Article from The Cape Odyssey
The Hemel-en-Aarde Valley is beautiful – it has rolling hills of vineyards, orchards and wheat lands, hemmed in by a rim of mountains and the tall and alluring Babylon’s Tower. A romantic dust road winds its way through the valley to join Caledon to the sea.
Georg Schmidt, a Moravian Missionary, wrote: Just an hour by horse cart from Hermanuspietersfontein, there lies a fertile valley called Hemel-en-Aarde. Rightly it has got its name because so high are the hills, which closely embrace the valley all around, that they seem to touch the sky and you cannot see anything but Heaven and Earth.
The valley, however, has not always been known for its picturesque and natural beauty. In the early 1800’s this marvellous corner of the world was a home for lepers.
Since early biblical times leprosy was known by all as a most dreaded disease. In the Holy Bible we find references in 19 chapters to lepers and leprosy.
Leprosy was first reported in South Africa in 1756 in the district of Stellenbosch. A commission was duly appointed and as a result of its recommendations the Council of Policy passed a resolution on 17 August 1756 that lepers should not be allowed to mix with healthy people. Hottentots afflicted with leprosy were kept in quarantine in a detached place and supplied with funds raised in Swellendam.
In the early 1800’s the problem was brought to the attention of Lord Charles Henry Somerset, Governor of the Cape Colony.
Whereas it has been represented to me and after my minute inquiry, I have ascertained that the melancholy and distressing disorder, Leprosy, has of late years considerably increased within the settlement; and whereas it appears, that in the District of Swellendam only is there any retreat provided for the unfortunate objects attacked by this malady, so that as an impression obtains (which the most learned of the Medical Profession hold to be erroneous), that the disorder is contagious, the distressed sufferers are frequently left in a state of abandonment, which is shocking to humanity to reflect upon.
And whereas it appears expedient to allot to Hottentots, Bastards, Freebacks, and slaves labouring under this evil, a healthy and airy spot, where they may retire to, and where they shall receive such aid as is necessary to their future subsistence and comfort, but to which solace the safety of the public requires they should be confined.
And it appears that the situation of the Hemel & Aarde, now allocated by the District of Swellendam to this object, is capable of such augmentation of ground, as is sufficient for the purpose required.
Extract form The Cape Town Gazette & African Adviser – 22 February 1817.
The lepers were allowed to erect huts and to make use of a small proportion of ground to grow vegetables.
Plans were drawn up for a hospital, and a residence for the then proposed medical officer. The tender to erect the buildings was awarded to Mr. George Nicol. Building commenced in 1820. The first Medical Officer to take up residence at ‘Hemel & Aarde’ was a Dr O’Flinn.
Because of his neglect of the lepers he was replaced by Dr James Barry. Barry was the principal medical officer of the Militia, and one of the most controversial figures in South African medical history. He performed the first Caesarean section at the Cape. After saving both mother and child, the only fee he requested was that the child be named after him.
Dr Barry recommended that lepers should bathe daily in sea water, hence the name ‘leper trail’ over Fern Kloof. The Lepers had to cross this kloof to get from Hemel-en-Aarde to the sea.
On his death in London, on 25 July 1865, it was discovered that Dr Barry was in actual fact a woman, but this has never been verified.
1823 – 1846 Missionaries, who under Lord Somerset’s direction, were to administer to the leper community, occupied the residence. In January 1823 the missionary Peter Leitner and his wife arrived at the settlement by ox wagon from Genadendal. A crowd greeted them on arrival with their song, “The Lord has blessed us greatly. “
Brother Robert Schmidt of Genadendal took it upon himself to record the events of the lepers in his booklet ‘Hemel-en-Aarde’ – een liefde werk der Broedergemeente (Moravische Sending) onder de Melaatschen in Zuid Afrika door R Schmidt.
R Schmidt writes: ‘ Hermanuspietersfontein, a pretty little village close to the beach, affords a nice rest for many people from all parts during the summer months.
A great ocean sweeps from immediately below the houses. Early morning boats are seen putting out to sea, until finally a small flotilla is under sail to catch the much-prized fish. What excitement there was when they returned to the romantic haven. Many hands are busy to receive the day’s haul and prepare it for sale’.
About four hundred lepers are said to be buried at Hemel-en-Aarde. December 1845 saw the end of a 29-year era at the leper colony at Hemel-en-Aarde.
For the next eighty-seven years leprosy patients were housed on Robben Island, where after they were sent to the Westford Leper Institution in Pretoria. Only after leprosy was proclaimed not to be contagious, were lepers sent home to be cared for by their families and local clinics.
John Annandale – Onrus