The Lepers of Victoria’s Chinatown

May 23rd, 2019

In 1891, Victoria city officials learned that leprosy had been discovered in Victoria’s Chinatown. Although only five individuals were found to be infected with leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease, the British Columbia government quickly decided that in order to avoid public panic they must quarantine the lepers and remove them indefinitely to nearby D’Arcy Island.

When the lepers got word of what the government had planned for them, they fiercely resisted their removal, but the government placed guards outside the residence where they lived until they could be forcibly relocated. These men understood that this removal was essentially a life sentence, and a particularly lonely one at that. Once moved to D’Arcy Island, where a “lazaretto,” or leper colony, was formed, they were left with very few provisions and no medical assistance. A supply boat came only once every three months, so they were also completely bereft of any news from the outside world, nor did their families have any way of knowing whether they were dead or alive.

What was not known at the time was that although leprosy created fearful disfigurements and sometimes the loss of limbs, it is not, in fact, a highly contagious disease. According to current medical experts, the disease is only “mildly infectious,” and as much as 95% of the world’s population is naturally immune from contracting it.

Despite the fear around the disease at the time, however, the formation of this leper colony differed drastically from the government’s handling of leprosy cases in New Brunswick. In this province, lepers were brought, albeit forcibly, to a leprosy hospital on Sheldrake Island where they received medical attention, including medicine that helped to alleviate their physical suffering. These patients, however, were mostly caucasian, whereas Victoria’s lepers were all Chinese.

Eventually, word got out about the inhumane treatment of the Victoria Chinatown lepers. They were later moved to nearby Bentinck island, where medical facilities were added and treatment was somewhat more humane, although this relocation was only temporary. Most of these lepers were later transported to China.

In Beacon Hill Park today, a concrete pillar indicates the distance to 38 nearby locations. One of these points to “Bentinck Island (Leper Colony) 10.2 mi.” This rather unassuming structure is a reminder of the difficult history of the treatment of Chinese Canadians in British Columbia.

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