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The Lepers of D’arcy Island

Image F-05163 courtesy of
Royal British Columbia Museum

“Awakening at perhaps midnight, I became suddenly aware of a feeling that I had never experienced before….It was an inexplicable sensation of loneliness and gloom. As I sat on my bunk, trying to dispel the strange mood, it ceased to be a vague worry, and narrowed to a highly specific focus. I was almost suffocated by a sense of claustrophobia. I desperately wanted to get out of that place. It was as if a voice in my subconscious were calling out, ‘I’ll never get out of here.’ ”

So wrote Philip Teece, describing his first night at anchor at D’Arcy Island. At the time he had no idea of what could have caused these feelings. A further night at D’Arcy produced the same sensation. A chance meeting with a friend gave him a clue. “Perhaps it’s not surprising that you should pick up a few bad vibrations there,” he said. “You know, of course, that D’Arcy Island was once a leper colony?” Teece did not know, but subsequent research at the public library enlightened him. Reading the old newspaper clippings, he began to learn about one of the most unpleasant episodes in West Coast history.

There are actually two D’Arcy Islands: Big D’Arcy and Little D’Arcy, lying off the east coast of Vancouver Island, just north of Victoria. Big D’Arcy is 82 hectares in size, and is today a marine provincial park. Little D’Arcy is privately owned. In this tale they are both simply referred to as “D’Arcy Island.” Both islands are heavily forested, and have a lovely, peaceful appearance. This certainly belies their miserable past. From 1891 till 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 first 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 councilors 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 the 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 5th there was a full article in the paper about the proposed colony. By then preparations were in full gear. On May 13th men and materials were taken to the island to construct the necessary buildings. These had already been designed by the architect John Teague. On May 20th everything had been prepared, and the lepers were ready to be sent.

To judge from the local newspaper, the citizenry was approving. The headline in the Daily Colonist on May 21st, 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. This is appropriate, for there was none. Desperately sick people were simply being dumped on an island, and left to fend for themselves.

The lepers themselves 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 fifteen years they lived alone on the island. The only exception was when a new sufferer would  join them. The lepers would be visited by a supply ship every three months, with a medical officer along for a check-up. They had to get their own water, which was sometimes seriously lacking. If someone died between visits, no one on 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 they had the necessary medicines to alleviate the suffering. The Victoria city government wanted the federal government to take charge here as well, but they 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.

By the 1890s prejudice against the Chinese was strong. The first Chinese arrived in Victoria in 1858. They came from San Francisco, looking for economic opportunities in the gold rush. But soon they had trouble. Many miners did not want the Chinese in the gold fields, and threatened them with violence. Before long, though, the Chinese proved necessary to the B.C. economy. They were willing to do the least pleasant jobs, for less money than the whites. For railroad building they were crucial. Not only were they willing to do the difficult work, but they would stick to the job when the whites would walk away. The same was often the case with coal mining and domestic service.

White workers, though, were beginning to feel threatened. Provincial and municipal governments in B.C. began to feel the pressure, as anti-Chinese agitation began. The B.C. provincial government passed anti-Chinese legislation, which was disallowed by the federal government. But the demand was strong to restrict Chinese immigration. The federal government was caught between two forces. Employers wanted the Chinese, but the coastal B.C. population was strongly against them. So while the federal government was reluctant to allow harsh anti-Chinese measures, they had no special reason to be concerned for their welfare.  With the D’Arcy Island colony, there was no motivation to do anything at all.

So the City of Victoria had sole charge of the lepers. There is no record of the city’s medical officer, Dr. G.L. Milne, being opposed to the city’s policy. He was replaced in 1892 by Dr. Duncan, who seems to have cared even less. In his annual reports for 1893 and 1895 he never bothered to mention the colony at all. In 1895 a reporter from the Daily Colonist accompanied Dr. Duncan to the island. The reporter noted that he seemed to be most concerned with taking notes for his medical brethren. Some of this involved deception. When Dr. Duncan tried to take the lepers’ photographs, they objected. They disliked having their pictures taken.  However he said they were necessary to determine who would be sent back to China. In reality, no such trips were planned.

In 1897 Dr. R.L. Fraser succeeded Duncan as chief medical officer. He was a more compassionate man. 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 Drs. 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. They 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, they should at least share some of the tax money. This could then be used to treat the lepers. The federal government agreed. In 1905 they 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 Darcy. The colony now changed completely. It became a true medical facility, with a new attitude towards the lepers. The policy now was to repatriate as many as possible. In 1907 all residents were sent back to China. Seven of them 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 that 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 to 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 them, erecting a pictorial display of their lives.

We need these constant reminders.  There is nothing we can ever do that will right these wrongs. They will always be a stain on our record. Hopefully though, we are moving on. We are more aware of the rights of minorities, and new laws reflect that concern. Abuses such as this, and others, have prompted change. It is perhaps wishful thinking to say it could never happen again. But if the memory has prompted us to examine our behavior, 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 Heritage Room, under the heading “D’Arcy Island”.

Stephen Ruttan, Local History Librarian
October, 2011