Long Reads

Culion Island: A Former Leper Colony Hidden in Paradise

Once a colony where leprosy patients were quarantined for life, the island is now coming into its own.
IMAGE Archival photographs courtesy of The Lopez Museum
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Word spreads in the barangay that the sanitario is coming. You feared this day, ever since those patches started to appear on her arms. At first, they were easily covered under a bell-sleeved camisa, but when a pale lesion broke out on your seven-year-old daughter’s once smooth face, you decided to keep her home from school. She also had to stop attending mass. Nobody knows anything about the condition, but the village priest says that it is God’s punishment upon sinners, upon the unclean and their children. The neighbors whisper that she was nakulam. But it is the government who renders the final judgment: she is a criminal, and she must be taken to the Island of No Return.

It was the year 1907 and the Philippine Commission passed into law Act 1711, which gave the Health Director almost total control over what was considered to be the unbridled leprosy problem in the Philippines. The Americans were in control of the country, and the image of Manila as a “pest-hole of filth” and of Filipinos as dirty and unhygienic justified continued American presence under Governor General William Taft, who was tasked to "clean up" the country.

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Some would try to escape or commit suicide. Many of them went crazy. And yet, life still flourished in the colony. Segregation became the new norm.

There were at least 5,000 people who were thought to be afflicted with leprosy at the turn of the century, but less conservative reports pegged the number at 30,000. Many hid themselves, but many more also lived out in the open, as beggars, as workers, as beautiful women who would seduce an untainted man with a kiss. Officials were paranoid about the supposed highly infectious tropical disease spreading to American soldiers, who would in turn carry it back to the United States. Without a known cure, containment seemed to be the only solution.

The Director of Health and his authorized agents are hereby empowered to cause to be apprehended, and detained, isolated, segregated, or confined, all leprous persons in the Philippine Islands... It shall be the duty of every Insular, provincial or municipal official having police powers to cause to be arrested... (Act 1711)

Dean Worcestor, the Secretary of the Interior, and Dr. Victor Heiser, the Director of the Health Bureau, chose the sparsely inhabited and isolated island of Culion in Palawan as their project site, to be modeled after the leper colony of Molokai in Hawaii. They built an entire functioning town with separate facilities and quarters for the patients and for those who would care for them—even further segregation in the colony within a colony.

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Today, banishing the contagiously diseased to a faraway place would be unthinkable, not to mention impossible to implement. Imagine establishing a Guantanamo for people with Ebola, a Robben Island for those living with AIDS, or a Disneyland for the unvaccinated. As a society we have come to realize that a person is not defined by a disease, yet that still has not removed the stigma that has been placed upon the ill. A hundred years ago, it was a cruel and controversial measure to forcefully segregate people who tested positive for Mycobacterium leprae, the bacterium that causes leprosy (also known as Hansen’s disease), an ancient and thoroughly mysterious infection. It was only possible by making it illegal to be in possession of the bacillus, of harboring this pubic health threat.

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With war declared on leprosy, there was no mercy for those collected by the sanitario, or the much-reviled local health inspector. “Lepers ran into the forests like hunted animals while parents hid their leprous children in granaries. When an arrest was finally made, the family’s wails of anguish were so terrible it was as though death itself had struck them then,” writes Cristina V. Rodriguez in the epic coffee table book on lepers, Culion Island: A Leper Colony's 100-Year Journey Toward Healing. The detainees were shipped off to Culion with little to no hope of ever being reunited with their families.

On the island, the people afflicted with leprosy would live out the rest of their lives in whatever sorry sightless, limbless state they degenerate into before death claimed them. Some would try to escape or commit suicide. Many of them went crazy. And yet, life still flourished in the colony. Segregation became the new norm. A new community emerged, one made up of diverse languages and dialects, a microcosmic Philippines. Men, women, and children lived virtually regular lives, working, fishing and tending to farms, going to school, playing musical instruments, watching the Sunday cockfight.

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They fell in love. Sometimes, they were allowed to marry. During one period where marriage was banned, the men staged a revolt that would come to be known as “Manchuria.” Around 300 men stormed the plaza armed with bolos and sticks, then proceeded to raid the Hijas de Maria, the largest women's dormitory. Neither the colony chief nor the nuns who ran the dormitories could do much to stop them. Many of the women absconded with the men over the next few days. A few of them returned the following week. A year later, giving in to much complaint, the marriage ban was lifted.

Today, around 90 percent of those living in Culion are directly descended from former patients or are former patients themselves. In 2000, there were no active leprosy cases left due to the effective campaign of MDT (multi-drug therapy) from the ‘80s onwards, and in 2006 the World Health Organization declared the island leprosy-free. Slowly and in manageably small numbers, the tourists have been coming, usually as a side trip from island hopping in Coron, curious to see what has become of the Land of the Living Dead, an island that has been kept in relative isolation for a century, finally transforming stigma into pride through the story of overcoming.

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The port of Coron serves as the jump-off point to your Culion adventure. The hour-and-a-half boat ride will take you across the Coron Bay, where hilly islands ripple on the horizon. The mark of the island is a white bird, a spread-winged American eagle, logo of the Philippine Health Service, made of coral stones hauled up to the top of a mountain by the inmates themselves. As the boat enters the harbor, a barn-red building on a promontory comes into view, its symbols for Alpha and Omega providing a religious counterpoint to science. It is the backside of a 400-year-old church built within a stone fortress. Before the Americans, the Spanish colonizers built fortresses with towers and canons as a defense against the marauding Moros from Mindanao and other hostile natives. 

Culion feels like a town that has just been roused from slumber. In 1992, President Corazon Aquino signed the act creating the municipality of Culion; three years later, the first election of municipal and barangay officials was held. After a century of isolationism and full government-provided services, the people of Culion have had to figure things out for themselves for the last two decades. First on their agenda is to promote tourism. What was once the island's disgrace is now its historical cachet; see, for example, how many visitors travel to Auschwitz each year to walk through a Nazi death camp, or how favelas tours in Rio de Janeiro are marketed as a more authentic alternative to football and caipirinhas on the beach.

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Unfortunately, most of the historical buildings that comprised the colony, where leprous individuals had to eke out a separate life, have fallen to great disrepair. They have either been abandoned or appropriated for other use, and additionally they were not spared by Typhoon Yolanda. Only the hospital, formerly called the Culion Sanitarium, remains functioning. Now called Culion Sanitarium and General Hospital, it is a full-fledged medical facility servicing patients from all over Northern Palawan.

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Of course, we don't expect the General Kitchen, the Injection Center, or the Nursery where newborn babies of leprous parents are taken away—forever—to still be operating. But these institutional relics would definitely make for an interesting tour, giving guests a glimpse of what it was actually like to live as a leper in the 1920s and ‘30s.

All the memorabilia available, from hospital records to archaic medical instruments were organized, curated and woven into a narrative through which Culion remembers itself.

“Culion has a rich history. Our problem, when it comes to promoting tourism, is that the basic services here are still incomplete,” Onie Rosello, the Secretary to the Sangguniang Bayan tells me. “Because of the lack of lodging houses, Culion is just a part of Coron tour packages, a spillover. But It's better to know Culion as Culion, not as part of Coron.” We are at Hotel Maya, the lone hotel on the island and a training facility for the tourism students of Loyola College of Culion. I was just informed that power interruptions are a regular thing. I was in my room when the lights went out the night before, thinking about all the unfortunate souls who used to walk these hallways, sleep in these beds, and look out over the ocean, longing for their loved ones. Did I mention Hotel Maya was that same Hijas de Maria girls’ dormitory, run by the Sisters of St. Paul de Chartres?

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On a deeper level, tourism and its related activities can help uplift Culion from economic deprivation, and more importantly empower those formerly affected by leprosy to live a life of freedom, dignity and self-determination. Having been completely dependent on handouts during the period of segregation, these people need to be given livelihood opportunities to be productive members of the community. But it is also necessary that the people of Culion embrace their heritage. “You can't appreciate what Culion is now without knowing its history,” Rosello says.

Incredibly, almost everybody in the entire island can trace their lineage back through a pile of medical records. As a leper colony within a colony of America, there was a mandate to document every patient, or “inmate,” who was brought into the facility. No one was unaccounted for, and everything that had to do with public health and the individual body was measured and recorded, down to one's bacteriological count. The population of Culion was effectively surveilled and controlled by the medical administrators and the hospital chief, who governed by the early 20th century American ideals of cleanliness and modern sanitary science. If dirt can be dispelled, it was believed, then order will prevail.

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One of the highlights of the centennial celebration in 2006 was the opening of the Culion Leprosy Museum and Archives. All the memorabilia available, from hospital records to personal accounts, fading photographs and archaic medical instruments were organized, curated and woven into a narrative through which Culion remembers itself and through which outsiders come to understand Culion: as a symbol of suffering, as a shelter for lepers, as a leading center for research and treatment, and finally as a transformative place with hope at its heart. Dr. Arturo Cunanan, who led the crusade against leprosy with MDT, has called the records the “remnants of our past. While those records may seem outdated, they mean something powerful, but I cannot explain why they are powerful.”


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The crumbling walls of the former men’s dormitory, whose roof was destroyed by the super typhoon. Further out, verdant hills reveal a bit of Culion’s natural beauty.

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But you don't come to Culion only to dwell on its past. Spend a full day on a Kawil Tours-organized boat trip to the mangrove reforestation site, followed by a snorkeling session near Lusong island, where the wreck of a small WW2 Japanese gunboat lies in its shallow grave (the stern can be seen on the surface at low tide). Lunch is prepared back on the boat, fresh seaweed and handline caught fish, and you can even spend a leisurely afternoon attempting to catch your own fish using the kawil, a simple fishing contraption made of nylon string rolled around a bamboo stump. The last snorkeling site they’ll take you to is aptly named Crowning Glory reef, a pristine marine-protected reef so dense with coral and fish it’s almost psychedelic, easily one of the best places to snorkel in the Philippines.

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You will view Culion differently once more. It is an island marked by trauma, wrapped in immense natural beauty. There was something about the island that made Jun Tibi and Guido Sarreal, tourism volunteers from Manila, partner with Culion-born Elee Bulotano and Renlee Cubelo to form Kawil Tours, the socially responsible eco-tour group that has won a TAYO Award (Ten Accomplished Youth Organizations). Says Elee, “We’re called kawil because this is how we view our efforts—we cast a line out, and slowly, one by one, visitors are drawn in.” Culion’s story is a unique and remarkable one—a triumphant tale of how an island of lepers managed to change its spots. People will indeed get hooked.

This article originally appeared in our March 2015 issue.

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About The Author
Audrey N. Carpio
Features Editor, Esquire Philippines
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