While sailing around the beautiful Palm Islands in north Queensland, we stopped at Fantome Island, once the site of an indigenous leper colony. This place is a eery mixture of paradise and prison: it's now abandoned, but it was used as a dumping ground for people with the disease between 1928 and 1945. My article was published in Australian Geographic no 99.

Unseen suffering

Australia's victims of leprosy were forcibly removed from society and sent to colonies.

‘Living death’ is more than a grim epithet for leprosy. It was also, not so long ago, an apt description of the existence faced by sufferers of the disease in Australia.

Leprosy, or Hansen's disease, entered the country through immigration, particularly during the gold rush of the mid-1800s, and spread quickly through indigenous communities. By the late 1800s, the dreaded bacterial disease – transmitted by prolonged close contact – was perceived as such a threat that segregation of sufferers became compulsory and 'leper colonies' sprung up around the country. The largest were on Peel Island in Queensland’s Moreton Bay, Darwin Harbour’s Channel Island and in the WA town of Derby.

“In the early days there was no cure . . . and [doctors] didn’t know how [leprosy] was transmitted,” explains Peter Ludlow, historian and author of Peel Island: Paradise or Prison? Being sent to a leprosarium was virtually a life sentence and this wasn’t only back in our distant past. Australia’s last leprosarium, in Derby, closed in 1989. The disease is all but eliminated, but a few cases are still diagnosed each year.

Many leprosaria were in idyllic places, but paradise can be a prison if you’re not free to leave. And not all were remote; in Sydney the Little Bay Lazaret (a building used for quarantine) treated more than 180 cases from 1883 to 1933 and was part of the Prince Henry Hospital.

“Leprosy was stigmatised as a ‘coloured person’s disease’ because across northern Australia [most] people who contracted the disease once it was endemic were indigenous,” says Dr Suzanne Parry, Western Australian College of Teaching director and author of A Suitable Island Site: Leprosy in the Northern Territory and the Channel Island Leprosarium. This allowed authorities to deploy containment strategies that might not otherwise have been accepted. Authorities in WA even maintained a ‘leper line’ that kept sufferers north of the 25th parallel.

Early leprosaria were little more than dumping grounds. Modern facilities, such as the one on Peel Island, had a surgery, and nurses and patients’ quarters, segregated according to race and gender. About 740 people were admitted, including 186 who never left. Shut down in 1959 after 52 years, the Peel Island leprasorium infrastructure is relatively intact. The male, female and indigenous quarters and many other buildings remain, as does the cemetery. Tours are organised by the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service.

Leprosarium closures followed the discovery in the 1940s that sulfone drugs could effectively treat the disease.

Megan Holbeck