How racism built British Columbia’s forgotten leper colony

My uncle knows the names of all the mountain ranges and most of the islands that are the mise en scène of this small town on Vancouver Island.

“That is the Olympic mountain range. Mount Baker is through there,” he tells me. “That is San Juan Island. And that—” he is squinting toward a dark green rise of land in the Haro Strait, far from us but not as far as the mountains or those heavy grey clouds.

“That was a leper colony.”

darcy island bc

When the Chinese started to arrive in Canada in the 1850s, Victoria was the first place they settled. They were no more loved here than they were in San Francisco, yet they were able to hang on and would eventually prosper for the same reason they did farther south: they worked better and harder than anyone else.

victoria chinatown fan tan alleyIn many ways, they were treated by citizens and government like lepers, so it is of little surprise that the real lepers who were eventually found among them were not treated with care. The unfortunate men were discovered in a small shack in Victoria’s narrow Chinatown. It was not widely understood at the time that leprosy is not very contagious, and the Chinese were hated anyway, so the smaller of the two D’Arcy islands was quickly designated a leper colony and the men unceremoniously dumped there with supplies.

Imagine for a moment that you are in those men’s’ shoes. Let’s say bare feet instead, because leprosy can cause toes to disintegrate. So you are maybe missing some toes along with the rest of the disfigurement that is a hallmark of leprosy. You almost definitely have large sores on your body and you are overcome with fatigue. Now get out there and build yourself a lean-to, because those rains aren’t going to stop just because you have some nerve damage and skin issues. There’s no one to complain to, because everyone’s going through the same thing, and trying to one-up each other gets old really fast. And you can’t stand that guy over there with the permanent frown, but there’s nowhere to go to get away from him.

There’s nowhere to go.

A lean-to on a Sidney-area beach, with D'Arcy dark in the background.
A lean-to on a Sidney-area beach, with D’Arcy dark in the background.

It was 1891, and the island would house — if I may use the term “house” — lepers for about 30 years, nearly half of that in subhuman conditions with little medical care. Every three months a boat would drop off supplies, fresh clothes and opium. A doctor would take a quick look, and the men would be alone again.

A doctor reported in 1898 that when the boat was set to leave, the men “lined up on the beach and cried like children.”

In 1905, things finally started to change. Some funds from the lucrative immigrant head tax were funnelled to D’Arcy Island to start improving conditions. A year later, the Leprosy Act came into being and one year after that the men were repatriated to China and treating facilities were built on the island to treat incoming cases of leprosy.

victoria bc chinatownIt is believed about 50 men and possibly one woman spent time on D’Arcy Island. In 1924, the final five were transported to the new colony on Bentinck Island and D’Arcy was closed, and mostly forgotten.

If you kayak out there now, you’ll find a plaque commemorating their lonely struggles, and you might some artifacts from their lives. You will see mounds where they buried their friends through their own exhaustion and if you’re very quiet and listen to the wind maybe you will hear them crying, and begging to go home.



How San Francisco’s Chinatown survived against all odds

San Francisco Chinatown

SAN FRANCISCO – Two men and one woman of historical interest were among those who got off the American brig Eagle. It was 1848 and they were the first Chinese to arrive in San Francisco. It was 85 years before the Golden Gate Bridge opened and 84 years before the building of Alcatraz.

Those three people led a wave of emigrants fleeing unrest, famine and rebellion during and in the aftermath of the Opium War and were welcomed into the city for nearly a decade. But then the economy slumped and along with it the good intentions of white Americans.

The Chinese were forced out of their gold-mining jobs. Even more found themselves at loose ends when the railroad was finally completed in 1869.

Ross St., a narrow alleyway in the heart of "Little Canton"
Ross St., a narrow alleyway in the heart of “Little Canton”

A little thing like a recession was not enough to keep the Chinese of San Francisco down. They were superior farmers, and those not working the land worked as domestics or established laundries, restaurants and other businesses. Toss stereotypes around as you will, but these versatile people quickly found a niche to exploit and never gave up, even when faced with racist legislation.

A plaque in Chinatown tells the story of the labyrinth of little alleyways designed in the 1870s: “The rapidly growing community was restricted by anti-Chinese sentiments to a six-block area. … To maximize space within the confines of its boundary, the community created a maze of secondary streets and pedestrian walkways.

Women make fortune cookies in a little factory on Ross St.
Women make fortune cookies in a little factory on Ross St.

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 stamped out immigration from China. It prevented families from being reunited in America. It kept Chinese people from marrying outside their race, prevented them from voting, owning property or having most rights granted to whites. The act would remain in effect until 1943.

The great earthquake of 1906 that devastated San Francisco levelled Little Canton, or Chinatown, as San Franciscans had come to call it. As PBS says: “It seemed that what the city and country wanted for fifty years, nature accomplished in forty-five seconds.”

Their homes weren’t the only things to be destroyed in the quake: So were public records. The Chinese seized this opportunity to claim American citizenship, finally granting them the right to send for their families – especially their children – from China.

They grew. They rebuilt. They overcame. They are to be honoured and respected for their tenacity and resilience.

Recommended reading: The Story of Chinatown, by PBS