Culion Island is one of the islands in the Calamian island chain that lies off the coast of Palawan in the Mimaropa region in the Philippines. It is known for its beautiful natural landscape and for being home to a leper colony from 1906 to 1992.
Augustinian missionaries came to the island to convert the natives to Christianity in 1622. In 1740, the people of Culion were tasked to construct a fort, under the supervision of the friar Juan de San Severo. Fort Culion was made out of coral rocks. It was armed with cannons used to defend the island from the Muslim pirates that frequently raided the island.
At the beginning of the American colonization of the Philippines, it was found that leprosy was a widespread incurable medical condition in the country. About 4,000 cases were documented in the country at that time. In order to contain the spread of the disease, victims of leprosy were rounded up all over the Philippines and sent to the island, beginning in May 1906. Culion Island was chosen to house the colony as it was isolated and sparsely populated. The colony began with 370 patients and over the next few decades the numbers kept growing. In 1922, a special fund was allocated by the U.S. for the treatment of the 5,100 lepers. By 1931, Culion had become the world’s largest leper colony, with more than 16,000 patients. The island was known as the “land of the living dead” as there was no definitive cure until the 1980s. Health experts from around the world visited it to study the disease and experiment with treatments.
During World War II, the Japanese came to Culion in April 1942. While they did not remain on the island long due to their fear of leprosy, they disabled the radio equipment of the local telegraph service and prevented the islanders from getting food from outside the island. Many islanders died from hunger and disease during the war years.
In 1947, a sulfone treatment for leprosy was introduced and many patients were cured. In the 1980s, multi-drug therapy for leprosy was developed and it was administered to the island’s patients by the World Health Organization (WHO). Incidences of leprosy among the island’s residents were completely eliminated by 1998.
Until 1992, the island was under the jurisdiction of the Department of Health but in 1988, qualified residents of the colony were permitted to vote in the provincial government elections. The island was declared a municipality in its own right on 12 February 1992. In 1995, the island held its first elections for municipal and barangay officials. Hilarion Guia, who had been sent to the leper colony as a child in 1949, became the first mayor. Administrative control was finally officially transferred to the island’s government on October 29, 1998.
Culion’s landscape is largely mountainous. Various unique Palawan species can be seen in its diverse terrain, including Calamian deer, mousedeer, anteaters, and hornbills. The island is surrounded by mangrove forests, sea grass beds, and coral reefs where various types of marine life thrive, including some 20 species of butterfly fish. Dugongs, dolphins, whales, and whale sharks frequent its waters.
- Culion Museum - The island’s fascinating history is documented in the Culion Museum, which displays photographs, books, and artifacts. It was established in 1997.
- Spanish fort – Known as the Parola, the fort was built in 1740. Its cannons were once used to defend the island from Muslim pirates. An excellent view of the sea and the surrounding islands may be seen from the fort.
- La Imaculada Conception Church – The old Spanish church is located by the fort.
- "Culion Island." Culion Official Website (Accessed 6 August 2009)
- Jack, Karen. “Island of Dreams.” In Cebu Smile. (Accessed 6 August 2009)
- "Wood Appeals for Lepers: General Asks for Funds to Aid Culion Island Colony." In New York Times, September 13, 1922. (Accessed 6 August 2009)