Leprosy, Heritage, and Art: Histories of Exile in a World Perspective

By Patrick Devlieger

Leprosy is an ancient disease that pertains to most all regions of the world at some point in time. In the Western context, it may be a disease of the far or recent past, while in some countries in Asia and Africa, the disease has still a lot of currency. Nowadays, the world seems to be starkly divided between parts of the world where it is mostly forgotten and a shame if it could not be forgotten. Away from the daily experience, leprosy becomes metaphorical, to refer to something repugnant. The dominant medical discourse is one that pertains to its final extermination, its disappearance, and to relegating the disease to the past. In this blog entry, I wish to evaluate some of the actors that pertain to preserving the history and legacy of leprosy, which leads me in the direction of colonial governance, religion, and especially the arts. Throughout the world, the recent history over the past 150 years can hardly be seen outside the colonial context, its governmental policies of segregation, the response of religions, and the arts. The modern context, according to Michel Foucault, established a relation between knowledge and the legitimation to remove people outside the society. Perhaps more than anything else, it is the arts that have an enduring impact on the way of remembering leprosy, and that capture most the weight of history and the enduring impact of its heritage. While medicine attempts to the disappearance, the arts continue to capture and challenge its existence.

Throughout the world, segregation practices were implemented in the 19 th century. They were quite different from the practices of medieval times that required that people with leprosy announced their presence with a clapper or a bell, before leper houses were established. One chronicler in the 13th century calculated the existence of some 12000 leper houses throughout Europe, for care and quarantine, and these were organized like convents and monasteries (Ashworth 2010). The segregation practices of the 19 th century included the exile of people with leprosy to islands or otherwise isolated areas, in the context of nations states and colonization. Famous examples are Kalaupapa, Sorok Island, Robben Island, and otherwise isolated areas such as the remote villages in China’s southwest, or some remote valleys, such as the Hemel en Aarde Vallei in South Africa’s Western Cape Province, or Anandwan in Maharashtra, India, or Yonda Leprosy Settlement in the Democratic Republic Congo. Such places were often places of heroic collaboration between government and Christian churches, but in some cases like Anandwan, also the ground of non-religious heroism. Its heroism however is always one of service.