culion-dead-main

Is Culion still the Island of the Living Dead?

Newly painted graves at the cemetery

Newly painted graves at the cemetery

The Cuyo Loop
Culion is in blue
In October of 2006, I visited the remote islands of Cuyo and Culion in Palawan for a photography assignment and passed Negros and Iloilo in transit. This is my account of that journey.

This is the 14th of a series If you’re thinking of zombies, I forgive you for it. Maybe too much horror films and cable shows might have fried your brain that it’s stuck with the evil dead genre? No, this is not about zombies and witchcraft but about disease afflicted persons forced into exile.

“No, this is not about zombies and witchcraft…” Culion, for a time was nicknamed, unfortunately, The Island of the Living Dead. Not that creatures of the underworld roamed the streets at night or scared its inhabitants but it was an act of government that made it compulsory for lepers in the country, from Luzon to Mindanao, to be segregated into this forlorn of places. Leprosy is an ancient scourge and before the medical breakthroughs in the middle of the 20th century, there were no known cures. Sufferers were treated like pariahs and left deformed for life.

The leprosy museum as it was in 2006

The leprosy museum as it was in 2006

At the turn of the century during the American occupation, there was an estimated 4,000 lepers nationwide. In 1902, forced segregation was decreed and the first batch was sent in 1906 from Cebu. Authorities were empowered to apprehend, detain and isolate them. Around the 1930’s, there were about 16,000 patients and it was the biggest leper colony in the world. This period was one of the darkest years for the sufferers as they, at the prime of their lives, have to leave family, possessions and professions to be “exiled.”

The cemetery located at a hillside far from the town. Forced segregation of lepers from the country meant living and dying in this island.

The cemetery located at a hillside far from the town. Forced segregation of lepers from the country meant living and dying in this island.

For most, to be sent to Culion meant spending the rest of their lives in the island and perhaps grow old, die and be buried in its soil. The forced segregation however helped make strides in the treatment and cure of leprosy. The colony was one big laboratory where experts went to study this disease. During World War II, while the island was spared from the casualties of war since the Japanese were afraid of it, they were however under an embargo that as much as about 700 patients died of hunger.

At the town center located at an elevated area just near the sanitarium hospital and the museum

At the town center located at an elevated area just near the sanitarium hospital and the museum

After the war, sulfone as treatment was introduced and this resulted to many “negatives” among patients. It was because of this that, in 1952, the segregation law was revised and 12 years later, another act was promulgated that further liberalized the confinement of leprosy. With the success of multi-therapy and subsequent elimination of leprosy in the colony, Culion was declared a municipality in 1987.

View of the sea early in the morning. The elevated promontory at the lower right shows the roof the church.

View of the sea early in the morning. The elevated promontory at the lower right shows the roof the church.

It’s a long way for the people of Culion. Those who were cured decided to stay in the island for good. Some of their families followed them and settled in as well as other migrants. From their dark days of being segregated, they have lived, got cured, flourished and prospered. This small town maybe remote and has a dark history but it has contributed greatly to the understanding and treatment of leprosy worldwide. Now, those memories are enshrined in the museum. Its archives a rich testimony to the suffering and eventual liberation of its patients and of the island.

It’s an island of the living dead no more!

To know more about Culion and its hopes, visit culion.net.

Note: To understand why fortress churches were built in Cuyo, Agutaya and Culion, here’s a quick introduction of the Muslim slave raiding in the Philippines: Tea + Sulu = Miag-ao Church.

Estan Cabigas is freelance photographer, blogger and writer based in Makati City, the Philippines. A true blue Cebuano, he makes stunning images and meaningful photo stories. His work has been published in local and international publications including National Geographic Magazine, Geo (Germany), Sunday Times Magazine (London) and other publications. He is also a peripatetic traveler and has traveled to all 81 Philippines provinces. I'm open for work, collaborations and inquiries, including hotel, restaurant and site features and reviews.

17 Comments

  1. rayts
    September 2, 2008 @ 14:43

    I was here in April 2008. Medyo malas lang kase di kami pinapasok sa museum just because the OIC was not around. We came back three times ata, pa-ikot ikot kami sa village tapos wala pa din yung in-charge. yung ibang villagers galit na din para sa amin kase nga ayaw kami papasukin e additional income din yun for the municipality since may entrance fee at medyo madami kami. anyway, Culion is definitely different from the Culion we knew then. To me, it’s just an ordinary, sleepy town that offers a nice view of the sea. tranquility and quaint at its best. na-inlove ako sa church nila which initially comes to view upon entering the island. bagong pintura nung nagpunta kami so kita talaga siya from afar.

    a very informative documentation by the way. the shots are awesome. love the minimalist approach to the last photo. love the emphasis on the vastness of the sky.

  2. lagalog
    September 2, 2008 @ 14:57

    wow, what a great post. and i also dig the new, easy-on-the-eyes layout bai.

  3. donG hO
    September 4, 2008 @ 1:46

    ayos to estan. this was once featured in one of the shows on tv but i never knew that it’s already a progressing town thus becoming a municipality. although it will still go a long way, but this are just some of the important steps for a town to progress.

    salamat sa pag feature nito.

  4. carlo
    September 4, 2008 @ 8:21

    I must say the diploma in arneoh is paying off. hehehe. Too bad di ko na inabot yun… Ganun na bako katanda? lol

    I’ve known about it dun sa school website… Sayang talaga, wala pa nun nung grumadwyet ako. Double sayang, di ako natuto. waaaaaaaaah!

    The cemetery pics are sooo spooky kahit daylight.

  5. Oman
    September 4, 2008 @ 10:22

    i was scared of the movie “night of the living dead” when i was younger so i thought this post would somewhat be spooky, but hey, other than the startling thought of getting infected with leprosy there, i see nothing but a very laid-back and tranquil place. i like the third pic the most.

  6. estan
    September 4, 2008 @ 21:46

    rayts, that was unfortunate! ang hirap pa naman makabalik sa lugar na ‘to unless you’re making Coron a frequent stop. But even then, it’ still a one hour trip. The museum is indeed a must visit for any tourist or guest to the island. I think they have upgraded the building and the exhibit in time for the centennial of the first arrival of Cebuano lepers in 1906.

    to add, the church, as what you’ve seen was renovated by the American Jesuits during the 1930s. what looked liked a fortress church, as can be found in Cuyo and Agutaya, they removed the walls and used the coral stones in makin the current church. Only two portions are original: the main entrance which was the gate of the old fort and a bastion located at the promontory overlooking the sea equipped with canons.

    og, thanx bai. I needed to upgrade the looks and overall theme, with haste, as I’m expecting a surge in traffic within the month , fingers crossed… 😉

    dong, yes, it has already transformed itself. unfortunately, people’s mindsets haven’t. maybe in due time.

    carlo, what i learned, and kept on learning with the diploma course is indeed very helpful. regarding the requirements, 35 years of age is the cut off age but really, it’s not followed. maybe you might want to try it summer of next year.

    oman, yep, its really a very laid back town that has a dear place in the world’s fight with leprosy.

    salamat sa pagbisita 🙂

  7. tin-tin
    September 6, 2008 @ 13:57

    honestly, i would like to visit that place. curiosity sake

  8. The Islander
    September 6, 2008 @ 14:13

    this was featured in Catherine de Castro’s show in ABSCBN, Trip na Trip.
    Culion’s no longer a leprosy island but one of the few destinations around palawan that is being promoted for tourism.

  9. Nomadic Matt
    September 8, 2008 @ 12:20

    I like this blog design. Good choice!

    I’ve never even heard of this place before this post. Interesting history…

  10. estan
    September 8, 2008 @ 15:03

    Tin, you should find time to visit this place especially if you drop by Coron.

    Islander, bai, wow, wa ko kita ana da but it sure is an interesting place.

    Matt, thanx for the visit.

  11. End of the Cuyo Loop | langyaw
    October 5, 2008 @ 2:46

    […] Looking back, I can’t help but be nostalgic about the whole journey. I have finally watched the Masskara in Bacolod after I made a detour but all my photos were unfortunately lost. Visited several colonial era churches and cemeteries in Negros Occidental and Iloilo and was awestruck at seeing the brick wonder of Cabatuan church. After many years of yearning, I have finally visited Cuyo, discovered Agutaya, endured a scary boat trip going there, took MV Catalyn D eight months before her sinking and knowing the sad but also liberating history of Culion […]

  12. John
    March 2, 2009 @ 18:31

    Thank you sir for this wonderful and a very educational study.
    Actually, i never heard of this place before. Its just that my professor told us about it,and im interested with it thats why i came up with this site. Anyway, i learned a lot from this.
    I thought Culion is still an island of lepers,but praise God its over. Well then sir,keep on doing great works.
    Thanks.

  13. Cynthia
    June 27, 2009 @ 21:05

    Indeed Culion has transformed itself! It is no longer the dreadful place of “the living dead” but a community that is hopeful, quiet, resilient and hospitable. The serenity and beauty of the place plus the friendly residents are so inviting and keeps me clamoring for more. It is a long way from New York City but I always go back.
    Nice work!

  14. Micamyx
    December 2, 2010 @ 3:00

    I want to go there badly. I want to go to the museum and appreciate Culion’s history. I will visit Culion next year 😀

  15. Micamyx
    December 2, 2010 @ 3:00

    I want to go there badly. I want to go to the museum and appreciate Culion’s history. I will visit Culion next year 😀

  16. estan
    December 2, 2010 @ 3:05

    you should go there mica 😉

  17. » Culion’s remodelled fortress-church | Langyaw: Sojourns and Off-the-Beaten Path Travels
    January 19, 2012 @ 20:15

    […] when the American Jesuits came here in the 1930s to serve the biggest leper colony in the world at that time, they found the church quite small for the community. Even if it was […]

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