and a Chinese interpreter. They also had the necessary medicines to alleviate their suffering.

This was the situation until 1924, when it was decided that D'Arcy was no longer needed. A new station was opened on Bentinck Island, near the quarantine station at William Head. The five remaining lepers were transferred there, and the colony on D'Arcy Island was closed for good.

D'Arcy looks much the same today as it would have then. It is beautiful and tranquil, and a favourite destination for boaters. But there are strong reminders of the past. Artifacts from the colony have been found on the island, and burial mounds can still be seen in the bush. There is a bronze memorial, placed by the City of Victoria. The Parks Branch has also remembered the lepers, erecting a pictorial display of their lives.

We need these constant reminders. Nothing we can do will right these wrongs. It is perhaps wishful thinking to say it could never happen again. But if the memory has prompted us to examine our behaviour, it is all to the good. A real change would be the lepers' best memorial. Then they will not have died in vain.

For further reading: A Measure of Value: The Story of the D'Arcy Island Leper Colony by C. J. Yorath. Call number: 362.196998 YOR A Dream of Islands by Philip Teece. Call number: 917.1134 TEE From China to Canada: A History of the Chinese Communities in Canada by Harry Con et al. Call number: 971.004951 FRO There is also a clipping file in the Local History Room, under the heading "D'Arcy Island."

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