Chacachacare: Once Upon An Island

David Tindall visits Chacachacare, a tiny island off the coast of Trinidad, and unlocks some of the mysteries of a place that for many years was the only home to a colony of nuns and their leprosy patients

  • View from the chaplain's house. Photograph by Catherine Gillo
  • General Santiago Marino. Photograph by Catherine Gillo
  • The Chachacare lighthouse was built in the 1870s. Photograph by Catherine Gillo
  • Sister Marie Therese at the Sisters' Cemetery, Marine Bay. Photograph by Catherine Gillo
  • Original diary entry for 27 December, 1937. Photograph by Catherine Gillo
  • Sister Marie Therese at the Resource Centre, Holy Name Convent, Port of Spain, where her research continues. Photograph by Catherine Gillo
  • Group of Dominican Sisters at the Cocorite leprosarium, 1920·22. Front row, second from left, is Sister Marie Purification Chatelaine, the first nun to die at Chacachacare. Photograph by Catherine Gillo
  • Sisters' dormitory. Photograph by Catherine Gillo
  • Convent at Chacachacare. Photograph by Catherine Gillo
  • Sister Rose de Sainte Marie Vebert. Photograph by Catherine Gillo
  • Sister Marie Benedict, right, died in Trinidad in 1994; Sister Agnes, left, died in 1998 in Guadeloupe. The settlement at Cocos Bay for male patients can be seen in the background. Photograph by Catherine Gillo
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  • This building housed the chaplin's quarters, upstairs, and the Sisters' chapel, below. It was built around 1924. Photograph by Catherine Gillo
  • Sister's chapel. Photograph by Catherine Gillo
  • Doctor's quarters. Photograph by Catherine Gillo
  • View from the lighthouse window, with Venezuela in the distance. Photograph by Catherine Gillo
  • This chapel was used daily by the nuns. Photograph by Catherine Gillo
  • Sister Marie Therese Retout heads for Marine Bay, Chacachacare. Photograph by Catherine Gillo

These days it’s mostly foreign yachtsmen who find their way to Chacachacare and anchor, just as Columbus did in 1498, among the bottle-nosed dolphins and hawksbill turtles in Marine Bay. There is nothing to tell them what went on here down the ages, except the vandalised buildings peeping through dense forest; no-one to explain that this little island, Trinidad and Tobago’s farthest outpost, only seven miles from Venezuela’s Paria peninsula and 10 miles from Port of Spain, was at one time a springboard for the revolution that finally ended Spanish control of South America, and later the last sanctuary for society’s outcasts – a leper colony.

The Trinidad and Tobago government would like to see Chacachacare become an integral part of its plans to make 14,500 acres of Trinidad’s Chaguaramas parkland on the northern peninsula a tourist attraction, with wildlife trails, guides, historical sites and marine sports facilities. In that respect Chacachacare has potential, though government will have to invest money in the basic requirements: fresh water and electricity.

Richard de Lima, general manager of the Chaguaramas Development Authority (CDA), says Chacachacare is really “a wasting asset”, and foreign investment in any tourist development projects there would be considered. Someone suggested to the entrepreneur extraordinaire Donald Trump, at last year’s Miss Universe spectacle in Trinidad, that he turn the island into “a gambler’s paradise” (whatever that means), but the notion, so far, has fallen on deaf ears – much to the relief of some who would be happier to see more of an environmental interest in Chacachacare’s attractions.
Anyway, gamblers should note: the island is said to be haunted, and come nightfall the ghost of a woman who drowned there is said to stalk the forest. Local boatmen talk of other “spirits” believed to roam the area around the patients’ cemetery, now barely visible beneath the tangled undergrowth. I know of one fisherman who refuses ever to set foot on the shoreline, even in daylight, in case he is “caught” by the spirits.

But it isn’t superstition alone that keeps many local people away. For a start, to get to Chacachacare from Port of Spain you need to sail, and it takes half an hour by motor-boat. Then there are no amenities, so you must take everything you need by way of water and food.

It is, however, a magical place. There is a blissful silence, the perfume of wild orchids on the breeze and 40 types of flora and fauna not found anywhere else in Trinidad and Tobago.

After dark, any serious movement you hear in the bush is likely to be from red squirrels, thriving among the mango trees where the lepers were buried long ago. Or you may hear the crack and crunch of giant iguanas looking for their supper. The only humans, a couple of lighthouse-keepers on shift, will be eating theirs in the safety of a glass eerie over 800 feet above the Gulf of Paria – one of the most breathtaking views in the Caribbean, especially at sunset.

Not surprisingly, a few foreign yachtsmen favour Marine Bay on the south-western side of the island. There is shelter, a rare peacefulness and good swimming. And mooring there is free.

Down among the ruins of the leper colony there is vivid imagery. The more you’ve read about the island the more you see. Close your eyes among the broken timbers of the old convent, and Chacachacare will whisper its story.

The full story of the French Dominican nursing sisters who risked their lives looking after the lepers came to light only in 1993, when Marie Therese Retout, a member of the same Order, became the archivist at their Holy Name Convent in Port of Spain. She found, hidden away in an old storeroom, cobwebbed boxes riddled with termites. Inside were the diaries of the sisters who served on Chacachacare, all written in French. Sr Marie Therese has made English translations: it’s a heart-rending story of sheer determination to keep fighting a disease for which there was no cure until after the turn of the century.

It was the spiritual strength of these good sisters from Bonnay in the Burgundy region of France that bound them together in their isolation from the rest of the world. They ran a tough regime, but they had the patients’ trust. The colonial government of the day built places on the Island for everyone to live and pray – the red-roof remains you see today; drinking water, along with food and medical supplies, was brought in by boat. There was a house for a resident doctor too. But beyond that, it was candles and courage. Mosquito invasions, malaria and the dreaded leprosy took their weary toll through the weeks, months and years. For the patients, daily intravenous injections were painful, but they endured them in the hope of being cured.

These Dominican sisters of St Catherine of Siena had left France for Trinidad in 1868 at the invitation of the colonial Government. It was more of a desperate plea for help to run a leprosarium which had been established at Cocorite, near the capital, in 1845. Leprosy had been brought into Trinidad on a tide of East Indian immigration, recruited to satisfy the serious labour shortage that followed the end of slavery.
The sisters fought a losing battle at Cocorite because so many patients would register for treatment at the medical centre and then abscond, spreading the disease at such an alarming rate through Port of Spain that the government was forced to take drastic action. Normal life in the city was seriously threatened and the isolation of lepers was imperative.

The remoteness of Chacachacare sprang to mind. The few people living there were given eviction orders and, to offset the cost of building a leprosarium, income tax was introduced for the first time. There was a public outcry, but no better options came up and the population needed urgent protection. The lepers were frightened of being isolated, and to avoid hysteria among them and their friends and relatives the time and date of the first transfer of patients was a state secret.

The nuns’ diary for May 10, 1922 recalls the occasion:

At 6 a.m. the patients were seized with horror when news spread throughout the wards that the whole place was surrounded and cordoned off by policemen on foot and on horseback. A dead silence set in … since it was impossible to escape, all had to be resigned to their fate. Some were sobbing, others fainted and others again were seized with fits. The sisters could hardly bear the sight of the distress. Even the policemen were moved with compassion. A crowd of onlookers gathered outside to see the patients being escorted by policemen to the Cocorite pier where a steamer was waiting to take them to Chacachacare.

The new settlement on Chacachacare had a hospital, a common refectory, a bakery, kitchens, storerooms and patients’ cottages – on Coco Bay for men and Sanders Bay for women.

By 1926, a convent, on a hill overlooking Marine Bay, had been built for the sisters. Even today, standing amid the debris, it’s easy to visualise figures in black and white trekking through the waning evening light to vespers. For all of them, patients as well, the physical effort of trying to keep the disease at bay was enormous. Patients, especially those whose limbs had become badly deformed and infected, went through periods of terrible agony. One of the sisters put in so much effort during a particular morning that on the last lap up the hill to the convent where she was going to rest, she had a heart attack and died.

Two of the 10 sisters buried in the little cemetery near the convent at Marine Bay died of leprosy. One of them, Sr Rose de Sainte Marie Vebert, originally from Paris, had suffered with the disease for 18 years as she lived among the patients at Sanders Bay. The leprosy had taken away her sight and had hideously distorted her once attractive face. Her tongue was so swollen she could barely speak.

Diary for June 17 1937:

The sisters kept singing hymns and canticles by her bedside to help her regain her calm when terrible fits shook her poor body. Finally she breathed her last, gently. The sisters transported her body to the chapel. While she lay there exposed, something extraordinary happened: all traces of the awful disease disappeared from her face, and it was looking most beautiful …

The sisters were less isolated during the Second World War than at any other time. Before the war broke out, a small radio station had been installed at Coco Bay, so the sisters and patients were able to hear the drama unfolding in various parts or the world – sometimes right there, off Chacachacare.

Diary for December 1, 1938:

To the amazement of all, a German ship was seen in Chacachacare Bay in the early morning. The swastika revealed her identity and there was panic among the patients, though next day we learned it was a Nazi training ship.

Throughout the war years many ships passed through the Gulf of Paria, some friendly, some not, and in 1942-43, during the German U-boat threat to Atlantic shipping, the waters around Trinidad were littered with wrecks. But the fight for survival in the loneliness of the leper colony continued long after the rest of the world was finally able to lick its wounds in recovery. Out there, someone had won, someone had lost; there was an end to the suffering. Not so on Chacachacare. For the doctor, the sisters, the patients, devotion to staying alive with dignity was relentless.

It was not until after the war that a combination of new drugs was produced to treat leprosy successfully. But relief remained very slow and painful.

Diary for December 31, 1945 (end-of-year statistics):

Remaining: 388 patients (237 males, 113 females, 38 children). Intravenous injections given by sisters: 10,620. Drug: Promin.

The 1939-45 war also took its toll on recruitment to the religious life, and since there were no replacements in prospect for ageing Dominican sisters their eventual withdrawal from Chacachacare in 1950 left a local nursing team to adjust to the culture shock of life in a leprosarium. The Dominican sisters had given 82 years to the cause. With the success of new treatments, the colony was finally closed on July 23, 1984.

But the story of Chacachacare goes back further still. 500 years ago, Amerindians on the island watched Columbus sail his fleet through the rocky waterway to the gulf – the Dragon’s Mouth (Las Bocas del Dragon). And you can still take an overgrown track leading through the forest from La Tinta Bay to the ruins of a house where a plot to drive the Spaniards from America was secretly hatched. Sit and listen to the forest whisper another story …

It is the dawn of the 19th century. Spain and England are officially at peace, but, unknown to the British governor in Port of Spain, talk of battle has come to the boil on Chacachacare.

A young man, who was to become the illustrious General Santiago Marino, is drinking a toast with his companeros to the success of “The Immortal Forty-Five”, as history eventually named his band of Venezuelan exiles. They pledge themselves to conquer, or die by the sword.

Here was an emerging independence leader of Spanish ancestry who had come to Chacachacare indirectly through the good favours of the King of Spain. Marino’s father had married the daughter of an Irish aristocrat who had been given the island “for services rendered to Spain.” Now, with the help of VenezueIan exiles, here he was planning to overthrow Spanish colonial rule in South America.

Marino had already served with the Venezuelan liberator, Simon Bolivar, in an earlier campaign against the Spanish in 1810. Then, they had been briefly successful, capturing Caracas, until a Royalist counter-attack drove Bolivar out and Marino returned to Chacachacare.

The young Marino had first learned his soldiering in the Trinidad Militia under the tough command of the British General Thomas Picton, whose motto – “hit ’em hard, hit ’em fast” – had apparently carried him into battle in a hurry on one occasion wearing only his pyjamas and a top hat. Marino was about to use the element of surprise in the battle plan being finalised on Chacachacare. His sister, Maria Concepcion, helped him organise it and actually funded the whole operation.

At 3 a.m, on January 12, 1813, Marino and his “army” sailed from La Tinta Bay to the Venezuelan coast and stormed the Spanish garrison at Guiria. They swashbuckled their way through a fortress of 300 men. Within a couple of months, Marino’s forces had swelled to 5,000 and were ready to take on more Spanish troops. News of Marino’s success encouraged Simon Bolivar, exiled in Colombia, to mobilise his army and join up with his old comrade.

It wasn’t until June 24,1821, that the revolution in Venezuela finally met with success when Bolivar beat the Spaniards at the Battle of Carabobo. Amazingly, by that time, one third of the liberation army consisted of British troops still proudly wearing the uniforms of the Napoleonic Wars and the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. The British government evidently turned a blind eye to the fact that it was supposed to be at peace with Spain. Santiago Marino and his men served through all the campaign battles in South America. He and his men earned their place in history for having helped light the flame of independence.

Today, sitting in the forest where Marino’s family cotton and tobacco estate used to be, you may wonder why so little is generally known locally about the history of the island, and why there is little curiosity about what happened on Chacachacare. It may simply be a matter of “out-of-sight, out-of-mind”, and that information is not easily available without digging into archives.

Maybe things will change a little now. Trinidad’s Chaguaramas Development Authority (CDA), formed in 1972, is making progress at last with plans for eco-tourism, sports and hotel facilities. Two of the peninsula’s major waterways, Chaguaramas and Carenage bays, attract foreign yachting enthusiasts seeking quality marine services away from the Caribbean hurricane belt. And the Authority’s vision of the Chaguaramas Peninsula is ambitious. They see it as “the future playground of the Caribbean”. All they need now is foreign, or local, investment.

The preservation of the area’s natural beauty should not clash with recreational development. In recent tourist brochures the island of Chacachacare is described as “A Symphony of Silence”, which, I’m sure, would meet with the approval of those Dominican sisters laid to rest in the forest. Though a gambling den in their midst might be a different matter: I can almost hear the French nuns turning in their graves – to say nothing of the ghosts .•


Leprosy existed in China, Egypt and India 2,500 years ago. Roman soldiers may have spread the disease from Egypt to Greece, Italy and Asia.

In more recent times it has been known as Hansen’s disease after the Norwegian physician, G. Armauer Hansen, who discovered it in 1874. Though the disease is contagious, the danger of catching it from another person is small. To get leprosy one must have low resistance and live in close contact for some years with a person whose body has large numbers of the germ. Children seem more likely to get leprosy than adults. Thirty per cent of children whose parents have severe leprosy are likely to develop a mild form of it.

Early treatment is important. Leprosy becomes inactive among most patients who undergo treatment with the latest drugs for three to five years. These people lead normal lives and can be safely employed without fear of passing the disease on to anyone else.

There are still 940,000 people with leprosy around the world, according to the World Health Organisation. But treatment with the latest drugs has cured over nine million.

Chacachacare Ecosystem

The island of Chacachacare lies in the Boca Grande, midway between the western extreme of Trinidad and the eastern extreme of Venezuela. It is administered as part of the Chaguaramas parklands by the Chaguaramas Development Authority (CDA), a statutory body charged with the maintenance and development of Trinidad’s northwestern peninsula.

The island, some 900 acres, supports plant life that can withstand long dry periods, mainly scrub and cacti; and some bird and insect life. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, it supported four whaling stations. A significant feature on the south of the island is a salt pond formed by a sand and shingle bar across a bay. The barrier separating the salt pond from the Gulf of Paria is about 40 feet wide. Common plants found here include black manqrove, manchineel, sea-island cotton, salt-loving succulents, hardy grasses and sedge, agaves and cacti.

Common trees found elsewhere in Trinidad are also found here: silk cotton, cedar, bamboo, bois canot, and fruit trees including mango, guava, breadfruit and cashew.

Birds include doves, keskidees, humming birds, tanagers, finches, pelicans, hawks, osprey and vultures. Loggerhead turtles have also been sighted there.

Chacachacare: A Brief History

1771: Chacachacare given to Sir Gerald Fitz-Patrick Carry by the King of Spain
1813: assembly point for an attack on the Venezuelan port of Guiria in the War of Liberation
1842: 80 acres donated to Catholic Church
1845: first leprosy patients cared for at hospital in Cocorite (on the Trinidad mainland) by Dominican
1880: Dominican order builds St Catherine church, school and presbytery in a bay called La Chapelle on Chacachacare
1896: lighthouse built on the northern hill
1922: patients moved to Chacachacare; hospital, convent, dormitories and other facilities in place, including a jail at La Tinta Bay
1942: German submarines pass through Bocas to Port of Spain harbour
1943: American Marines build military barracks and cordon off the medical unit
1950: leprosarium closed
1984: last patients leave Chacachacare.

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