Place of Shells (currently unpublished), is about an eighteen-year-old girl who, in 1944, is diagnosed with leprosy and sent to live at the Peel Island lazaret in Moreton Bay, Queensland. Leprosy (the medical term is ‘Hansen’s Disease’), is a chronic infectious bacterial disease that affects the skin and nerves. In severe, untreated cases it can lead to significant disfigurement and deformity. Prior to 1946, there was no cure; ‘treatment’ was isolation. Governments defended this by claiming they were being considerate of patients’ sensibilities. In reality, patients were locked up due to a misguided fear of contagion and the desire to ostracise based on centuries-old beliefs (beginning in the bible) about leprosy as an immoral and loathsome disease. Many patients who were sent to Peel Island died there and were buried in unmarked graves.
The Lazaret opened in 1907 as a ‘multi-racial’ lazaret. Patients included “Europeans, Chinese, Indian, Aboriginal and Melanesians”. In 1940, anyone deemed ‘coloured’ (i.e., not of white European origin) was removed from the island and sent under police escort to Fantome Island, off the coast of Townsville. Although an effective cure was introduced in 1946, the Peel Island Lazaret did not close until 1959. Fantome Island stayed open until 1973.
There was little scientific evidence to justify incarceration, and there were some objections. As far back as the late nineteenth century, world experts argued against isolation, but the Queensland health authorities ignored this advice.
Hansen’s Disease is one of the few infectious diseases where sufferers were banished to islands. People suffering from smallpox, influenza, typhus and the plague were not treated in this way even though these diseases were more contagious and caused more epidemics and deaths worldwide.
The Quandamooka people are the traditional custodians of Peel Island (Teerk Roo Ra, which means “Place of Many Shells”). Anyone who was sent to the Peel Island Lazaret experienced shame for contracting the disease and grief over the separation, often permanent, from loved ones, but for the Quandamooka people, this history is especially painful.
Earlier this year, I contacted the Elders Council in Dunwich because I wanted to ensure that the Aboriginal characters and indigenous cultural elements I have included in my story are accurately represented and are not going to upset or offend the Quandamooka people. (Some minor characters in my novel are Aboriginal women from Dunwich, and the landscape and some specific sites on the island are described in detail.) Last week, I had the great privilege of meeting one of the Minjerribah Moorgumpin Elders. After three hours, I came away with my head spinning. It was evident that my book touched a nerve with the Elders. This period had been a very distressing time for the Quandamooka people. They had been restricted to living at the Myora Mission at Dunwich, forced to work in menial tasks, including travelling by boat each day to the lazaret to work in the laundry and wash the dirty bandages. I listened to stories, and heard the pain of this history. I acknowledge the deep sorrow that continues as a result.
The meeting enriched my cultural knowledge and gave me more confidence with regard to the Aboriginal characters and practices I have included in Place of Shells. The Elder requested some small adjustments to the text, to which I readily agreed. Though my story is entirely fictional, the isolation and suffering of patients and the forced labour of the Quandamooka people was real. The establishment of the lazaret on Peel Island exposed the uncomfortable and shameful truth of our attitudes to both race and disease.