The Dark Past Of D’Arcy Island

Once a leper colony, this island in Gulf Islands National Park Reserve still has a spooky aura


The thought of leprosy fills most of us with horror. Perhaps because of this, it’s a disease most of us like to think does not exist in the modern world. We’ve relegated it to faraway lands and far off times.

In fact, it does exist today, and it wasn’t all that far away or even that long ago.

D’Arcy is a lonely little Salish Sea island just south of Sidney Island on British Columbia’s south coast. Located in Haro Strait between Vancouver Island’s Saanich Peninsula and the San Juan Islands of the US, its present population is zero. That’s partially because it has been a park since 1961, first provincially, and later added to the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve. It’s also partially because getting there is a challenge. Below the water around the island’s shores lurk numerous hazards, while above it, erratic, moody currents break on reefs and shoals. George Mercer, who was an ecologist with Parks Canada for more than three decades before retiring in 2012, knows D’Arcy Island well.


“It’s notorious when there’s a tide. You can see it from the air and it’s just wild. You have riptides all around, submerged rocks and powerful tides and currents. Boaters and kayakers have to really choose their time.” Mercer, who has since retired, has now turned his hand to writing popular mysteries based on some of these parks.

Possibly there’s even another reason for its lack of visitors, however: Its unsavoury past.


If Sub-Lieutenant John D’Arcy were still alive, he would probably not have been pleased that an 82-hectare
island that was once a leprosarium would soon be carrying his name. An officer aboard the HMS Herald on its surveying expedition to the Pacific in 1852 to 54, D’Arcy was promoted to captain in 1862, 29 years before the lonely island became home to 49 Chinese lepers* from across Canada who were quarantined by the colonial authorities and had no medical attention for 15 years.

But “quarantined” sounds way too kind a word for what happened to these victims of Hansen’s disease. Falling prey to the disease, they were victimized a second time by the treatment they received. The hostile waters around D’Arcy, as well as its isolated position, made it the perfect choice for Victoria city officials in 1891 when they first discovered five lepers hiding from them in a shack behind a store in Victoria’s Chinatown. The men were taken into custody and Victoria’s municipal council got busy obtaining permission from the government to set up D’Arcy as a lazaretto. In only two weeks the men were shipped off. After all, it doesn’t take long to build a row house of six, five-foot by eight-foot rooms, each with a single bed, table, chair and fireplace, and then to abandon dying people there.

It was a virtual prison, a place of no escape for the next 33 years, where this small group of sufferers would live out what remained of their lives without medical care.

Some did try to escape, probably preferring their subsequent drowning to a lingering incurable illness followed by death in an unmarked grave so very far away from their homeland; a homeland to which not even their bones would ever return. Two of the ill killed themselves rather than boarding that steamer to seclusion.

Is this the reason, I wonder, why so many people have been uncomfortable when coming to this island? When filmmaker, Erik Paulsson, stepped off the boat at D’Arcy, he wrote that he shivered. He was there to make a documentary on the forgotten victims here, Island of Shadows. “I remember getting off the boat and feeling a chill run through my body.” Writer/editor, Chuck Gould, who wrote of his experiences in Nor’westing Magazine, concluded his article by stating: “I’m not sure that I believe in ghosts, but I have to believe in D’Arcy Island. I have never seen a ghost but I left D’Arcy Island baffled by some very strange experiences ashore.”

Well-known maritime writer, Bill Wolferstan also warned in his cruising guide: “Visitors have reported spooky feelings here, especially at night.” So yes—the island has a strong reputation of being haunted, although not in the usual ways. “It does have an almost mysterious quality to it, I think, due to its history as a leper colony,” Mercer also says. He finds himself drawn frequently to the lonely island, finding it different from the other Gulf Islands.

During our one visit there, my partner and myself shared the feelings of these men. We felt the island was angry and hostile, that time was doing strange things, that the dark, mossy interior of the small island was closing in on us and that the usual solitude in nature that we love had become threatening. We found ourselves longing for voices and human company but even that day in the height of summer there was no one there to break the eerie spell.

In March of 1891, a reporter with the Victoria paper, The Daily Colonist, accompanied health officials on one of their four annual visits to the island aboard a supply ship carrying a cheery cargo of supplies, opium and coffins, and found the lepers suffering as much from their isolation as their disease. With no doctors or nurses stationed there, the officials were the only contact the quarantined victims had with the outside world and the only break in the relentless routine of keeping alive while waiting for death. Most of the colony’s members were too incapacitated to work, so those further from death cared for the others, tended a one-acre garden, kept a few ducks, chickens and pigs, obtained firewood for the fireplaces and presumably supplemented the government rations with seafood or game, although there is no mention of this. They buried their dead in rude graves which moldered into obscurity. Their location is unknown to the general public but an inconspicuous plaque placed there 20 years ago gives the names of some of those 14 buried here.

Other buildings were added in 1899 and the colony eked on from 1891 to 1924 when the Federal Government took over and moved the group to Bentinck Island near William Head, close to Victoria where their life was somewhat improved. This colony existed until 1957.

The row houses on D’Arcy were deliberately burnt by the government in 1960 just before the island became a park. An upper fenced area where the Chinese castaways lived is bordered by a sweeping beach that should look beautiful but somehow even in sunshine manages to be foreboding. The very absence of people is haunting. The trees look threatening. The campsite is located here as well, currently closed in these contagious times, but empty most of the time anyway.

Other than two fenced areas and the signs, there is nothing to show the suffering and the lives and deaths of those quarantined here. Although still shunned by most, the Caucasian “lepers” were sent to eastern Canada for a considerably better and less isolated treatment. (Now we know that Hansen’s disease is only mildly contagious and that it is curable. COVID-19 is exponentially more easily spread.)


Today D’Arcy reminds us of a brutal and prejudiced time in our recent history. I cannot help but compare the quarantine these unfortunate Chinese lepers had to endure to the quarantines many of us are under today. Prejudice may not yet be eradicated but look how far we’ve come; we draw comfort in the current phrase: we are all in this together. The Chinese lepers of D’Arcy Island did not have that comfort.

*People affected by leprosy have asked that the word “leper” no longer be used. They find it an offensive term that has historically been used to justify appalling treatment and the passing of stigmatizing legislation. It has been used here to illustrate that historic ignorance.

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