Cast Away and Left to Die

“A middle-aged, motherly little woman with her hair in a neat bun answered our knock at her screened-in veranda door. Inside we found a friendly warmth about the modestly furnished room. In a corner, a bowlegged wood stove crackled. The smell of baking was strong in the room.

“There was a cake in the oven,” she explained. It was for ‘the boys,’ the one-eyed Chinese and the Japanese. Last week she had baked them a jelly roll. This week, for a change, she had baked them a cake. We had arrived a little too early to ‘have a piece,’ she said with a twinkle. But, the humor was the kind that struck at the heart …”

The writer was Cy Young in the telling of the story for Maclean’s Magazine readers in 1948 of – “three of the loneliest people in Canada” – serving a life sentence of isolation on Bentinck Island roughly 12 miles by sea from Victoria BC (with Race Rocks a close neighbour) because they were suffering from leprosy, a disease loathsome in appearance and, since Biblical times, thought highly infectious. Because most victims were Chinese, it was known in Canada as Chinese leprosy.

The three survivors on Bentinck were a middle-aged “matronly woman who has been a missionary in Africa, an old Chinese who talks pidgin English and a 29-year-old Japanese who is studying carpentry by mail. They have only one pathetic thing in common – they are lepers.”

It was back in March 1891 that the City of Victoria’s health inspector was first asked to check on reports of Chinese males sleeping on the sidewalks of the Chinese quarter. Renisa Mawani, University of BC Sociology, in a detailed Historical Account of Pandemic: Health, Colonialism and Racism in Canada, informs us the inspector discovered five Chinese males thought to be inflicted with leprosy. It was recommended that the city establish a leprosy colony on D’Arcy Island.

With provincial government assistance, D’Arcy became home for 49 lepers until 1924, when the federal government assumed control, closed D’Arcy and opened Bentinck Island as a new site.

With the passing of the years, D’Arcy faded from memory until reporter Kim Luman writing in the Globe and Mail in October 2000, visited the old site and reported: “The bones of Ng Chung lie here. And although the grave is unmarked and his story may never entirely be told, his name is being remembered now for the first time in more than 100 years since he was sent to this small island off the coast of British Columbia to die. Ng Chung was one of the first five Chinese men banished to D’Arcy in 1891.”

Now in charge of providing care for lepers, the federal government didn’t try to hide its racist policies. Canada already encouraged segregated Chinese schools and openly admitted only white people contracting leprosy to a leper colony in Tracadie, New Brunswick, operating as a hospital with doctors and nurses. Any leper with Chinese ancestry was sent to D’Arcy or, after its closure in 1924, to Bentinck, which continued to operate until 1956, when the last man died. In total, 10 died in Bentinck and 14 on D’Arcy.

Only a few were possessors of what reporter Cy Young described as the warm humour shown when his hostess said her cake was too soon out of the oven to cut them a slice, a gentle apology for the rules they had to observe.

It had been agreed that the nameless “hostess” should remain so, known only to relatives, staff and the government records branch, the fear of leprosy being so great that patients and close relatives needed protection from an easily aroused and prejudiced public. The lady revealed she had contracted leprosy while working as a missionary in Africa. One day, she noticed a loss of sensation in her left leg, and a medical diagnosis confirmed leprosy.

When she was moved to Bentinck a year before Young’s visit, she was a bed patient. She still had partial paralysis in her left leg, a lack of sensation in several parts of her body and some weakness in her forearms. But she was no longer confined to bed.

“The disease itself is not so bad,” she said. “Nor is the isolation. It is being cast out that hurts. If people took a different, more sensible attitude to our disease, there is no reason why we should not be allowed to live in an institution such as a tuberculosis sanatorium. My friends have stood by me. They think more of me now than they ever did. But some of my acquaintances will not visit my family anymore because I am here. That hurts me very much.”

And what did she do with her time day after endless day?

“Oh, we have our little times,” she said, motioning to her fresh-baked cake. “Sometimes I write for the church paper or sew or knit. Sometimes I read or sit listening to the radio.”

We lose track of the nameless hostess after Bentinck closed down and can only hope she had many more “little times,” cakes cool enough to cut and the calm example of how to handle adversity.

One comment

  1. We may still have a long way to go to embrace dignity and equality, but this flashback shows how far we’ve come.

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