It has been 32 years since the last of the lepers left Chacachacare which was the site of the leper colony when it was inaugurated on November 18, 1926. These days only the ghost stories remain. And the corbeaux that populate the island.
The corbeaux guard the ruins jealously. Their flapping wings sound like devilish laughter. Even their young hiss like a pit of snakes. One should be careful before stepping into this realm. Ask the men and women of the Trinidad and Tobago Coast Guard who once occupied the island in the 1990’s but left.
Also protecting the edges of this realm are dangerous Manchineel trees, bearing fruit once named the ‘little apple of death’ by Spanish conquistadors. Found on sandy soil and in mangroves, they are the most poisonous trees on earth. With one bite, their fruit can cause hours of pain and potentially death. Besides the fruit, every part of the tree is toxic due to it white milky sap. You cannot stand under a Manchineel tree during a thunder shower as the rain can wash the sap from the leaves and cause blistering of the skin.
……. WELCOME TO CHACACHACARE ISLAND …….
Luckily for my group, it was a sunny morning as we made our way to the island. For my project |Between Lines| in collaboration with Caribbean Memory Project and Plantain, I have gathered a group of artists, film makers, writers and designers who all have a shared passion for history and aren’t afraid of the dreaded Manchineel tree. Just as writer Andre Bagoo has shown with his poem, the aim of this project is to gain inspiration from our historical surrounding; to create time capsules. Between Lines is a space where art meets history. For what art is without history in the first place?
On our way to our first stop at Sander’s Bay, our boat passed the Medical Superintendent’s House at Rust Bay and the remnants of the whaling station on Bulmer’s Bay where one can still see the rusted tracks were used to drag dead whales into the station to be processed. Whale oil was highly prized as it was used in many products from lamp oil to cosmetics, until petroleum-based oils became popular in the early 20th century.
We landed at the Sander’s Bay jetty which was also the first port of entry for all the lepers who were to spend the rest of their lives on the island. Before finding a treatment for Hansen’s Disease, anyone who had the disease was heavily stigmatised by society. The disease was associated with poverty, tainted blood, and some even thought it was sexually transmitted.
At Sander’s Bay, female lepers were accommodated. Males were housed at the neighbouring Coco Bay in order to reduce sexual contact. A strict morality was enforced by the Dominican Sisters who oversaw the settlement. However, all of this changed during World War II when the Medical Superintendent give authorisation for males and females to visit one another before 6pm, much to the chagrin of the Dominican Nuns. After this new rule was applied, the birth rate increased on the island and a nun was trained at the colonial hospital to assist with deliveries. It must be added that immediately after the birth, the child was placed in an orphanage never to see their parents again.
Not much is left of the colony today. Many of the structures have fallen to ruins over time or have been overtaken by nature. The only buildings that were recognisable was the power station that provided electricity to the island in 1946 and the present doctor’s office built around the same time. The latter stood at the end of the jetty where all of the patients did their initial check ups.
One building of particular interest was a one story house that was built around the beginning of the settlement after 1926. It was built on concrete foundations and was lifted high off the ground. The walls were made of tapia, there were demerara windows, and a simple trefoil pattern in its fretwork — all covered by galvanised roofing. The back of this building was an incline leading to showers.
On the day of our visit, the incline is littered with various bottles which included some alcohol bottles, ointment bottles, Korean Ginseng tonic bottles, Listerine bottles , Brylcreem hair styling product bottles (c.1970–1980).
For me the star find was a plastic tea-cup from the Trinidad and Tobago Health Services which was once used by someone until it had formed a crack and was discarded when the settlement was closing down in 1984. This green cup would have come with a saucer and a large plate all made with the same material. Upon further reading from Marie Thérèse Rétout’s book “Called to Serve” I realized that not everyone left the settlement in 1984 as Arthur Ramsammy opted to stay back until 1985 when he resettled in St. James. Was he the last person to drink from the tea-cup ?
I was able to do some walking on the shoreline with other members of the group and came across many ceramic shards that ranged from the beginning to the end of the settlement. Many had to wash their wares by the shore due to the fact that there was a limited amount of fresh water on the island. Most of the rainwater was stored in concrete cisterns which were kept under lock and key. Only four gallons of drinking water were given to eight patients each day and they had to wash their wares in the sea.
There were traces of settlement pre-dating the leper colony as their were blue transferware, shell-edge creamware and the ornate stem of a white clay pipe, all high status artifacts which may have come from one of the holiday homes that lined the bays on Chacachacare until they were evicted on December 21,1921.
……………………………..…End of Part 1………………………………………