Would you buy a home on this island? These graves are on the north-western side of Pulau Jerejak.
According to a historian, there are at least 5,332 graves, most of them from the 7,500 leprosy patients who lived at one time or another on Pulau Jerejak. At least 3,691 of these graves are near the site of the old leprosy hospital on the eastern side of the island.
This hospital was funded largely by the local Chinese community. Frederick Weld, the then Governor of the Straits Settlements observed, “The building is a fine one with a central hall, and long tiled corridors and wards stretching out on either side. It is very cool and well arranged. Rows of coconut trees line the beach, and the view from it is most beautiful.”
From historical records, we know…”A leper is also engaged to make coffins, the materials being supplied by the Government, and the dead are buried at the back of the Hospital some 200 yards away behind a jungle…”
Many of these people affected by leprosy were compelled to live on the island, where they were hidden and cut off from the rest of society, the hospital facing the mainland rather than the island. Local kampung residents were then removed from the island so that they would not be able to help the patients to escape.
The leprosy hospital was later demolished to make way for the present shipyard on the eastern side of the island. I am not sure if this shipyard, built on or near the graves of a few thousand patients, is actually thriving. We know for sure that the Tropical Island Resort, on the western coast, flopped big-time, bleeding red ink and debt.
What is going to happen to the graves still untouched? The proposed round-island cycle path, for one things, will run close to some of these grave sites.
Do you know that in addition to the people affected by leprosy, a further half a million migrants to Penang – maybe your ancestors – had to pass through Pulau Jerejak, where they would spend six days in quarantine to detect diseases such as smallpox and cholera. [In the 1950s, only ‘third class’ and open deck passengers on the SS Rajula arriving from India had to spend time in quarantine – not the first or second class passengers. Discrimination!]
To link the island to the mainland, the developers are now planning a four-lane bridge. At first, they said the island would be car-free… but once the bridge is built, you can guess what could happen. Maybe electric cars or hybrid cars or what-have-you might make an appearance. And then there would be even more development pressure on the island.
Let’s see how close the proposed 1,200 homes and hotels will be to those graves from our hidden past.
These are no ordinary graves. As one concerned Penangite observed, “These were graves of the socially outcast, the ill, the damned, the misfits and the criminal. Locals are reconciled to death but not to a hard death.”
Even if the project is completed, how many people would actually want to live in an island that has never been totally exorcised from the misery, pain and grief of its former inhabitants – people affected by leprosy wrenched from society, isolated tuberculosis patients, locked up political detainees and other prisoners, many of whom were detained without trial.
If you know of anyone who lived or was quarantined or locked up on the island, please share your story with us below.