Wednesday, 16 September 2009


Chacachacare is the largest of the small islands that lie off the northwestern coast of Trinidad. It has an interesting history as leper colony. The original Leprosarium was located at Cocorite but with the discovery in the early 20th century that leprosy was, in fact, contagious, the colonial authorities moved to establish an "off-shore" leper colony on the relatively remote island. According to Fr. Anthony de Verteuil's "Western Isles"... In spite of many protests, the Colonial Authorities pressed on with the project. On May 20th 1921, paper no.58 was laid before the legislative council for the removal of the Cocorite Leper Asylum to the island of Chacachacare.
Today the island is eerie and deserted. With the advent of antibiotics to treat Hansen's Disease or Leprosy, the Leprosarium returned its last boatload of patients to the mainland on July 24th 1984. The island has taken back the buildings but many have held on tenaciously with the fretwork panels and staircases still intact.
We used to visit the island very often in the early 1990's and explore to our hearts' content. All the beds remained in the wards and patient records lay in their folders. The entire place had the feel of a deserted city. But it is almost all gone.
Despite the beauty of Chacachacare, it is not hard to imagine the misery suffered by the patients separated from their loved ones and banished for a lifetime. The patient's cemetery has been reclaimed by the forest and is now difficult to find.
The jetty still stands with its galvanised roof now frilly and decorative with age.
The history of the Dominican Nuns in Trinidad is closely linked to the care of lepers in Trinidad. These nuns were the primary caregivers of the lepers dating back to 1868. It was natural that they would move to the island and form the backbone of the small colony.
When we visited last month, we we able to find the small Nun's Cemetery that pays tribute to these selfless women who lived and died on the island. Many of the nuns were originally from France with others coming from Madeira. De Verteuil's "Western Isles" tells us that at the death of a sister it was customary that a steamer went round the bay of Chacachacare with its flag flying at half-mast and when passing in front of Marine Bay, blew its siren three times as a sign of sympathy with the sisters' bereavement

Today the bays are deserted and beautiful. There are many stories about these islands. One of the more popular ones is that the Coast Guard had set up a small security post on Chacachacare in the late 1990's. After a very short period, the officers refused to stay claiming that the island was haunted by the nuns. We can only hope that the ghosts of nuns are an equally strong deterrent to errant smugglers and mischief makers.
On the day that we visited, all the Savonetta trees were in bloom as they usually are in August and the sea was full of the lilac blooms. This is also the time of year that the yellow butterflies make their way from the mainland and can be seen coming across the sea in drifting colonies.
The doctors house is now in ruins.But one can still sense how beautiful it must have been in its heyday.
Dr. Wilfred Urich was one of the first doctors to live permanently on the island, in Rust's Bay. His children lived on the island with him until they were old enough to go to school. In all Dr. Urich spent 16 years on the island.


  1. What beautiful images! Thank you for sharing!

  2. Nice post - I've never been to Chacachacare...I believe one of my neighbours was sent there and then returned when it was closed - not sure of the length of time. Thanks for posting about this bit of our history.

  3. Nice post Sharon, good to see you back !

  4. Hi Chennette,
    Your neighbour lived there briefly? That must have been interesting. When I was a medical rep I used to see people all the time in the hospital clinic with Hansen's disease but it did not progress once they were on medication. It always amazed me that so many lives were destroyed by a bacteria that is so treatable today. We've probably all been exposed to the disease but only a very small population actually contract it.

  5. Thanks Mark and Tatyana. It's nice to be back.

  6. Interestingly enough I went to Chac in November, 2009 on a Field Naturalist hike. We had 3 hours before the boat returned to pick us up so my hubby and I hiked with our girls across the bay to see what was left of the old place and for the girls (11 and 8 years) to take in a bit of history whilst it was still there. The first picture I took is the exact image of the one you took of that specific nun's grave. Felt drawn to it by the brevity of her years and the fact that she left France to die so young on this little island that probably few people had ever heard of. Life is odd that way sometimes isn't it. It takes you on the most unexpected paths.


  7. I have been researching Chacacacare for a few weeks now after finding out my grandfather, Joseph Reece Paul lived there with his mother Madalise Augustine till 1922 when they had to move because of the leper colony. I would love to visit one day, but even more so find out where my grandfather went between his time at Chacacacare and his settlement in Liverpool, UK. I'd also be interested to hear anything about the population before 1922 - what were their origins, how did they get there, how did they live. I find it all very fascinating and would be grateful for any information....