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Victoria banished Chinese lepers to island colony

This week in 1895, a reporter with the Daily Colonist accompanied health officials on a visit to D'Arcy Island to expose the hidden world of Canada's first West Coast leper colony.

This week in 1895, a reporter with the Daily Colonist accompanied health officials on a visit to D'Arcy Island to expose the hidden world of Canada's first West Coast leper colony. What he found were men suffering nearly as much from isolation as they did from the disease.

In March 1891, Victoria health officers conducting an inspection of Chinatown found five lepers living together in a shack. Determined to prevent the spread of the disease, city officials acquired D'Arcy Island -- an 83-hectare uninhabited area of land about 30 kilometres off Vancouver Island in Haro Strait -- from the provincial government, and by the end of May, quarantined the lepers there.

Every three months a municipal health officer, sanitary inspector and an interpreter from Victoria boarded a small steamer and went to the island to deliver supplies and examine the lepers.

With no doctors or nurses stationed on the island, the city officials' visit represented almost all the contact that the lepers had with the outside world. Conversely, the outside world had only a vague notion that the colony existed.

"Few indeed ... in Victoria know or care where the plague-stricken ones have gone, or how they live, or how they die. The ratepayers have a hazy understanding that there is a lazaretto somewhere near, for they have paid for its establishment and continue to contribute for its maintenance. They are, for the most part, content with this simple knowledge of an unpleasant fact," wrote the unnamed reporter.

When the officials from Victoria arrived on the island for their June visit, the lepers immediately peppered the translator with questions: Was the doctor going to take them away? Were there any letters from home or news from loved ones? Did anyone bring a chess set or opium?

The health officer wouldn't answer any questions until after he investigated their conditions.

The lepers, however, were obstinate and didn't want to provide any information -- that is, until the doctor employed his usual trick and told them he wanted to see who was healthy enough to be taken back to China. After that, the ailing men co-operated.

None of the lepers knew it at the time but there was no chance of their leaving, mainly because no shipping company would permit them on board a vessel.

The health officer carried out his examination of the men and observed that, "as a general rule, it is the hands and feet that first have withered, rotted and dropped away. In one or two cases, however, the face has first been attacked and the use of the limbs has remained to compensate for the loss of nose and lips and ears," the Colonist reporter wrote.

Paralleling the men's physical degeneration was their mental deterioration.

"When first taken to the lazaretto, [a person] realizes the infinite horror of his position and, for a time, is a frenzied madman. Then comes the hysterical stage; and afterwards the dull, deadened, hopeless waiting for death.

"The faces of the lepers do not indicate contentment. They do not indicate anything. All emotions are killed, and as the ravages of the disease progress, the poor victims seem little by little to become less and less a human being."

Their world was the equivalent of a prison where there was "no pardon ... no rescue ... no hope, no pity, no escape."

The reporter's disturbing story raised serious public concerns about the type of treatment the ailing men on the island were getting and eventually the city of Victoria increased the number of doctor visits the lepers received to twice a month.

From 1891, when the leprosarium was created, to 1906, when the federal government assumed control, cities such as Vancouver also sent their Chinese lepers to the colony and contributed funding for its upkeep.

Remarkably, throughout the history of the colony, there were no reported suicides and the only escape ever recorded involved a newly married man whose wife came to the island clandestinely on a boat and saved him.

The only leper of non-Chinese origin to be banished to the island during this period was a German-Russian man who contracted the disease from a woman in Victoria's Chinatown, and he suffered a particularly terrible fate.

After arriving at the colony, he was ostracized by the other lepers. Completely alone, his health deteriorated more rapidly than the other lepers and he died after only one year.

In the 15 years under the city of Victoria's administration, a total of 18 lepers died and were buried on the island, four of them in unmarked graves.

After 1906, D'Arcy Island continued to operate as a leprosarium under federal government control with new facilities, care-givers stationed on site, and a policy of treating anyone with leprosy. It was moved to nearby Bentinck Island in 1924 and was eventually shut down permanently in 1957.