The lazaret at Peel Island, Moreton Bay

The lazaret at Peel Island, Moreton Bay

Teerk Roo Ra, place of many shells

by Peter Ludlow

In the 1850s, Chinese miners who flocked to the goldfields brought with them the bacterial disease, leprosy, which then quickly transferred to the Aborigines and South Sea Islanders who had little natural immunity to the disease. Today, the disease is known as Hansen’s Disease (after Armauer Hansen, a Norwegian who discovered the bacteria that cause it).

Back then, the disease was believed to be highly contagious with no known cure; by the 1890s sufficient Europeans had also contracted the disease to force the government to pass the Leprosy Act of 1892. This made leprosy a notifiable disease and forced those who contracted the disease to be sent to designated lazarets, or leper colonies, for treatment isolated from the general community. And, because there was no known cure, such internment was probably going to be a lifetime sentence.

By 1907, the inmates of Queensland’s several lazarets were all sent to a new one at Peel Island. Leprosy sufferers were often isolated from their families, with little, if any opportunity to say goodbye. When they arrived at the island they found themselves part of a multicultural community consisting of South Sea Islanders, Aborigines, Chinese, Europeans, and Queensland-born whites. There they were housed in four compounds: white males, white females, coloured males, and coloured females.

During the day, patients were free to roam the island but had to return to their compounds at night. The coloureds shared galvanised iron huts, however, the whites fared slightly better, having a wooden cabin each. White women also had a wood stove and kitchen in their huts and were encouraged to cook for themselves. The men, though, dined in the communal dining hut.

All images above courtesy of the State Library, Queensland. Click each image for details.

They weren’t formally ‘prisoners’, however, leprosy patients were not allowed to leave the island apart from being permitted to fish on the island’s reefs, and indeed fishing was one of their main forms of recreation. Other activities included cricket or tennis, billiards, reading, listening to the radio, gardening, and attending concerts and church services.

Accommodation on the island became cramped, so in 1940 the Aboriginal patients were removed to Fantome Island in the Palm Island Group. 

A breakthrough in the treatment of leprosy came in 1947 when Promin, the first drug to be used to successfully treat the disease, was introduced. Even so, it wasn’t until 1959 that patient numbers had dwindled enough to warrant the closure of the Peel Island lazaret.

The government unsuccessfully tried to sell off the empty buildings as a resort or fitness camp but to no avail – the stigma of leprosy remained, long after the disease had gone.

Peel Island lazaret - c.1955, building panorama (courtesy Dr Morgan Gabriel).

In 1993, the lazaret was declared a heritage site, and the rest of the island a national park, however a native title claim prevented the gazetting of the island as such. This was resolved in December 2007 when Peel was gazetted as Teerk Roo Ra (Place of Many Shells), a national park and a conservation park, jointly managed by the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service and the island’s traditional owners, the Quandamooka People. 

Peter Ludlow at a book signing.

Today, Teerk Roo Ra remains a popular destination for boaties who visit Horseshoe Bay to enjoy its isolation for a day before returning home to the mainland at night – a simple privilege which no leprosy patient ever had.

Last year, I accompanied a group of young tech enthusiasts – from CSIRO, The University of Queensland, and Queensland University of Technology – to Peel Island to film a documentary for the BBC. It was all part of the CyArk project with the aim being to digitise the lazaret, its buildings and surrounds. The project was guided by Nick Kwek, the show’s producer and director who came from London to do the filming. He understood the significance of the island’s fascinating human story and included me as a member of the team. I was able to supply the human history to the images of the now empty huts that the drones and robots were to film.

The film is now available for all to view on the BBC’s official YouTube account:

Peel Island is located off the coast of Queensland in Australia. In 1907 the island was designated as a quarantined hospital for those with leprosy - a so called 'lazaret'. Hundreds from the mainland were sent there in exile for a life sentence, with over half dying in isolation.

You can learn more of the history of Peel Island and Moreton Bay by visiting Peter Ludlow’s webpage, Moreton Bay History.

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