AS TT deals with covid19, people have had to familiarise themselves with terms such as “social distancing,” “self-isolation” and “quarantine.”
But these precautions are not new to the country. History provides some not-too-distant examples of these and other measures adopted to deal with issues of public health and safety.
Minister of National Security Stuart Young reminded the country that a former mayor of Port of Spain, D W Sutherland, barred all public gatherings in 1918 to manage the Spanish Influenza, which took the lives of many people in TT.
There have been many other times in the country’s history when such extreme measures were deemed necessary.
In a three-part series, the National Trust explores other times when quarantine or isolation were imposed, with special focus on the Western Isles in the Gulf of Paria.
From mainland to island: the leprosy problem in Trinidad
Like many other parts of the world, Trinidad had to contend with the scourge of leprosy.
During the 1800s, lepers (for the most part) lived in relative isolation in Laventille.
The area was already deemed insalubrious by the colonial authorities and was firmly avoided by those of European descent at all costs.
To survive, lepers from Laventille were forced to come to the town of Port of Spain to beg, putting the health of the general population at risk.
Perhaps, because of the authorities’ reluctance to traverse the hills of Laventille to keep them permanently isolated, the leprosarium was transferred from Laventille to Cocorite in 1845.
A new wave of this pandemic hit Trinidad’s shores with the arrival of Indian indentured servants, making the demand for new ways to treat the disease more urgent. However, a cure for leprosy would not be developed until the latter half of the following century.
Without treatment, and in need of volunteers who were willing to care for people with leprosy, Governor Arthur Hamilton Gordon enlisted the help of the Dominican Sisters of Etrépagny, France, who arrived in Trinidad in 1868. They would do yeoman service well into the 20th century.
But despite their unselfish dedication, the numbers of those afflicted with leprosy increased.
By 1915, advances in medical technology confirmed that leprosy was highly contagious and requiring the complete isolation of patients from general society.
In response, the Colonial Government enacted legislation requiring that people with leprosy should either stay confined to their homes or find their way to the Cocorite Leprosarium.
Lack of social distancing
Not wanting to be condemned to a life of isolation, many had to be taken to the Cocorite facility by force. But because of the lack of social distancing in those times, the numbers of those afflicted rose critically, and the Leprosarium was unable to deal with the large number of patients. Compounding the situation was the fact that over 300 patients absconded, further endangering the population.
In 1921, the colonial government advertised that it was establishing a leper colony on the island of Chacachacare.
This was met with stiff objection by a vociferous elite, who did not wish to see their loved ones living in further isolation. Concomitantly, others were outraged over the forced evacuation of Chacachacare dwellers so that the leper colony could be set up. The residents had to abandon ancestral lands and holiday homes.
Others felt the brunt of the disruption of agricultural and fishing communities.
Owing to the contentious nature of the proposed move to Chacachacare, the first transfer in 1921 was done in secret. There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth. By 1926, all sufferers of leprosy had been transferred to Chacachacare.
Where the lepers went, the Dominican Sisters followed, fulfilling their pledge to live out the rest of their days in service to the afflicted. Later, more people were brought in to deal with the large numbers of patients. Unlike the nuns who worked full-time, support staff worked on a two-week shift basis.
In terms of living arrangements, males lived at Cocos Bay, and female patients on Sanders Bay, which also housed the administration facility. This arrangement (which was reversed in 1943) seemed to have moralistic overtones and was apparently made on the advice of the Dominican nuns.
On the western side of the island at Marine Bay were the convent, the chapel and the chaplain’s residence. Thus, there was, for some periods of the day, an area of distance between the nuns and those afflicted with leprosy. Two nuns (one originally at Cocorite and one at Chacachacare) had contracted the disease and lived in separation in a house at Sanders Bay.
By the 1930s, trials in medicine brought about measures to treat the disease. However, only a small percentage of those with leprosy were successfully treated and returned to mainland Trinidad.
Despite the medical advances, many more died of the illness over the years. Fortunately, with further advances and a new programme of treatment developed by American specialist Dr Richard Keeler in 1971, patients were able to get treatment on the mainland. They were gradually removed from the Chacachacare leprosarium and cared for in special facilities on the mainland.
By 1984, the last patient left had Chacachacare permanently, closing its chapter as a quarantine island.
Today, Chacachacare is no longer home to a residential leper community but a popular camping site for the adventurous.
Aside from remnants of buildings from the leprosy era, including Doctor’s House, the chapel, and the nuns’ quarters, one can also hike to the Chacachacare Lighthouse, take a dip in the salt pond or one of the many bays that contour the snail-like landmass, and see the numerous (extremely poisonous) manchineel trees scattered around the island.
The National Trust does regular tours to Chacachacare and others of the Western Isles. Visit its Heritage Asset Register or become a member via its website at nationaltrust.tt to discover TT’s heritage and look out for part two of this series on the Western Isles as quarantine islands.
Leslie-Ann Paul is the heritage preservation and research officer, National Trust of TT.
This piece is based on the research and writings of Anthony de Verteuil CSSp and Ashleigh J Morris of the National Trust.