by Kelly Delancy-Fowler
Separating the ill and potentially contagious individuals from the wider population to prevent disease spread is a centuries old practice. The word “quarantine” denotes this separation and restricted movement of individuals exposed to a communicable disease to observe whether symptoms develop. Though formal practice of quarantine dates to 14th century Venice, the earliest known quarantine facilities were leper hospitals converted to lazarettos during the 15th century.
Lazarettos were strategically placed at locations far enough from the wider population to restrict community spread of disease, yet close enough to transport affected individuals. Ideally, a natural barrier, such as sea, separated the healthy population from the infirm. For the archipelagic British colony of The Bahamas, this lazaretto, otherwise known as a quarantine station, was located on the uninhabited Athol Island, approximately three miles from the capital of Nassau on New Providence Island.
Athol Island Quarantine Station operated as the exclusive quarantine location for Nassau from 1871 until the complex was severely damaged by a hurricane in 1929. The station was the first dedicated quarantine complex in The Bahamas and in the Caribbean. A major public health intervention, the quarantine station was built in response to the rapid spread of deadly diseases across the world during the 19th century. Diseases such as cholera and yellow fever gained momentum due to the increased movement of goods and migration of people by sailing ships. At this time, New Providence Island, home to majority of the Bahamian population, was also a hub for foreign visitors and a central market for those from the Out-Islands. Unsanitary living conditions coupled with the high population density of New Providence made the potential incubation of disease a very real threat to the entire colony.
Legislation as early as 1845 mandated that all vessels arriving at Nassau from a location where contagious disease existed were to be quarantined. Any ship arriving without a bill of health from its port of departure was treated as a ship arriving from an infected port. Legislation passed in 1856 authorized the establishment of the Athol Island Quarantine Station. Both infected and suspected cases had the option of completing quarantine on board the ship, at the discretion of the ship’s master and health officer, or in the quarantine station. At the station, the quarantine officer would hoist a yellow flag to signify that persons were detained therein. Persons in quarantine were not permitted to leave their ship or the station until discharged by the health officer.
Much of the physical station has since become overtaken by surrounding vegetation. However, its legacy endures in the form of a Bahamian populace descendant from those spared from disease as a result of its existence.
Kelly Delancy-Fowler is founder of Finding Home Bahamas, a crowd-sourced cultural heritage platform for The Bahamas. She holds an MA in Anthropology from University of Florida, and an MBA from Georgia College & State University. Delancy-Fowler has worked in multiple departments in the field of museums and heritage.
Brooker, Colin. Historic Cultural Resource Reconnaissance of Athol Island. Preliminary Report of Field and Research Activity, April 20-24, 2004 to the AMMC, p.5.
Tognotti, Eugenia. “Lessons from the history of quarantine, from plague to influenza A.” Emerging infectious diseases vol. 19,2 (2013): 254-9. doi:10.3201/eid1902.120312