Anna Giakoumaki was born in Heraklion, Crete in 1982. She comes from the village of Ekso Mouliana in the region of Sitia, and grew up in Agios Nikolaos. Anna Giakoumaki is a best-selling Greek author & publisher. After completing her best-selling nonfiction book «Spinalonga – the True Story. Document», which was translated into English and Russian, she also produced «The Secret of Happiness» & «Manual for The Greek System. A simple system to predict earthquakes =/> 6R». New, expanded editions of these books have now been released, while her other works are being translated. Anna is currently working on her fourth book.
Spinalonga’s history begins in prehistoric times. It seems that from ancient times, i.e. the Minoan period, Spinalonga protected and guarded the harbor of ancient Olous or Olounda, modern-day Elounda. This is borne out by the finds from the area in which arose the city-state of Olous, one of the hundred cities of Crete mentioned by Homer.
Olous grew into a major city of northeast Crete, with an organized sanctuary, an important harbor, and its own coinage. A large part of it is now underwater. Olous, to which Spinalonga belonged, flourished until the 8th c. AD, when the threat of Arab piracy throughout the Mediterranean forced the inhabitants to move inland.
The decline of the area during the Arab occupation (827 – 961 AD.) continued in the Second Byzantine period (961 – 1204 AD.), but was interrupted during the Venetian occupation (1211-1669 AD.). The Venetian cartographer Vincenzo Coronelli reports that Spinalonga was not always an island, but was once linked with the adjacent Peninsula Spinalonga. He mentions that in 1526, the Venetians cut down a portion of the peninsula and thus created the island. The Venetians recognized the value of the natural harbor of Elounda and naturally exploited it. In the shallow, salty waters of the bay, they built salt-pans, a particularly lucrative enterprise. Venetians were selling salt in the Mediterranean, that’s why the salt-pans at Olous should be protected. In those days, of course, piracy made commerce unsafe and it was apparent in the 16th century that the Ottoman Turks were turning their gaze ever westwards. This, in combination with the emergent Turkish threat, particularly after the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 and after the loss of the Venetian salt-pans on Cyprus by the Ottomans, forced the Venetians to fortify better the island. The Venetians, sensing that their possessions were threatened, did not take this lying down. They improved the existing defenses and designed and built new fortresses according to the new bastion system of fortification, which the development and widespread use of gunpowder had made necessary. The new fortress of Spinalonga was built in 1579 under the supervision of the General Proveditor of Crete Giacomo Foscarini. The fortifications incorporated the ruins of the ancient city walls. Subsequently, the region acquired commercial value and became inhabited. The fortress is a fortified complex including high double walls and stern towers. In 1630 it had 35 cannons, essentially meaning that it had been turned into an island fortress with great firepower. This explains why it was never conquered by an enemy. Venice managed to hang onto Spinalonga even after the fall of Heraklion to the Turks in 1669, keeping it in its possession, along with Gramvoussa and Souda, until 1715, in the hope of retaking Crete. Spinalonga was finally ceded to the Ottoman Turks in 1715 under a treaty with Kapudan Pasha. After his surrender, Spinalonga became a refuge for Turkish landowners who allegedly had made a number of previous destruction and trespass against the Cretans. During the Turkish occupation, a new era in the history of the island began.
Chapter: The first lepers on Spinalonga.
The financial situation on the island and wider region until 1936
(by Anna’s Giakoumaki book, “Spinalonga. The True Story” – copyrights Anna Giakoumaki (author/publisher). Translation: Maria Lazaridou, Editing-Proofreading: Donald Morgan Nielsen)
Hansen’s disease has plagued Crete throughout history. The need to establish a leprosarium in order to eradicate leprosy on the island was first raised as an issue in 1884. Following a proposal by Drs. Sfakianakis, Tsouderos and Vom,
the Cretan Assembly approved funding amounting to 300,000 Turkish piastres for the establishment of the leprosarium – a sum that was collected but never used. The report recommended the cost-effective solution of establishing a leprosarium on some remote islet, a proposal which was implemented a few years later.
The Report of the Committee of Doctors, which was published in the newspaper “Kriti”, highlighted, among other things:
“Housing expenditures would be somewhat mitigated if lepers were quarantined on one or two of the nearby islets, for example, Koufonisi or Dionysades, because they are government property and do not need to be purchased.” (Report of the Committee of Doctors, Newspaper “Kriti”, 25 October 1884).
After the Turks withdrew from Crete in 1898, the islanders began to reorganize. Assets which had been utilized by functionaries of the Ottoman Empire returned to Cretan possession, and they gradually devised a plan for utilizing them. The island’s developing economy was mainly based on agriculture and livestock. Every family tried to sustain itself and cover its basic needs by producing its own supply of olive oil, milk, cheese, meat, fruit, and vegetables while foraging for wild herbs and greens. In this way, every household maintained a degree of independence and self-sufficiency.
The Gulf of Mirabello, however, was in a disadvantageous position. The land was arid and infertile, making any attempt at cultivation futile. According to testimonies, the residents of the broader area of Elounda used to wander the area in rags begging for a cup of oil, a couple of eggs or whatever people had to spare. The islet of Spinalonga had yet to be exploited, and the Turkish squires who remained on the islet did not want to give up the houses and properties they had been using for generations.
In 1900, the Cretan State unintentionally laid the foundations for a plan which would solve two major problems: leprosy and how to drive the remaining Turks off Spinalonga. At that time, the High Commissioner of the island, Prince George, summoned two European doctors to Crete: Dr. Ehlers from Copenhagen and Dr. Kanheim from Dresden, who, assisted by a Greek physician – Dr. Mylogiannakis – stayed in Crete from 26 March to 6 May 1900 and drew up an extensive report which recommended the isolation of lepers on an island, without, however, proposing a particular island.
After lengthy discussions, the Cretan Parliament unanimously voted for the exile of lepers to a specific location. The first law regarding the matter (No. 375) was titled “Law on the Isolation of Lepers” and was published on 12 July 1901 in the Official Government Gazette of the Cretan State (O.G.G.C.S., vol. B’, issue 44, 12 July 1901). Up to that point, lepers used to reside on the outskirts of cities, outside the city walls. They were forced to live in shoddy lodgements called “Meskinies” or “Biskinies”, which came to be used as terms to describe a person suffering from Hansen’s disease. Both words are thought to be of Turkish origin and mean “dirty” or “filthy”. One can still visit the caves in which the lepers used to live at the partly-preserved settlement of Meskinia – the predecessor of modern-day Chrysopigi in Heraklion, Crete. In accordance with the “Law on the Isolation of Lepers”, it was obligatory to report individuals suffering from leprosy to doctors and mayors, while the supervising doctor, who was appointed by the Cretan State and was responsible for the diagnosis and eradication of leprosy (Article 2), would examine them and anyone else who had been identified as a possible leper. If the doctor’s findings were positive, the patient would be exiled to the leper colony, the location of which had not yet been determined. Moreover, individuals who neglected to report someone with the disease were punished by a fine of between ten and one-hundred drachmas (Article 1). Negotiations regarding the place of exile continued. Law 463, which identified Spinalonga as the place where the lepers of Crete were to settle, was voted on 30 May 1903 (“Law on the Settlement of the Lepers of Crete”, O.G.G.C.S., vol. C’, issue 25, 7 June 1903), while Regulatory Decree 166, which was voted on 18 November 1903 (“Decree on the Operation of the Leper Colony of Spinalonga”, O.G.G.C.S., vol. D’, issue 25, 18 November 1903), established its organisational framework. Another Decree followed, titled “Decree on the internal operation of the Leper Colony” (O.G.G.C.S., Year E’, 1903, p. 419), which complemented the previous decrees.
* (Law 375, O.G.G.C.S., vol. B’. issue 44, 12 July 1901, “Law on the Isolation of Lepers”)
Article 1. Reporting individuals with leprosy to doctors and mayors is obligatory. Violators will be punished by a fine of between ten and one-hundred drachmas.
Article 2. A doctor shall be appointed as medical inspector for the lepers, and his duties shall include anything concerning the eradication of leprosy. The inspector shall not be compensated, but will receive six-hundred drachmas per year for travel expenses, and will not be considered a public officer.
Article 3. The medical inspector shall examine all individuals who have been identified as possible lepers, and will then decide whether they have been infected or not. To this end, the inspector is obliged to travel across the prefectures biannually and examine those suspected of suffering from leprosy. Once a year, he shall visit any known leper residences as well as the leper colony.
Article 4. Those affected by leprosy shall be separated from the healthy and sent to the leper colony.
Article 5. Lepers will not be able to leave the site without special permission from the inspector confirming that their disease has gone into remission and that there is no risk of them passing it on to those with whom they come into contact.
Article 6. Escapees from the leper colony will be liable to one month of detention in a special building on the island, while, in the event of a recurrence, to six months’ imprisonment.
Article 7. All matters concerning the leper colony come under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Interior, while a Hegemonic Decree shall regulate all matters concerning the internal operation of the leper colony, such as medical care, security, public order, etc.
* (O.G.G.C.S., Year E’, 1903, pp. 419 – 420, “Decree on the internal operation of the Leper Colony”)
On the internal operation of the leper colony
I, PRINCE GEORGE OF GREECE
High Commissioner of Crete
Having regard to Article 7 of Law 375 and Law 463, and acting on a proposal from the Minister of Interior,
Decide and order:
Article 1. The lepers on Spinalonga may communicate with people on the Island
Article 2. The purchase of food or other products destined for the lepers, whether from inside the leper colony or from the Island, shall be made by the custodian. Sending unclean leper garments to be washed off the Islet is forbidden.
Article 3. Apart from the leper colony’s service boat, which shall be operated by one of the street cleaners, no other boat is permitted to approach the colony for any reason, unless the authorities have provided it to transfer goods to the Islet.
Article 4. All leper correspondence to the Island or abroad shall be sent by the leper colony’s doctor, provided he has previously disinfected it.
Article 5. All types of fishing are prohibited within a radius of 200 meters around the island.
Article 6. The burial of the dead shall take place on the Islet, at a location defined by the Medical Director. In the event of the death of a Muslim leper, the Director shall call upon the nearest imam to carry out the burial. Burial expenses shall be borne by the government.
Article 7. A yellow flag must be raised at the highest point of the Islet on a daily basis.
Article 8. The following staff, who are obliged to permanently reside on the Islet, shall be employed in the leper colony’s general management, security and sanitation departments, will provide medical treatment to the lepers and tend to their needs:
a) A Director, who must be a doctor of medicine, with a monthly salary of 100 drachmas.
The Director shall receive 50 drachmas per month for the procurement of medicine, equipment, and stationery, as well as to cover lighting and heating needs.
b) A custodian with a monthly salary of 60 drachmas.
c) Three street cleaners, who shall also be in charge of disinfecting and cleaning the lepers’ rooms, with a monthly salary of 40 drachmas.
For the performance of sacraments and services on Sundays and holidays, the Honourable Metropolitan of Crete shall appoint a priest-monk who shall be paid by the government a monthly salary of 60 drachmas.
Article 9. The Director of the leper colony is appointed by Hegemonic Decree, while the remaining staff by Order of the Minister of Interior.
Article 10. The Director shall exercise full supervision over the leper colony, provide medical care and medicine to the lepers free of charge – always following scientifically indicated protocol – ensure law enforcement on the Islet, requesting, if need arises, the assistance of the Gendarmerie, and exercise disciplinary authority over the leper colony. He shall be in charge of maintaining records with the names, gender and age of the lepers in the leper colony; births and deaths; the year each patient was struck by the disease; the form, cause and course of it and submit precise statistical data on the leper colony’s activity at the end of every year, as well as a report on his scientific findings. He shall perform microscopic examinations and microbiological cultures on every patient using all means available. He shall inquire of mayors, headmen, priests or the lepers’ fellow-villagers to determine whether they have a genetic predisposition to leprosy. If the Medical Director conducts a clinical trial on the lepers, he shall receive ten drachmas per month for every patient undergoing the trial in order to improve their diet. These patients, however, cannot number more than two at a time. The doctor is obliged to communicate the results of treatment to the Senior Management every month. He shall ensure the quality of food and bread on a daily basis, and make sure that the latter is of the required weight.
Article 11. Up to two grocery stores may operate on the Islet to supply lepers with necessary foodstuffs. Every four months, the Prefect shall establish price ceilings for both foodstuffs and fuel sold on the Islet, and the prices shall be displayed on the walls of the Islet’s grocery stores.
Article 12. The State shall provide the following to every leper, regardless of age, on a daily basis:
a) 200 drams of bread
b) an allowance of 20 cents for the purchase of foodstuffs
c) 8 cents for clothing, footwear and bedding
The latter amount shall be withheld by the State, which is obliged to annually provide the lepers with the necessary clothing, footwear and bedding through a public tender and according to the provisions of Law 356.
Article 13. The Ministry of Interior shall carry out an annual public tender for the provision of bread to the lepers, as laid down in the tender document.
Article 14. The Medical Director and priest shall produce a bimonthly statement reporting the number of lepers in the colony, and submit it to the Prefect for approval. Based on this statement, the Prefect shall then issue a payment order in the name of the Medical Director.
Article 15. The doctor and custodian of the leper colony are in charge of ensuring full compliance with the provisions governing the leper colony. In the event of violating or failing to execute these provisions due to negligence, they shall be punished according to the relevant statutes of the Criminal Law.
An amazing video for Spinalonga by the winner of Berlin Flash Festival / December 2017 (category: Super short drone) Sarantos Nikos.
The publication and execution of this Decree is assigned to the Minister of Interior.
Halepa, 18 November 1903
Apart from the excuse that it was for the protection of public health – which was surely an issue, but not the primary issue – the exile of lepers to Spinalonga was mainly considered necessary for three reasons; the first reason, as reported in various documents, was that there were already buildings on the island, which meant that the cost of constructing a leper colony would be greatly mitigated.
The second was that the Islet was both close to the mainland and surrounded by the sea. Therefore, any attempt to escape would be extremely difficult and immediately detected. The main advantage of the proximity of Spinalonga to the Cretan mainland was that the transportation of commodities, medical equipment and colony staff would be relatively easy. The third and most important reason was to drive the remaining Turks off the island in a peaceful manner. By transporting lepers to Spinalonga, the Cretan State was pursuing a specific agenda: to make the Turks fear that they would contract the dreaded disease – thus “motivating” them to depart voluntarily and without reservations. And so it happened.
In 1904, the first 251 lepers settled on the islet of Spinalonga. The 272 remaining Muslims were indirectly forced off the island with the promise of compensation.
There is also speculation that the Cretan State encouraged the lepers to choose their own houses and destroy the rest. Since they were enjoying a time of official peace between the two peoples, the evicted Ottomans should have received compensation for the properties they left to the Cretans. But since the lepers destroyed many of those structures, the amount of compensation payable was immediately reduced. The State couldn’t drive them out by force because the Ottomans were protected by the French, who were enforcing order on the island, but they could use other means instead.
* An article in the newspaper “Skrip” (1893-1963), Issue: 28 October 1898, page 2, mentions:
“….. The French Consul, Mr. Blanche, who made such vigorous efforts to find a favourable solution to the Cretan Question, and for that the land will forever owe him a debt of gratitude, addressed Mr. Venizelos yesterday, saying ‘it is sad that withdrawal was ordered by such a distinguished Greek diplomat, when the matter is so important for ensuring peace on the island.’ Good gracious!
To the best of my knowledge regarding the matter of guards, the only withdrawal of Powers possible is limited to the removal of one hundred men at some point from the Island, for example on Gramvousa or Spinalonga. The country will stand firm against any withdrawal, to the extent reasonably possible”.
* In the newspaper “Empros” (1896-1969), Issue: 27 August 1897, page 2, we read:
INTERNATIONAL MILITARY FORCES IN CRETE
A detailed account.
– The Turkish army in numbers.
The London Times provide the next account of the international military forces in Crete.
“A military contingent numbering 2,223 foreign troops is stationed in Chania and its suburbs. Most of them are French and Italian.
The Idjedin Fortress is occupied by 150 Austrians; 1,100 Russian troops are stationed in Rethymnon, while 1,800 British and 300 Italian troops are stationed in Heraklion. 320 Italians have occupied Ierapetra and, finally, the French occupy Sitia with a force of 400 men and Spinalonga with a force of 100 men…”
The first patients who were introduced to the island of Spinalonga did as instructed by the Cretan State: They removed the building materials they needed from other structures and destroyed anything they did not need. The incongruities of ill-fitting window and door frames and other materials used to equip their new homes are visible to this day. The Cretan State appraised the buildings the Muslims left behind at 130,000 gold francs. This amount was transferred to the Italian Consul General to be distributed to the beneficiaries, but they considered it a paltry sum and refused to receive it. On 24 September 1925, the Muslims came back into the picture, claiming the compensation promised by the Cretan State. According to the newspaper “Empros”, Issue 24 September 1925, page 4:
“THE EXPROPRIATION OF SPINALONGA
According to reliable information, the issue of Spinalonga, the islet off the coast of Crete, has recently been the subject of debate. The value of the expropriated properties of the Turks totalled 130 thousand gold francs, a sum which the Hellenic Government deposited in the – then existent – consuls’ fund. The Turks involved are already claiming this sum, which the consuls have deposited in the Bank of Italy. The Joint Committee will take the necessary actions so that the Italian Government transfers the full amount to the beneficiaries.”
According to testimonies, the first lepers who arrived on Spinalonga were accompanied by convicts from death row incarcerated at the Idjedin prison in Chania. The Cretan State already considered the convicts a lost cause and held the same opinion regarding the lepers. They considered it wise to send the convicts to the islet as the lepers’ guards, regardless of their unsuitability for the job. Moreover, the State did not really care if they contracted the disease. They were the dregs of society – as were the lepers – and no one really cared about them. But they were still human, with fears, passions and a strong survival instinct.
They say that the situation on the island in the early days was beyond anything imaginable, with constant mistreatment of patients and daily scenes of terror and violence.
In 1905, a supplementary Decree was passed to try to bring some order to the prevailing chaos.
* (O.G.G.C.S., Year G’, 1905, No. 56, DECREE ON THE INTERNAL OPERATION OF THE LEPER COLONY)
I, PRINCE GEORGE OF GREECE
High Commissioner of Crete
Having regard to Article 7 of Law 375 and Law 463, and acting on a proposal from the Minister of Interior
Decide and order:
That the provisions of Decrees 166 of 1903, 195 and 255 of 1904, and 26, 30 and 116 of 1905 be replaced as follows:
Article 1. The lepers on Spinalonga may communicate with people on the Island or abroad solely in the way defined in article 5 of Law 375. The staff of the leper colony may communicate with people on the Island. Relatives of the lepers may visit them in the leper colony, provided that the Medical Director has granted them prior permission, but they are strictly prohibited from spending the night.
Article 2. The purchase of food or other products destined for the lepers, whether from inside the leper colony or from the Island, shall be made by the custodian or another staff member appointed by the Director. Sending unclean leper garments to be washed off the Islet is forbidden. However, with the permission of the Prefect of Lasithi, two to four washerwomen are allowed to settle and reside in the leper colony to wash and clean the lepers’ garments.
Article 3. Apart from the two service boats of the leper colony, no other boat is permitted to approach the colony for any reason, except if authorities have requisitioned it to transfer goods to the Islet or if another authority, outsider or doctor wishing to carry out scientific studies visits the Island in their own boat.
Article 4. All leper correspondence to the Island or abroad shall be put in the post-box, from where it will be collected and delivered to the Director, who, after disinfecting it, will pass it on to the postman.
Article 5. All types of fishing are prohibited within a radius of 200 metres around the island.
Article 6. The burial of the dead shall take place on the islet at a location defined by the Medical Director. In the event of the death of a Muslim leper, the Director shall call upon the nearest imam to carry out the burial. Burial expenses shall be borne by the government.
Article 7. A yellow flag must be raised at the highest point of the Islet on a daily basis.
Article 8. The following staff shall be employed in the leper colony’s general management, security and sanitation departments, shall provide medical treatment to the lepers and tend to their needs. All of them are obliged to reside permanently on the Islet or at another location approved by the Minister of Interior, except for the Medical Director, who is allowed to reside in Plaka.
a) A Director. If he is a certified doctor, he shall receive a monthly salary of 200 drachmas; if he is not a doctor of medicine, he shall receive 160 drachmas. In the second case, a doctor is allowed to visit the leper colony once or twice a week to examine the lepers and shall receive fifteen drachmas per day. This doctor shall be appointed by the Prefect of Lasithi each time.
b) The Secretary shall receive 20 drachmas per month upon rendering of account for the procurement of stationery as well as to cover the lighting and heating of the offices.
c) A custodian, who will supervise all four street cleaners, the two boatmen and his assistant, shall have a monthly salary of 80 drachmas.
d) An assistant custodian with a monthly salary of 70 drachmas.
e) Four street cleaners, who shall also be in charge of disinfecting and cleaning the lepers’ rooms, each with a monthly salary of 60 drachmas.
f) One annual payment of 300 drachmas shall be provided for the procurement of medicine and equipment. Likewise, the sum of 500 drachmas shall be provided on a one-off basis for the purchase and repair of the boat and its parts, as well as for the purchase of furniture, containers and clay jars for the office and pharmacy.
g) For the performance of sacraments and services on Sundays and holidays, the Honourable Metropolitan of Crete shall appoint a priest-monk who shall be paid by the government a monthly salary of between 60 and 80 drachmas.
h) A secretary with a monthly salary of 100 drachmas.
i) Two boatmen, each with a monthly salary of 60 drachmas.
Article 9. The Director of the leper colony is appointed by Hegemonic Decree, while the remaining staff by order of the Minister of Interior.
Article 10. The Director shall exercise full supervision of the leper colony; provide medical care and medicine to the lepers free of charge (always following scientifically indicated protocol); ensure the enforcement of law and order on the Islet, requesting, if need arises, the assistance of the Gendarmerie; and shall exercise disciplinary authority over the leper colony’s staff, imposing, if needed, a disciplinary fine of between 5 and 20 drachmas, according to the existing provisions of the administrative bodies. An appeal against this decision can be lodged before the Minister of Interior within 5 days from notification. The Director shall be in charge of maintaining records with the names, gender and age of the lepers in the leper colony; births and deaths; the year each patient was struck by the disease; the form, cause and course of it and submit precise statistical data on the leper colony’s activity at the end of every year, as well as a report on his scientific findings. He shall perform microscopic examinations and microbiological cultures on every patient using all means available. He shall inquire of mayors, headmen, priests or the lepers’ fellow-villagers to determine whether they have a genetic predisposition to leprosy. If the Medical Director conducts a clinical trial on the lepers, he will receive ten drachmas per month for every patient undergoing the trial in order to improve their diet. These patients, however, cannot number more than two at a time. The doctor is obliged to communicate the results of treatment to the Senior Management every month. He shall ensure the quality of food and bread on a daily basis, and make sure that the latter is of the required weight. He may also discard food if he finds that it is spoiled, contaminated, etc.
Article 11. Up to four grocery stores may be established on the Islet to supply lepers with necessary foodstuffs, operated by lepers or not, with the permission of the leper colony’s Director and the approval of the Prefect of Lasithi. Every four months, the Prefect shall establish price ceilings for both foodstuffs and fuel sold on the Islet, and the prices shall be displayed on the walls of the Islet’s aforementioned grocery stores.
Article 12. The State shall provide the sum of 55 cents per day to every leper, regardless of age, for bread, clothing, footwear, bedding, etc.
Article 13. The Medical Director and priest shall produce a bimonthly statement reporting the number of lepers in the colony, and shall submit it to the Prefect for approval. Based on this statement, the Prefect shall then issue a payment order in the name of the Medical Director, who, in turn, shall distribute the amount to each beneficiary privately, making sure that the payment order has been co-signed by the Secretary.
Article 14. The doctor, secretary and custodian of the leper colony are in charge of ensuring full compliance with the provisions governing the leper colony. In the event of a violation or failure to execute these provisions due to negligence, they will be punished according to the relevant statutes of the Criminal Law or disciplined by the Minister of Interior.
Article 15. The Secretary shall stand in for the Director when he is absent or prevented from attending.
The publication and execution of this Decree is assigned to the Minister of Interior.
Halepa, 23 September 1905
The first years of confinement were hard for the patients, with miserable living conditions which affected both their health and spirits. Their lives became increasingly unbearable due to a lack of medical equipment and supplies, infrequent communication with the outside world due to strict isolation measures, an allowance too small to even cover basic necessities, and, finally,
being treated like criminals rather than medical patients. Their main sources of support during these times were the monasteries of the surrounding area, the Metropolis of Petra and fundraisers that were held by various philanthropic organisations.
The patients’ despair and frustration often led to uprisings, which, however, had virtually no effect. Their limited education prevented them from properly framing their requests or having their complaints acknowledged by the authorities. According to numerous sources, the Islet’s sole pharmacist was also illiterate. In 1913, Crete was united with Greece, and lepers from all over the country were transferred to the islet. There are, however, reports of non-Cretan lepers being sent to the Islet long before that. One example is provided by an article in “Skrip”(page 4, 8 July 1905): “The police have received a complaint about a Cretan leper wandering the streets around the 4th police station. There is a risk of him passing the disease on to others, because the leprosy-ridden beggar frequents a number of homes. The police have ordered the officers of the 4th police station to arrest the leper, who will be sent to Crete.”
The Hellenic state included the leper colony of Spinalonga in its national healthcare plan and adopted new regulations for its operation. In a memorandum to the Ministry of Health in 1926, Prefect Mr. Anagnostakis notes: “Two hundred and fifty human beings of every age, gender and social class, outcasts of fortune, have been isolated – or, more accurately, dumped – on the dry rock of Spinalonga in deep despair. I inspected nearly all of the houses – or should I say, hovels – of the lepers, and I can honestly say that their wretched condition should inspire outrage in the conscience of any civilised person…”
The government of Eleftherios Venizelos made efforts to improve the patients’ living conditions and the medical treatment they received. After several years of inhumane confinement and neglect on that infertile, arid and inhospitable island, a hospital was built. As archaeologist Georgia Moschovi mentions in her book, Eleftherios Venizelos sent a doctor to India and the Philippines at his own expense in order to learn about the newest treatment methods that were being used in organised leper colonies there. He also established a committee of scientists to recommend measures that might alleviate the patients’ suffering. Shortly after this, Venizelos appointed the first doctor-director of Spinalonga’s leper colony, Prefectural Medical Officer E.G., whose jurisdiction included not only Spinalonga but the entire Prefecture of Lasithi.
The first three decades of the colony’s operation were characterised by neglect and inertia, although the number of people transported to the island was significant. According to reports, approximately 1,000 patients were confined on the islet of Spinalonga during the first three decades of the century.
(photo by Sarantos Nikos)
The miserable living conditions on Spinalonga were also reported in the press, such as in this letter to the editor of “Nea Efimeris“ on 17 October 1925:
“PROTEST OF THE LEPERS OF SPINALONGA
Mr. Editor of “Nea Efimeris”
From the first days of our confinement on Spinalonga, we have never ceased to shout out and protest about our reprehensible isolation on this barren rock, which both foreign and local visitors call hell on earth.
But especially after the donations of Mr. Mihailinos, Mr. Venizelos and others, we hereby appeal to the Honourable Government, Political persons and – through the press – to the entire Nation,
requesting the transfer of the Leprosarium to a suitable government-owned location with running water and arable land, as are the Leprosariums of Chios and Cyprus, in order to ease and comfort our troubled souls. We are not requesting great things at the Government’s expense: the regular payment of our allowance, women for washing and tending to our needs, a specialised doctor and 3 or 4 employees to ensure the facility’s proper functioning. However, to our great sorrow and despair, we were informed just today that the leper colony’s Committee was ordered by the competent Ministry to strictly apply the provision of the new Bill regarding the operation of leper colonies, according to which Bill food will be strictly rationed, as if the 190 of us who are confined here are the dregs of humanity.”
On 24 November 1928, another article on page 6 of “Empros” titled “Specialised Hospital for Combating Leprosy”, mentions:
“Yesterday, the Prime Minister received the Governor-General of Crete in his office.
Mr. Katehakis announced to the Head of the Government that they will use the sum of 3,000 [Turkish] liras which Mr. Venizelos has set aside from the 10,000 liras which Mr. Mihailinos has donated for the execution of construction works in Crete to establish a specialised hospital on the leper island of Spinalonga to house the unfortunate outcasts who are no longer able to perform physical work or care for themselves.”
Documents from 1929 prove that, following a public tender, reconstruction work then commenced on the island’s buildings.
From the handwritten receipt of the main contractor for those works, Konstantinos Tsihlis or Spithas, we read:
“Receipt of 15,000 drachmas
I, the undersigned contractor Konst. Tsihlis or Spithas, have received the amount of fifteen-thousand drachmas from Mr. Angelidakis Angelos, Prefect of Lasithi, as an advance towards the procurement of materials, lime, sand and timber for the reconstruction of some houses in the leper colony of Spinalonga, following the relevant public tender.
Agios Nikolaos, 26 October 1929
* Newspaper “Empros” (1896-1969), Issue: 8 August 1928, page 6
“- The Leper Colony of Spinalonga
The director of the Leper Colony of Spinalonga has requested credit of 40,000 drachmas from the Governorate-General for the procurement of shale soil to repair the alleys between the lepers’ homes. The special accounting office of the Governorate-General was ordered to make the necessary arrangements.”
* Newspaper “Empros” (1896-1969), Issue: 31 July 1929, page 1
Article by Angelos Sgouros:
“WITH THE SCAPEGOATS OF SPINALONGA
….. THE LEPERS MUST BE TRANSFERRED FROM SPINALONGA
Yesterday, I wrote about the torturous lives of this unfortunate society of scapegoats; about the injustice that mercilessly lashes these troubled souls; about the appalling effect that the detestable environment of Spinalonga has on man’s body and spirit. But still, among the silent and dilapidated quays of the old fortress, the waterless rocks, under the relentless sun and exposed to the mania of the winds off the Sea of Crete live imprisoned people. They have not committed murders or other crimes; they are not bloodthirsty bandits who have been sentenced to life in prison; nor are they murderers, crooks or forgers paying the price of their sins according to social justice; they are hapless beings who, by a simply twist of fate, have disfigured faces without eyes or noses and deformed hands and legs unable to support their own weight. The State and society at large should be doing their best to alleviate the suffering of these unfortunate beings by making their lives, if not pleasant, at least worthy of dignity and not like some dog on the island of Bosporus. The lepers need to be transported from Spinalonga; a leprosarium in the real scientific sense of the word must be found – instead of calling Spinalonga a leper colony when in fact it is a place offering only a lifetime in hellish exile. A hospital and infirmary must be established where serious scientists can dedicate their lives to research so that something good and useful may result from all this suffering. In this way, despair will leave their souls, and hope for a cure may take its place. Hope has a far more salutary effect on a despairing soul than even medical treatment can offer. An effective treatment for leprosy is still in an experimental stage. Injections of Chaulmoograoil are being administered, as well as similar preparations of Antileprol and Reganol; while the well-known 413(?) has also been used occasionally, and patients with tuberculosis are treated with gold injections. It has been reported that a systematic treatment of 700-800 injections halts the progress of the leprosy microbe or Hansen’s bacillus. On Spinalonga today, treatment is practically non-existent, and the monitoring of patients is inadequate. It is no one’s fault. The lepers no longer believe in anything; they surrender to the despair of their misfortune and the additional torture imposed on them by the State’s insensitivity and neglect. Some of them have had 15-30 injections, and each injection has created a terrible purulent abscess!…”
More work was done on the island. The Hellenic State finally began to allocate significant funds for the improvement of the facilities, and the Greek President, Eleftherios Venizelos, indirectly monitored the progress of work.
In 1933, after Eleftherios Venizelos was informed that the works had been delayed due to a lack of staff and funds, he sent a letter to the Directorate of Public Works of Crete mentioning the following about contractor Kon. Tsihlis or Spithas and referring to the latter’s complaints:
“Athens, 3 February 1933
The contractor in charge of the works on Spinalonga has informed me that the delay in their execution is due to the fact that the staff of the Engineering Department of the Prefecture of Lasithi is busy with other projects. He cannot find an engineer for his public works and thus cannot expedite the process of submitting invoices for the work carried out. Because of this delay, he lacks the funds needed to continue the project. Because, as you know, the works were commenced 4 years ago and must be completed as soon as possible in order to improve the fate of the poor lepers of Spinalonga, I would be obliged if you would kindly provide the appropriate instructions to the Engineering Department of the Prefecture of Lasithi, whose jurisdiction includes the district where the work is being executed, and assist us in our charitable work by submitting any invoices to us as soon as possible so we can settle them immediately. I also kindly request that you convey to the said Department that I have asked Mr. Katapotis, doctor and Senator of Lasithi, to submit a reconstruction plan for a leprosy Sanatorium with approximately thirty (30) wards not costing more than one-million drachmas.
Since Mr. Katapotis will need an engineer for the selection of the plot of land and the drafting of relevant plans, I kindly request that you make the engineer of the Prefecture of Lasithi available to him, keeping in mind that the said engineer will be paid by me for his additional work.
The works continued, despite numerous obstacles.
The renovation of the buildings, in combination with an increase in the patients’ allowance, significantly improved their living conditions and spirits and allowed them to live in comparative dignity.
On the islet of Spinalonga, in contrast with other similar Greek institutions, patients now had three basic advantages; the first one was that all patients had the right to choose their own food and clothing. With the allowance granted by the State they could buy whatever they considered necessary. Although, at first, the monthly allowance set by the State amounted to only 20 cents per patient per day, over time it was increased. The patients’ constant struggle for survival and the gradual improvement of their living conditions is well documented: hunger strikes and refusal of treatment, black flags and banners with slogans such as “BLACK ROCK” and articles sent to the press. Their protests and constant demonstrations echoed across the Gulf until they were either vindicated or their requests at least partially granted. The patients’ second advantage on Spinalonga was their ability to live in proper houses instead of hospital wards (as long as they were physically able to care for themselves). The third and final advantage was that lepers on Spinalonga could get married, and married couples could legally live together.
For the time being, let us focus on their right to manage their own allowance.
Lepers were clearly in a better position than the rest of the starving inhabitants of the Gulf of Mirabello in Crete: they had money and a certain limited freedom, but they lacked commodities and other necessities. At the same time, the inhabitants of the Gulf and the wider region had commodities and other products to sell but no access to markets and, hence, no money. In short: lepers had the money, and the inhabitants of the Gulf had the commodities.
The patients had to obtain food and other basics from somewhere in order to survive. But where? The absence of a road network and the limited means of transport made it difficult for would-be merchants to access the island from remote locations. By contrast, the inhabitants of Elounda, in addition to being close to Spinalonga, also had an abundance of fishing boats. The development of commercial ties between the residents of Spinalonga and the Cretans along the Gulf was inevitable.
Countless boats carrying all manner of goods would embark from the Gulf of Mirabello and row across the narrow strait to Spinalonga.
Wood, milk, fruit, wild greens and herbs, which up to that time had little or no value to the coastal residents, could now be sold to the lepers at a profit. With the money they made from this trade, they could, in turn, put some food on their table and furnish their homes with other items.
Every day, a makeshift market would set up at the small port of Spinalonga, where merchants would display their merchandise and patiently wait until it was sold. Dozens of patients would wend their way down the settlement’s narrow alleys to the market on the quay, and although this transaction was essential for both sides, fear of contagion still hung in the air. Therefore, after the usual bargaining and selection of goods, a patient would pay the clerk of the disinfecting unit, who, after disinfecting the money, would pass it on to the merchant.
As commerce grew and developed, so too did Spinalonga. According to testimonies, the island now housed two grocery stores, three kafenions and a number of other shops which would not have existed had the necessary supplies not been able to reach the island.
The boom in trade also affected the appearance of the shore fronting the small harbour of Plaka on the Cretan mainland: many shops were erected during that period in order to meet the needs of patients, visitors or escorts, as well as the leper colony’s staff. Most of the locals quit their jobs in order to participate in commerce in one way or another. One of the oldest taverns in Plaka, which opened in 1932 and remains unaltered to this day, is “The old tavern of Maria”. Sweet Kyria Maria B. opened this small tavern with her husband in order to serve the patients and their escorts. According to Kyria Maria, the tavern also operated as a guest house from time to time, accommodating dozens of patients’ relatives, who would arrive in the area to visit and support their loved ones who were confined on Spinalonga.
Commerce, as we say in Crete, “provides bread” or, in other words, puts food on the table of many families.
These responses from an old man in Tsifliki are noteworthy:
‘Pappou, were you a merchant too when the lepers where on Spinalonga?’
‘Why, yes I was indeed! Golden times, my child!’ he replied disarmingly.
‘And what did you trade in, Pappou?’ I continued with curiosity.
‘Watermelons, bread… whatever they needed.’ he replied.
‘But, Pappou, you don’t grow watermelons in Elounda! How did you come to sell them?’
‘And who said that we grew them in Elounda, my child? I would ride the donkey to Malia, load the poor animal until its belly almost touched the ground and slowly return to Plaka on foot. From Plaka, I would put the watermelons in the boat and row them across. You should have seen the poor souls’ reaction when they heard the sound of my boat! Piles of patients would descend to the port to see what I had brought for them! If only you could have seen their surprised faces when they saw my goods! No sooner had I arrived than everything was sold, just like that! Poor people… what could they do? They longed for some fruit, and we needed the money, so we became merchants. I remember one time when I was taking them bread I was caught in a terrible squall just outside the port. The weather was really bad and I couldn’t approach the dock to tie the boat.’
‘And what did you do, Pappou?’ I asked full of curiosity.
‘Well, I threw the bread ashore and whoever wanted some would scramble to catch a loaf.’
‘And what about money? Were you not paid? Was the bread a gift?’ I asked naively.
‘A gift? They paid me the next time!’
‘But, Pappou, how did you know who took what?’
‘They knew, and that was enough! They may have been sick, but they were honest!’ replied the old man, using the simplest words to bring his world into focus.
Through trade, that neglected island had become an enormous source of income for the inhabitants of the wider region.
Spinalonga was a leper colony till 1957. In 1952 Spinalonga was renamed “Kalydon”, which had been the island’s name throughout antiquity. Although modern maps now list the small islet by its official name, the locals have never ceased to think of it as “Spinalonga”. After the leper colony closed in 1957, the Greek Government explored the possibility of using the islet for other purposes. Newspaper articles from that time report that the Government was considering establishing a public psychiatric hospital there, but these discussions were soon dropped.
After the leper colony closed, residents of the Gulf of Mirabello had to endure several difficult years. The construction of new roads, however, helped them adjust to the new reality. And over time, the unique beauty of the Gulf, in combination with the growth of tourism, established the area as one of the most attractive destinations in Greece. Its natural beauty caught the eye of major businessmen from Crete and elsewhere in Greece, and it wasn’t long before luxury hotels started appearing along the coast, feeding a cycle of growth. Today, the Gulf of Mirabello, Elounda, Plaka and Agios Nikolaos together welcome thousands of visitors each year from all over the world. As for Spinalonga, the former barren rock of exile rises from the waters of the Gulf like a precious stone. Every day, dozens of boats from the nearby villages ferry visitors to the small islet. A few years ago, the Ephorate of Byzantine Antiquities began work to restore the islet’s buildings and soon hope to present a picture of how it looked during its years of operation as a leper colony. Although words alone can’t hope to capture the island’s special beauty, the incredible hospitality of the local people and an understanding of the area’s story will ensure that visitors to the one-time leper colony of Spinalonga will never forget their experience.
* Newspaper “Eleftheria” (1944-1967), Issue: 26 March 1955, page 6
“GRADUAL SHUT-DOWN OF SPINALONGA BASED ON PLAN OF UNDER-SECRETARIAT OF MEDICAL ASSISTANCE
After a meeting held at the Ministry of Welfare, the said Ministry announced that the leper colony of Spinalonga is to be closed and the islet subsequently used for other public purposes.
The announcement also stated that the shut-down will take place gradually and according to a plan drafted by the Under-Secretary of Medical Assistance. According to this plan, the first patients to be released from Spinalonga will be those who do not pose a threat to public health and are able to undergo treatment in their own homes. Other patients susceptible to treatment will be transferred to Agia Varvara – to a specialised hospital for leprosy, which will be reorganised as a model infirmary. Finally, the lepers who are not susceptible to treatment will be transferred to a specialised asylum. It was also announced that every patient who leaves the leper colony will continue to receive a special allowance.”
 Approximately 355 grams.
 “Grandpa” or simply an affectionate way of addressing an old man.