A Page from History: Imperfect Colony in 1903

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“American rule has not yet made our new colonies as perfect as some people would have us believe,” begins an article in the Sacred Heart Review from 1903.

The article, transcribed below, concerns a hospital for sufferers from leprosy, or Hansen’s disease. Whatever the details of the scandal, the first sentence holds a message for us about the way people on the mainland saw Puerto Rico at that time.

First, like many documents from the early years of Puerto Rico’s relationship with the United States, the newspaper is not shy about calling Puerto Rico a colony. Today, Puerto Rico is remains a colony, often called a territory, but many people uncomfortable with those terms prefer to call the island a “Commonwealth” – a label that has brought about significant confusion.

Second, the writer gives us a glimpse of how enthusiastic “some people” were about the beautiful new territories — and thus shows that others were not.

Leper Colony Scandal in Porto Rico.

American rule has not yet made our new colonies as perfect as some people would have us believe. The latest scandal reported from Porto Rico is certainly grave enough to warrant immediate action on the part of the authorities. It concerns the leper hospital or colony at the entrance of San Juan harbor and was called to the attention of Acting-Governor Hartzell by Senor Goenaga, of the board of charities. His report revealed what is described in the newspapers as a horrible and dangerous state of affairs. It appears that chickens and pigs raised by lepers have been freely sold in the city of San Juan, and goats, rabbits, poultry and dogs have been herded in the patients’ quarters in indescribable filth. Some of the lepers have no clothing. Intercourse between the leper colony and the mainland has been permitted. An old man, who is not a leper, has been confined in the colony for years. No physicians’ books or financial books showing the state of the patients’ funds are kept. B. 11. Osterhoudt, who is said to be a director of charities of San Juan, and who is at present in Poughkeepsie, N. V., is reported by the Sun to have denied the charges made against the management of the leper colony.

C. Berry-Caban has written a thorough discussion of the leprosy hospital on Isla de Cabras, the Lazareto de Isla de Cabras. Leprosy was reported in Puerto Rico as early as the 1700s, and continued to be a public health issue into the 20th century. A 1914 report from the Governor of Puerto Rico mentioned the then-new idea of treating Hansen’s disease patients outside of leper colonies, but rejected it, saying, “The disease is such a horrible one and up till the present time is recognized as so incurable that in my opinion the government would be justified in taking any steps whatsoever that might be necessary to avoid the possibility of transmission of the disease to a well person.” Accordingly, government officers actively sought out sufferers of the disease and confined them until diagnosis was confirmed. It is this attitude and approach that probably explains why, when the Lazareto was made uninhabitable by hurricanes, the inmates were moved to a special building at the jail.

Other documents exist supporting the claim that the condition of the leprosy hospital in Puerto Rico was a scandal. But the tone of the article reflects the Imperialist vs. Anti-Imperialist conflict of the time in the United States. Some saw the new possessions as an opportunity for the United States, at the time nothing like a world power, to build an empire. Others were opposed, either on grounds which to modern ears sound like mere racism or because the United States was supposed to be a beacon of freedom and democracy.

Mark Twain may have expressed the conflict best in his remarks in the New York Herald, October 15, 1900:

I left these shores, at Vancouver, a red-hot imperialist. I wanted the American eagle to go screaming into the Pacific. It seemed tiresome and tame for it to content itself with he Rockies. Why not spread its wings over the Philippines, I asked myself? And I thought it would be a real good thing to do

I said to myself, here are a people who have suffered for three centuries. We can make them as free as ourselves, give them a government and country of their own, put a miniature of the American constitution afloat in the Pacific, start a brand new republic to take its place among the free nations of the world. It seemed to me a great task to which had addressed ourselves. But I have thought some more, since then, and I have read carefully the treaty of Paris, and I have seen that we do not intend to free, but to subjugate the people of the Philippines. We have gone there to conquer, not to redeem. . .

It should, it seems to me, be our pleasure and duty to make those people free, and let them deal with their own domestic questions in their own way. And so I am an anti-imperialist. I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land.

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