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The bleak history and bright future of Seili

An aerial shot of Seili, featuring yellow buildings, green trees, and a harbour.
Photo: Gustav Ramberg

Just past Nagu, in the tangled tapestry of the archipelago, lies the idyllic island of Seili. Sprinkled with wooden houses, winding lanes, and plump cattle, grazing peacefully on the hillside, the island is like a landscape painting. But not all that long ago, it was a place where hundreds upon hundreds met a tragic fate.

A dark history

Permanently inhabited since the Middle Ages, Seili (or Själö in Swedish) was originally used as farming land, but in 1619, when Finland was part of the Swedish Empire, the island took on a new and unexpected role. Under orders issued by the reigning monarch, King Gustaf II Adolf, Seili became home to a hospital for people with leprosy. As the disease was considered, at the time, to be incurable, the remote island seemed the perfect place to isolate affected individuals.  

Over the next 130 years, some 663 people were exiled to Seili. Many were forcibly taken, acutely aware that there was no hope of a return voyage. It is rumoured that patients even brought with them the wooden planks required for their own coffins. The hospital also treated individuals with physical and intellectual disabilities, but Seili was then two islands, separated by a stream, and these patients were kept far from those afflicted with leprosy. 

Wooden crosses in the graveyard on the island of Seili.
This graveyard lies just behind the church, which was rebuilt in 1733-34 following the Great Northern War, when Russian forces invaded the island. Made from wood, the church was constructed with a separate section where leprosy patients were permitted to worship. Photo: Kathleen Cusack

More troubling years

As the 17th century rolled into the 18th, the two islands connected, forming the single island known today as Seili. At the same time, leprosy began to slowly vanish from Finland and Seili was again cast in a new role, this time as the site of the nation’s first public mental health facility. Both men and women were treated at the hospital early on, but this changed in 1889, after which point only female patients were admitted.

Most were young, poor, and unmarried, some were considered criminals, while others were even Russian refugees. None of these women were believed, however, to have any chance of recovery. It was very rare to be discharged; the reality is that most never saw the mainland again, dying on the tiny island to which they had been banished.

An old building on the island of Seili, covered in a red vine.
In 2010, a researcher discovered a collection of handwritten notes, nestled in the hollow of a tree and hidden inside carefully constructed packets. The author was eventually revealed as Saima Rahkonen, a patient who lived on the island for some 22 years until her death in 1959. Photo: Kathleen Cusack

A new era

In 1962, the mental health facility closed and Seili took on the role it still holds today. Run by the University of Turku, the island is now home to the Archipelago Research Institute, a marine station which promotes research and monitors the Archipelago Sea and Baltic Sea. These days Seili also plays host to curious travellers, eager to savour the island’s natural beauty and learn more about its bleak history. 

Trees turn autumn colours on the island of Seili.
It is believed that there were hardly any trees on Seili between the 1600s and 1900s. Nowadays the island is almost unrecognisable: the southern part thrives with herb-rich forests, while coniferous woods grow in the north. Photo: Kathleen Cusack

Visit Seili

Seili is a perfect day trip from Turku. M/s Norrskär sails to the island between May and September, or you can hop aboard M/s Östern, which sets out from Nagu between May and August. M/s Kokkomaa sails to Seili in the winter months.

Seili’s historic buildings are considered to be one of the most significant built cultural environments in Finland. Contact Visit Seili beforehand to arrange a guided tour in English or stroll around the island on your own. Bring a picnic along or dine at Restaurant Seili in the former hospital, where you will also find an exhibition about the island’s grim past.