Built Heritage > Colonial

Nelson’s Island

Nelson's Island (c.1900) | Photograph Courtesy Adrian Camps-Campins

Written by Geoffrey MacLean

The Five Islands or quarantine islands are perhaps one of the most important historical sites in Trinidad. They not only served as an entry point for the most peoples immigrating to Trinidad, but also as a detention centre for several different groups during the twentieth century.

The largest of the islands, Nelson’s (originally Neilson’s) Island, is dominated by the Quarantine Station built in 1802, still in a relatively sound state. The associated outbuildings and deep water landing on the south side, constructed in the middle of the nineteenth century for the traffic in indentured labour, are in ruin. During the second world war the island was occupied by the United States Navy, which in the early 1940’s built a gun-emplacement on the eastern side of th island of which part of the structure remains, and a cable causeway to the adjoining Rock island, on which there were timber structures.

Nelson’s Island was used for the reception and processing of indentured labour from India for about 80 years from 1845 to 1921. ¬†German and Austrian Jews fleeing the impending Holocaust who intended to settle in Trinidad in the 1930s, were detained as enemy aliens, the men on Nelson’s Island, the women and young children on Caledonia. Two Trinity Cross holders were incarcerated on the island: Uriah Butler in the late 1930s and early 1940’s, when under American occupation, and George Weekes, in 1970.

Although the islands continued to be under the jurisdiction of the Chief Medical Officer into the 1950s, Nelson’s Island passed through the administration of various Ministries including Community Development, National Security, the Institute of Marine Affairs and into an administrative limbo.

Lenagan Island, the third in size of the six islands, is the site of the isolation hospital, much of which remained in unstable state as late as 1979. The building on the ridge of the island and all sound transportable materials have been removed. On the concrete jetty there is a 19th century boiler and autoclave used for sterilization of bed linen and other accessories. At the western end of the island there was a cremation site where the remains were simply swept and allowed to fall into the sea below.

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