The Dark Island

The Dark Island

Leprosy in New Zealand and the Quail Island Colony

From 1906 to 1925 Quail Island, in Lyttelton Harbour, was the site of New Zealand’s leprosy colony. The colony began by accident, as it were, after the discovery of a leprosy sufferer in Christchurch. As further patients arrived from across the country, it grew into a controversial and troubled institution – an embarrassment to the Health Department, an object of pity to a few, a source of fear to many.

This remarkable narrative reveals a little-known aspect of New Zealand’s past, shedding light on the treatment of some of society’s most marginal, unfortunate and isolated people. Written in lucid, compelling prose, The Dark Island heralds the arrival of a significant historical voice.

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Print publication:
Ebook publication: Nov 2019
Pages: 208
RRP: $39.99
ISBN: 9781988545981
DOI: 10.7810/9781988545981

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Selected by the New Zealand Listener as one of the best books of 2019!

Media

'The cruelty – and small kindnesses – of quarantine 100 years ago', Benjamin Kinsgbury, The Spinoff, 5 May 2020.

'Book review - The Dark Island by Benjamin Kingsbury', Jonathan West, Nine to Noon on RNZ, 17 February 2020 (audio, 4'51'').

'Quarantined: A sordid, sickly, sad underside of New Zealand history', John Weekes, Stuff, 10 February 2020.

'New Zealand's shameful response to leprosy', Sally Blundell, NZ Listener / Noted, 20 October 2019.

'He is unclean; he shall dwell alone: A sad and startling story of leprosy in NZ', Ben Kingsbury, The Spinoff, 7 October 2019 [book extract].

'Island of lost souls: the leprosy colony in Lyttelton harbour', Philip Matthews, The Press / Stuff, 6 October 2019.

'The dark history of New Zealand's leper colony', Kim Hill, Saturday Morning on RNZ, 5 October 2019 (audio, 16'36'').

Comment

'I finished this book when Coronavirus hit the headlines and the mass quarantine of people began. The amenities offered present day sufferers are in stark contrast to the lack of humanity shown the exiled patients on Quail Island. Winter on Quail Island was brutal for the sick, often bedridden, men. In the early days they had no nursing staff ... This book detailing a slice of New Zealand history is well worth reading.'
Margaret Gilroy Johnson, Tui Motu Interislands Magazine, 1 March 2020.

'Drawing on scant historical records, the author produces a well-written, elegantly presented study of the island’s short history of human habitation and breathes drama and insight into a range of historical issues which he calls a “geography of stigma”. Through this careful examination of leprosy, it also highlights the role of islands as objects of isolation, of quarantine, of Otherness.'
Bob Frame, Island Studies Journal, 15 (1) 2020.

'As I read the final chapter of Benjamin Kingsbury’s history of Quail Island, New Zealand’s leprosy colony, news of the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic began to break. Leafing back through the pages to Chapter 1, where Kingsbury describes the first suspicious case of leprosy in New Zealand in 1903, similar themes between these past and present stories of illness, suffering and infection control began to emerge. This prompted consideration of how we – as individuals, as health professionals and in our wider communities – respond to people infected with a contagious disease, and the possible consequences of our reactions for the health and wellbeing of societies across the world.'
Mira Harrison, Landfall Review Online, 1 May 2020.

'Upon the Island’s built and natural landscape, Kingsbury charts a ‘geography of stigma’ demarcated by paths, fences, dwellings, milk shelters and wharves. These points of contact between patients, mainlanders and their intermediaries were fraught with anxiety, revealing the strength and ‘remarkable mobility’ of leprosy stigma. Kingsbury’s attentiveness to this shifting boundary between the well and the sick highlights the often-uncertain means by which previously ordinary human beings were singled out, made the objects of intense fear and suspicion, confined, treated and sometimes ‘cured’. Placing their suffering in centreframe, this important work of scholarship offers a rare insight into the collusion of colonial power and medical knowledge in shaping institutional responses to disease.'
Violeta Gilabert, Social History of Medicine, 18 March 2020.

'The writing is beautiful, very spare; its history is haunting, it doesn’t need to be lavished and lyrical prose. The pain comes through clearly in what is some lovely language. I was impressed – a small book of only 140 pages of text conveys so much and so quickly. The dramas of these people are not only worth telling in their own right, because they’re great stories, but they also have this wonderful echoing in terms of a society that’s looking to cast out the unclean; a white society looking to cleanse the body politic – and these people are the stain on the fabric of society that they want as far from them as possible.'
Jonathan West, Nine to Noon, RNZ, 17 February 2020 (audio, 4'51").

'In his new book, The Dark Island, Kingsbury reveals the little-known story of the Quail Island leprosy colony: the cold, the isolation, the government ineptitude and inter-departmental tension, the wildly exaggerated scaremongering and a stigma that is as old as the only slightly contagious bacterial disease itself.'
Sally Blundell, NZ Listener / Noted, 20 October 2019.

'There are certain passages of Benjamin Kingsbury’s new book The Dark Island that make the reader wince and turn away. But then you turn back again, you can’t help it, it’s just such a great yarn.'
Catherine Woulfe, The Spinoff Review of Books, 5 October 2019.

Endorsements

'Histories have always been at the heart of medicine but this is medicine at the heart of history. Kingsbury shows us that the way individual human beings rise, break, resile and connect with each other is all that makes the world go round at the end of the day. This is history at the cellular level.'
Glenn Colquhoun, Doctor and Poet

'Eloquent and evocative, Kingsbury’s meticulously researched narrative of Quail Island reveals the epidemic fears, race politics and personality clashes behind New Zealand’s solitary leper colony. As colonial microhistory, The Dark Island makes for compelling reading.'
David Arnold, Professor Emeritus, Department of History, University of Warwick, UK

'Kingsbury expertly illuminates how expediency shaped public policy to do with leprosy, but also how the sufferers – Māori, Pakeha and Chinese – responded to the isolation and niggardly resources devoted to their treatment. The public’s fear of the disease, out of all proportion to the possibility of infection, meant quarantine for sufferers who endured isolation, boredom, and eventually relocation from Quail Island in Lyttelton Harbour to Makogai in Fiji. Kingsbury puts the sufferers at the centre of this poignant history, making their suffering vivid in elegant prose. Sensitively piecing together the scant available sources, he shows how stigma worked to stymie compassion.'
Barbara Brookes, Professor, Department of History, University of Otago