What Was Life Really Like Inside a Leper Colony

What Was Life Really Like Inside a Leper Colony - So you’ve noticed something is wrong with you. Pink patches have appeared on your skin, there are signs of ulcerations, and parts of you feel numb. You feel weak and tired, and you woke up in the morning with a nose bleed. You went to see a doctor, and before you could say “diagnosis” you were carted off to the leper colony.

We are of course talking about back in the day when leper colonies could be found allover the world. These places were sometimes on mountain tops, on islands in the sea, and just about always far away from other people. The stigma was so much that people suffering from leprosy were feared, and then they we resent off packing to suffer with others.

Before we get to the colonies we should talk about the disease itself. It’s a bacterial infection that affects the immune system. There are not so many cases today in the world, but in the past it was a different matter. Back in the bad old days it was misunderstood and people thought it could be transmitted very easily, which is not actually the case at all.

Leper Colony



Still, because of folks living in close quarters and lack of healthcare quite a large number of people would find themselves seeing skin ulcers, feeling weak, experiencing nerve damage,and also muscle weakness. What the so-called experts didn’t know then is that about 95 percent of the world is actually immune to leprosy.

But what did they know anyway, seeing that the earliest recorded references to the disease goes back to 600 B. C. If you were in the unlucky five percent and you got coughed on or sneezed on by someone carrying the disease you might well get it too, and then you might find yourself being taken to that foreboding place, the colony.

What Was Life Really Like Inside a Leper Colony

You might not go anytime soon, because in some people it might take 20 years for any symptoms to appear. There are also difference strains of leprosy, with some being worse than others. You might have seen movies in which lepers look a bit like zombies, with body parts missing,but that’s also a bit of an exaggeration.

It can happen, but it’s certainly not always the case. A person with leprosy might not feel pain due to nerve damage, and that’s one reasona toe or a finger might go missing. Infections might go unnoticed, and part of the body will suffer and perhaps limbs will have to be amputated. The current Leprosy Mission also says that bones may shorten and if ulcerations are bad enough some part of the body might become almost unrecognizable.

People’s appearance may change drastically, too, which was something that scared folks in the past. Bumps might appear on the skin, the parts of the body may swell and become disfigured. In rare cases, very disfigured. You get the picture, this disease put the fear of God in people in the past. That’s why they were sequestered far from everyone else on a colony.

Let’s now have a look at what these places were like. The short answer is they weren’t exactly great. But let’s start positive and tell you about a leper colony that was supposed to be an okay spot. This was the Hawaiian leprosarium. It was cut off from the rest of the island but fortunately it was on fertile land and there was food for everyone.

There was a guy called father Damien who went there in 1870 to help the 700 victims of leprosy,and he attempted to brighten up the place, planting trees and flowers, creating musical bands, and also building a school. He died, though, 19 years later from leprosy so we guess he was one of the five percent.

What Was Life Really Like Inside a Leper Colony

Even with things to do, life was pretty harsh, just for the fact you were treated like a monster and exiled from the rest of society. In the USA there was the Louisiana Leper Home, and when people were sent there in the 19th century the local residents nearby couldn’t help showing their disgust for having such a place close to them.

You see, it wasn’t until 1960 that the law changed regarding what to do with people suffering from leprosy. Prior to that, U.S law dictated that anyone with leprosy had to be confined and was not allowed to mix with society. They were thrown into the compound, given some clothes to wear, and told they could not leave.

It was basically a life sentence. Some people were so uneducated about leprosy all they had to go on was the Old Testament,and that didn’t exactly paint a pleasant picture. If you read the bible you might have been mistaken for thinking leprosy was a curse. It wasn’t, it was a skin disease. At this compound even if you wanted to send a letter to the outside to a loved one, first it had to be baked in an oven for half an hour.

Regularly fumigators walked around, while the sick were told to stay far away from them. And get this, in one interview a historian said this about what happened if the community got wind of a family member contracting leprosy, “Marriages ended, businesses failed, siblings were taken out of school”. If a person and the family wanted a burial, they had to ask the health department for that.

Prior to this, the body had to be disinfected, then sealed in a metal coffin which was soldered shut, and that had to be locked in a wooden box. Today this makes no sense at all. We don’t have to go back too far in history to look at leper colonies, though. In 2010 it was reported that in China there were 600 state-run colonies, but China was trying to reduce this and create 100 dedicated areas for people suffering from leprosy and improve treatment for them.

But as it stood in 2010, the colonies were still far from sight. Many of them were on mountain tops where one would have to do a difficult hike to get there. The media explained that each colony was small, and people would live in simple mud huts or small brick houses. Slate magazine wrote, “Some are blind and bedridden; others lost fingers, toes, or entire limbs to the disease. But able-bodied villagers farm small plots and raise fish in ponds”.

Life doesn’t sound too grim, with people on the colonies if they are well enough, playingboard games, or perhaps listening to visiting schoolchildren sing songs. These colonies sound much more modern than those of the past, with residents being allowed to leave if they want and their families also being allowed to live there.

What Was Life Really Like Inside a Leper Colony

But go back to Medieval Europe and the scene was sometimes much grimmer. In those days if you had leprosy you might be said to be legally dead and the family could even claim their inheritance. You were pretty much the Walking Dead, a monster to society. A University of Cambridge social anthropologist said life for people then if suffering from the disease was nothing but miserable at times.

Sometimes they weren’t even sent to a colony but still forsaken, wandering the streets with bells attached to them so other folks would know what’s coming. The colonies were sometimes referred to as “islands of death” because if you went there you weren’t coming back. Today if you visit the island of Crete in Greece you can actually visit one of these islands of death.

It’s a thing of beauty now, just off Crete situated in beautiful azure waters. You can just imagine what life was like living on this colony on this small island called Spinalonga, being sent there and entering through what was called “Dante’s Gate”, because you were in virtual hell. But this was a step-up from what lepers had before on Crete.

On Spinalonga they at least received food and medical attention. Before that, it’s written they were forced to retreat to caves in the mountains. This is what one visitor wrote when he visited the island in the early 20th century, “Asyou walk around Spinalonga, stop and hold your breath. From some hovel nearby you will hear the echo of a mother’s or sister’s lament or a man’s sigh. Shed a couple of tears from your eyes and you will see the sparkle of the millions of tears that have drenched this road”.

But historians write that people even fell in love there, they got married, had kids. It might not have been great, but they survived. This colony closed in 1957. You can understand why some people who didn’t understand the disease, and when there was no cure, why they were so frightened of it and sequestered sufferers.

We saw photos from the 1800s of people in China with severe facial distortions and those people hardly look like human beings. While the public may have had some sympathy, it’s understandable that they didn’t want to be near sufferers – especially as then they believed it was highly contagious. Where it originated is hard to tell, but there’s evidence that it spread due to traveling armies.

Roman soldiers for instance were said to have brought it to the British Isles and else where in Europe. By the year 1,200 it is said that there were something like 19,000 leprosy compounds throughout Europe. In England in the 11th century it’s said some people believed this body-changing disease was a form of people living in purgatory, some place between life and death.

Religious people would sometimes care for them, thinking that their good deed also made them closer to God. From the 11th century to the 14th century England had a bit of a leprosy problem and colonies or compounds were built all over the country. These were usually right on the edges of towns, but lepers would still sometimes leave the places and beg for alms.

It doesn’t sound all that horrific, with one historian writing: “The emphasis was on cleanliness and wholesome food - clothes were washed twice a week and a varied diet was supplied if possible, often from the house's own fields and livestock. The therapeutic effect of horticultural work and the beauty of nature were recognized - many houses had their own fragrant gardens of flowers and healing herbs, and residents took part in their upkeep”.

What Was Life Really Like Inside a Leper Colony

It’s all but gone now in Europe, but there are still cases in Asia. According to the organization The Leprosy Mission, most of the new cases are found in India, but you’ll also find sufferers in Bangladesh, Brazil, China, DR Congo, Ethiopia, India, Indonesia, Madagascar, Mozambique, Myanmar, Nepal, Nigeria, Philippines, Sri Lanka and Tanzania.

In the past leprosy even made its way to Australia, with the most well known colony there being on a place called Peel Island. The Australian media wrote this about the place, “Primitive and remote, its establishment allowed health authorities to arbitrarily remove without notice people even only vaguely suspected of having leprosy”.

Whether a father, mother, son or daughter, if you were sent there you likely wouldn’t see the rest of your family for years or possibly never again. It was dirty and bleak, and it’s reported that some patients were even tied up with chains. Imagine doing that to the sick these days? Even if you managed to get over the fences you’d have to swim through shark-infested waters to get back to the mainland.

But what could you do if you got this disease today? Well, the good news is that it can be treated with antibiotics. The bad news is that some people don’t know they have it and so skin problems and worse can happen before treatment can be undertaken. That said, there is still some stigma that exists in certain countries of the world.

Even if you were to contract leprosy, you might feel somewhat apprehensive about meeting your family and friends and telling them you’ve come down with leprosy, which is strange in a way because it’s so treatable. There are many other diseases you could suffer from that you wouldn’t be ashamed to talk about. So, that’s leprosy 101 for you. What we’d like to hear now are your thoughts on this disease. Tell us what you think in the comments.
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