For millennia, leprosy was one of the most feared diseases, but also one of the most mysterious, in part because any one of a range of skin complaints may have been mistakenly identified as leprosy. It was believed to be highly contagious, hence lepers being exiled from their communities. But it also had a strange way of appearing and disappearing; the reasons are still being debated in the scientific community.
Although it was known earlier, there was an epidemic in Europe in the 11th-14th centuries, to which the church and the community responded with alms houses and hospitals. But, after the Black Death, it seems that in Europe the disease was in retreat and many of the charitable institutions were put to other uses for lack of patients.
In some parts of the world, such as India, it continued to be endemic, but there were also unexpected epidemics, for example in Norway at the beginning of the 19th century. This outbreak led to considerable research in the country, with attention being paid to questions of hygiene and poverty, as possible causes. The nature of the disease was established in mid-century by the Norwegian, Gerhard Henrik Armauer Hansen – hence it is now commonly known as Hansen’s Disease.
Other epidemics occurred, for example in Hawai’i, in the 19th century, when a virgin population came into contact with a disease against which they had no resistance, perhaps carried by Chinese immigrants or foreign sailors.
I would have liked to have had a first person account from Norway or Hawai’i, but failed to find one, however, the following, collected in Columbia in the 21st c., reflect the experiences suffered across the world over the centuries.
My father took me to see my aunt, who lived in Socorro, so that I could say good-bye to her. She knew of my situation and took me to a place some distance from the house, where one could see the mountains quite a long way away to the south. And then she said to me, showing me the mountains in the distance: my little son, those mountains over there in the distance are where they are going to take you and none of those whom they take there ever leave again, because they die. Because their arms fall off and their hands fall off and their feet fall off and they become completely disfigured, and they never again let them out of that place. So we here never see them again.
An account of the journey to the lazaretto collected in 2013 in the leper colony of Contratación:
My mother proved to be sick and in those days they hunted down sick just as today they hunt down the guerrillas, and so she had to go to Contratación….
A very mixed group of lepers painfully made their way through the pass in the mountains…..worn out elders, men in the prime of life, young mothers, marriageable girls and even babes-in-arms made up the band….Some of the sufferers carried their possessions, bringing with them an old mat, a towel, their blanket, and some might have a fine cock, multi-coloured and one-eyed, with a fighting spur, and a dog, thin and worn out, like honour itself…There are always sad and disturbing scenes. The mother who finds her beloved daughter in the group, the son who recognizes his father….It is paradoxical to see the husband who was not prepared to follow his partner when she was sacrificed and driven out into exile; buttressed by prejudice, beset by fears, he believed – wrongly – that he would be spared the fatal disease….
Arrival in the colony could also involve traumatic meetings with family. The following is an oral account given in 2014 by a woman in the lazaretto of Agua de Dios:
The arrival was dramatic. Very painful though and very sad, because my Papa thought I was in Popayán. A man who had come to collect me at the first check point before the entry to the lazaretto called a policeman and told him they should warn my father…..he said: “Look for ‘Chucho the partygoer’, that is Chucho Gonzales, because his daughter is here, arrived from Popayán.” My father didn’t believe it then and there, so the policeman and the manager sent a driver, who was called Señor Carmona, whose hands were diseased and also his nose, but he had good eyes, blue, blue…..and the policeman said to me: “Come on, little girl, they have come for you, do you hear? Your father has sent for you and is over there waiting.” [And they said to Papa]: “Look, look! There’s your little daughter! There’s your little daughter!” [And the father answered]: “Daughter? That skinny little thing? No, no, no! My daughters are in Popayán studying. Where did you pick this child up? Well, if you picked her up, keep her, because she’s not mine!” Then Papa said; “Where are you from, little one? I don’t see that you’re from Popayán, no, not Popayán.” My sister recognized me and pulled me out of the window of the car and screamed and cried: “It’s our little girl! It’s our little girl!” [I asked] “Why are you crying, Papa?” [The father answered]: No, because I’m happy, little one, because you came here to be with us, oh yes, you are going to be here with us.”
From: Historial oral y memoria de los enfermos de Hansen en dos lazaretos de Colombia: trayectorias de vida, conflictos y resistencias; Natalia Botero-Jaramillo, Jessica Mora-Blanco, Nelson Daniel Quesada-Jiménez; Hist. cienc. saude-Manguinhos vol.24 no.4 Rio de Janeiro Oct./Dec. 2017
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