Less than 5 miles off the northwest coast of Trinidad, the most westerly isle of the Bocas del Dragon archipelago, Chacachacare rises out of the sea. Just 900 acres of rocky land covered by scrubby plants and poisonous Manchineel trees, Chacachacare has a dark and storied past. Home at various times to cotton plantations, sugar and cocoa estates, and a whaling station, the island is perhaps most notorious as a former leper colony, housing patients from 1922 to 1984.
By the mid-nineteenth century, the population of lepers in Port of Spain numbered over 300. Those affected by the highly contagious and (at the time) incurable disease wandered the streets begging, many of them exiled from their own families. In an effort to contain the disease, the British government in Trinidad established a leper colony in Cocorite in 1845, and in 1868 invited a group of Dominican nuns from Burgundy, France to care for patients. The nuns dedicated their lives to the leprosarium, risking their own health for the sake of their wards.
It wasn’t until 1993 that the full story of the Dominican sisters of Chacachacare came to light when Marie Therese Retout, a nun of the same Order, discovered the diaries of the nursing sisters in an old storeroom in Holy Name Convent, Port of Spain. Captured therein was a vivid portrait of the arduous and isolated lives that the sisters lived as they cared for some of the most stigmatised and reviled people in the country.
Chacachacare, isolated as it was from the rest of the nation, was considered the perfect location for the founding of a new leper colony when it was decided that the Cocorite leprosarium did not adequately prevent the spread of the disease. In 1870, a lighthouse was built, followed by a stone pier and a sanatorium. By 1880, the Dominican sisters had built St. Catherine’s Church, school and presbytery in the La Chapelle bay. However, it was not until 1922 that the patients were transferred to their new residence. Many of the patients were frightened by the isolation of Chacachacare and did not wish to leave the mainland; to avoid hysteria, those in charge kept the move a secret until the morning of the relocation. Once the Cocorite leprosarium was vacant, it was set on fire in the belief it was contaminated.
Thus began a new life for the sisters and their patients. Life on the deserted island was a struggle; to administer to their patients, the sisters travelled by boat between their own lodgings at Marine Bay, and those at Sanders Bay and Coco Bay, for women and men, respectively. There are accounts of nuns falling overboard, collapsing from exhaustion in the heat, and themselves contracting leprosy. Yet the dedicated sisters continued to serve. Eventually, though, it became difficult to replace the ageing sisters with younger, more able ones as fewer and fewer young people chose to pursue a life in the church. With no replacements available, the Dominican sisters withdrew from the Chacachacare leprosarium in 1950, leaving a local nursing team to care for the patients until, with the success of new treatments, the leprosarium was closed in 1984.
Today all that remains of this story are the ruins. You can still see doctor’s office, the remains of the patients’ quarters, the decaying Convent where the sisters lived, and the Chapel where they worshipped. The only inhabitants on the island now are the lighthouse keepers who continue to keep watch. It is a job not for the faint of heart, considering the ghosts that are said to haunt the forsaken island still.