Everything started here hundreds of years ago when fortifications were built on the island during the ancient Greek period. These fortifications were built to protect the port of the city Olous that was built during the Dorien occupation 500 – 69BC.
During the Venetian occupation (1204 to 1669) the fortresses and fortifications that you can see today we’re built, together with baracs for the soldiers, water cisterns – so the rain water could be gathered as there is no water source on the island -, as also a Catholic Church.
In 1669 the Ottomans occupied Crete but they could not occupy Spinalonga as it was too well fortified so they took it by contract in 1715 after having put an embargo on the island. They built a village, some more water cisterns, a mosque and a minaret. The Ottoman inhabitants of Spinalonga handeled in salt and as there was no electricity at that time they had a very good commerce.
In 1898 Crete is liberated from the Ottomans with the help of the 4 major forces of that time, England, France, Italy and Russia. They could not liberate Spinalonga as it was still too well fortified. So the independent state of Crete had to find a way to liberate Spinalonga from the Ottomans.
At that time around 200 lepers lived on the island Crete, these people had no rights, they were not alowed to get married, they could not work and were not alowed to live or enter the villages or cities. They had to live in baracs that were built outside of the cities and villages and received only 1 meal a day. So you can imagine that these people did go to the cities and villages, to ask for some food or money, or to visit their family.
As the Cretan politicians did not want this situation anymore they decided to look for a place where they could take care of the lepers, and ideal place for the politicians was the island Spinalonga because on this island the lepers could live in the houses that were built by the Ottomans, and as everybody was afraid of this desease they were also quit sure that the Ottomans would leave as soon as the first lepers were brought to Spinalonga.
And that is what happened, in 1903 the first lepers of Crete were taken to Spinalonga. Together with the lepers also a doctor, nurses and housekeepers were brought to the island to take care of the lepers, these people were healthy people so they were not allowed to stay during the night on Spinalonga. Every evening they had to leave the island and before leaving it they had to pass from the desinfection room to desinfect themselves as also their belongings. They had to pass their belongings through a steam kettle that you can still see there.
So in 1903 the first lepers are taken away from their baracs and are brought to the village Plaka from where they were taken with a small boat on the island Spinalonga.
And that seemed to them the end of their life. Because once they were on the island, there was no going back. They knew that they would never see their family, friends or neighbours again! They were not alowed to have visitors, there was no medication for the desease so they also knew that they were going to die there all alone without their family.
Most of the lepers of Crete were farmers and sheperds, people with a low education so it was very hard for them to organise their new live on the island. It’s true that they had the help of the housekeepers during the day but imagine the mental force they needed to start a new life on a place they did not want to be, that was as a prison to them.
For the new lepers live on Spinalonga was even harder. Imagine yourself having a disease, you go to the doctor and he tells you that you have leprosy. The doctor has to call the police, the police takes you to your house, they tell you to take some personal things with you because you will be taken to Spinalonga. The policeman puts you in chains and brings you to the village Plaka where you are put in a small boat and taken to the island. There is now way back! Also young children who had the disease were taken away by their family and were taken all alone to Spinalonga…..
Only houses were available on the island and most of the houses had no running water, some of them even did not have a toilet, every day they had to go to the watertanks to get water to use in their house, to wash themselves, to do the dishes, to wash their clothes etc. And as they had nothing to do there the lepers were bored during the day what made their live even more unbearable.
In 1913 some small changes are made on the island when also some lepers of the mainland of Greece are taken there. These people had got a higher education and they started to organize a kind of community on the island, they opened a bakery, a buchery, a grocery store as also some cafes. So life starts to be a bit more interesting on the island.
It was later in 1918 that a hospital was built, on the place were the Ottomans had built their mosque, it was the doctor who insisted on having a hospital so that he didn’t had to do the medical examinations and amputations anymore in the houses were the lepers lived.
It was although only from 1936 on that their life changed for the much better, that was when Epaminondas Remoundakis at the age 21 went to the island.
Some say that he had the disease already at the age of 12 and as he had heard terrible stories about Spinalonga he was afraid to be taken their so he hide himself from the police and doctors. In 1931 he left Crete with a boat, stayed for a while on the small island Koufonisi and managed from there to go to Athens where he started his studies of Law at the University. It was later in 1936 that he could not hide his disease any more and he was taken to the hospital in Athens from where he asked to be transported to Spinalonga where his sister was taken to.
Epaminondas was in his third year of law school at the University when he went to Spinalonga. He knew what rights the lepers had so he organized elections on the island. Once the lepers had their own mayor the could demand for their rights. They first of all asked for a higher monthly contribution because what they received until then was just enough o survive. They also asked to be alowed to have visitors and to have the right to get married. So new laws were made and now they where nearly equal with the ‘others’
At that time only the large cities on Crete had electricity, most of the villages on Crete have electricity only since the 1960’s. The Mayor and the doctor insisted also on having electricity so generator was built on Spinalonga and for the first time in their life they had something the ‘others’ didn’t, they could switch on the light, have a radio and listen to the news from Crete and Greece, they rented a movie from time to time, so also a bit of culture to place in their life. All this gave them a lot of courage to go on.
Also during the second world war the island was not attacked, the lepers were save and even some soldiers brought them food as food was very hard to find during the German occupation
The lepers continue their live, some of them get married and in some cases lepres from the mainland of Greece marry a leper from Crete so that they also have visitors from time to time. Women get pregnant and babies are born, a few of these babies had the disease, most of them are healthy and the lepers start living a close to normal life on the island.
The doctor on the island was in research for a medication for the disease together with another Greek doctor and from time to time the asked lepers if they wanted to test a new medicine, only lepers with a quit strong health were asked to do so and most of the lepers agreed on testing medication because they knew that they were going to die anyhow. But non of the medication that was tested on them cured them, some even killed lepers.
In 1945 the medication Dapsone is used for the first time in the world as a cure for leprosy and with succes! In 1950 this medication is brought to Spinalonga so no more tests are done and the lepers start taking the medication that will cure them. After a months of taking this medication some of the lepers are diagnosed to be healthy and they may leave the island! Before they leave the doctor gives them a document that says that they don’t have the disease any more, that they are not a danger anymore for others and that they may live wherever they like. So the lepers start leaving the island, they go back to their family and start again a new life, but now it is a good life, with hope and health!!
in 1957 the leper colony is closed and the few lepers that are not cured yet are brought to a hospital in Athens, the Saint Barbara Hospital, where they receive further medication and from where they can also go when they are cured. But not only the last lepers are taken to the hospital, also the people that were born on the island have to go there.
From 1936 on approximately 30 children were born on the island, a few of them had the disease, the others were healthy, but as they were born from 2 lepers they were not allowed to leave the island so they were raised among the lepers. So also these people went to the hospital where several tests were done on them and when after a few months the doctors saw that they are 100% healthy they were also allowed to leave the hospital, and as they never had the disease they were not given any document. Now these people had to start a new life too, they had never left the island before, they had never lived in a normal community so this was not easy for them. Another problem they had was that on their passport was written as place of birth Spinalonga, so when they went looking for a job and their passport was asked for they were not given the job. It was also hard for them to find a partner because people were still afraid of this disease and people who had been in contact with it. Most of them returned to the hospital and asked for a room and a job there and that is where they stayed for the rest of their life. As totally healthy people who never had the disease they could not have a normal life, get married or have a family….
This is my version of what happened on Spinalonga, I know that this is only the general story and that is what I wanted to give you, for more details you can always contact me. Or if you have something to bring into my story then I’m all ears. Enjoy your visit on the island and have in mind what you read here when you set foot on it.
There are vessels going to Spinalonga from Agios Nikolaos, Elounda and Plaka. The prices of the boat differ and the entrance for the Archaeological site of Spinalonga is 8€pp, students from the EU and children younger than 18 y do not pay any entrance fee, disabled people with document do not pay either and senior citizens of the EU pay 4€pp.
One Reply to “Spinalonga”
Good post. So many people only know Spinalonga as the leper colony. As you say, there is much more to its history. X