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Ideology, Politics and Power: The Socio-Historical Implications of the Archaeology of the D'Arcy Island Leper Colony, 1891-1924



Department of Anthropology, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC V6T 1Z4, CANADA.


The D'Arcy Island leprosarium, located in Haro Strait off the east coast of southern Vancouver Island, B.C., was first established in 1891. During its thirty-four years of operation it was administered by three governments: the Victoria municipal government from 1891 to 1904, the B.C. provincial government during the year 1905, while the federal government was in charge until closure of the institution in 1924. The colony now comprises three archaeological sites, the earliest phase DdRt 29 on Little D'Arcy Island, where predominantly Chinese males were incarcerated, DdRt 28 the remains of the caretakers' facilities built in 1907 on D'Arcy Island, and the latest phase of the colony DdRt 31, located to the south of the caretakers.

The purpose of this research is to examine why and how social inequality is created and how it is maintained. Specifically, it will evaluate the historical sociopolitical circumstances surrounding the establishment of the colony, explain why it was created, and why and how the form of the institution changed over its thirty-four years of existence.

Archaeological investigations are employed to illuminate the ongoing material and social conditions of the unfortunate lepers, in contrast to those of the colony caretakers. Historical research is used to provide a meaningful context to understand colony developments. Historical data are also used to complement the gaps in the archaeological record.

In my research, I combine aspects of two theoretical approaches employed in contemporary archaeological theory. Processual archaeology is used to provide a framework for evaluating the relationship between racist ideology and the material manifestations of the D'Arcy Island leper colony. Changes in both the location and the architectural form and function are linked to changes in government policy and legislation to exclude Chinese immigrants. Apparently deliberate actions of the medical community to ignore available knowledge about leprosy are also associated with changes in the colony.

Symbolic archaeology is employed to illustrate how portable material culture, cultural landscape and architectural form are utilized to symbolically reinforce the ideology of White dominant society. Inferior status based on perceived racial and social difference are reinforced by the cultural manifestations of the facilities.

It is my contention that racist ideology is the prime mover in the creation and evolution of the D'Arcy Island leprosarium. It was fueled by stereotypical views of the Chinese immigrants held by White dominant society of the late 19th and early 20th century. The unwarranted fear of leprosy was seized upon by those in power to further incite racism in the general public. It was also used to support the belief that Chinese should further be excluded from mainstream Canadian society.

The timing of the establishment of the colony followed a decade of strong anti-Oriental agitation. Other developments in the colony may be directly linked to federal and provincial actions or changes in immigration legislation. Further proof that racism was involved is that there were alternate means available to deal with the issue of the Chinese lepers: care in the Victoria Chinese Hospital, deportation, or transfer to the leprosarium at Tracadie, New Brunswick. Differential care of non-Chinese lepers also indicates that the provision of appropriate medical care was not a consideration in the maintenance of the colony.

The D'Arcy Island leper colony was part of an historic process which contributed to racist ideology. The location, landscape, and architectural design all reflected the perceived inferior and outcast status of the Chinese lepers. They also reinforced the power and dominance of Euro-Canadians, maintaining social distance and creating social inequality.