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 all over 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 were sent 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. 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. 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 reason a 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. 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, playing board 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. 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, “As you 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 elsewhere 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.” 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. Also, be sure to check out our other video
The Horrible Life of an Average Roman Empire Slave. Thanks for watching, and as always, don’t
forget to like, share and subscribe. See you next time.

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