Today’s guest post is by Billy G. Smith, Distinguished Professor in the Department of History, Philosophy, and Religious Studies at Montana State University. He earned his PhD at University of California Los Angeles. His research interests include disease; race, class and slavery; early America, and mapping early America.
Bird flu, SARS, Marburg, Ebola, HIV, West Nile Fever. One of these diseases, or another, that spread from animals and mosquitoes to humans may soon kill most people on the planet. More likely, the great majority of us will survive such a world-wide pandemic, and even now we have a heightened awareness that another one may be on the horizon. This blog focuses on these issues in the past, outlining a virtually unknown voyage of death and disease that transformed the communities and nations bordering the Atlantic Ocean (what historians now refer to as the Atlantic World). It traces the journey of a sailing ship that inadvertently instigated an epidemiological tragedy, thereby transforming North America, Europe, Africa, and the Caribbean islands. This ship helped to create the first yellow fever pandemic.
In 1792, the Hankey and two other ships carried nearly three hundred idealistic antislavery British radicals to Bolama, an island off the coast of West Africa, where they hoped to establish a colony designed to undermine the Atlantic slave trade by hiring rather than enslaving Africans. Poor planning and tropical diseases, especially a particularly virulent strain of yellow fever likely contracted from the island’s numerous monkeys (through a mosquito vector), decimated the colonists and turned the enterprise into a tragic farce.
In early 1793, after most colonists had died and survivors had met resistance from the indigenous Bijagos for invading their lands, the Hankey attempted to return to Britain. Disease-ridden, lacking healthy sailors, and fearing interception by hostile French ships, the colonists caught the trade winds to Grenada. They and the mosquitoes in the water barrels spread yellow fever in that port and, very soon, throughout the West Indies. This was only a few months before the British arrived to quell the slave rebellion in St. Domingue (now Haiti). The British and subsequently the French military had their troops decimated by the disease—one reason why the slave revolution succeeded. The crushing defeat in the Caribbean helped convince Napoleon to sell the vast Louisiana territory to the United States. He turned eastward to expand his empire, altering the future of Europe and the Americas.
A few months after the Hankey arrived in the West Indies, commercial and refugee ships carried passengers and mosquitoes infected with yellow fever to Philadelphia, the nation’s capital during the 1790s. The resulting epidemic killed five thousand people and forced tens of thousands of residents, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and other prominent federal government leaders, to flee for their lives. The state, city, and federal government all collapsed, leaving it to individual citizens to save the nation’s capital. Meanwhile, doctors fiercely debated whether “Bulama fever” (as many called it) was a “new” disease or a more virulent strain of yellow fever common in the West Indies. Physicians like the noted Benjamin Rush fiercely debated the causes of and treatment for the disease. They mostly bled and purged their patients, at times causing more harm than good because of the rudimentary state of medicine.
Among those who stepped forward to aid people and save the city were members of the newly emerging community of free African Americans. Led by Absalom Jones, Richard Allen, and Anne Saville, black Philadelphians volunteered to nurse the sick and bury the dead—both dangerous undertakings at the time. Many African Americans and physicians, exposed to yellow-fever infected mosquitoes, made the ultimate sacrifice as both groups died in disproportionately high numbers. When a newspaper editor subsequently maligned black people for their efforts, Jones and Allen wrote a vigorous response—among the first publications by African Americans in the new nation.
During the ensuing decade, yellow fever went global, afflicting every port city in the new nation on an annual basis. Epidemics also occurred in metropolitan areas throughout the Atlantic World, including North and South America, the Caribbean, southern Europe, and Africa. Among other consequences, this disaster encouraged Americans to fear cities as hubs of death. The future of the United States, as Thomas Jefferson argued, would be rural areas populated by yeomen farmers rather than the people in teeming metropolises. The epidemics also helped solidify the decision of leaders of the new nation to move its capital to Washington D.C. and away from the high mortality associated with Philadelphia.
After the Hankey finally limped home to Britain, its crew was taken into service in the Royal Navy; few of them survived long. More importantly, the image of Africa as the “white man’s graveyard” became even more established in Britain and France, thereby providing a partially protective barrier for Africa from European invasion until the advent of tropical medicine. The “Bulama fever” plagued the Atlantic World for the next half century, appearing in epidemic form from Spain to Africa to North and South America. The origins and treatment of the disease drew intense debates as medical treatment became highly politicized, and the incorrect idea that Africans enjoyed immunity to yellow fever became an important part of the scientific justification of racism in the early nineteenth century.
Join Billy Smith along with epidemiologist Michael Levy on October 24 for Sickness and the City for a conversation that uses both science and history to understand the intersection of urban development and the spread of contagions.