Ship of Death: A Voyage That Changed the Atlantic World

Ship of Death: A Voyage That Changed the Atlantic World by Billy G. Smith tells the story of the Hankey, a British ship that circled the Atlantic in the late 1700’s. It gained notoriety as the ship of death when it brought mosquitoes–transmitters of yellow fever–from west Africa to the Caribbean and mainland USA. Smith told the history about an idealistic group of 118 Britons who in 1792 sailed to the island of Bolama, off the coast of what we now call Guinea-Bissau, to establish a community of liberated slaves where black and white would live and work together as equals. Their constitution was noble yet their plans were lacking, even woefully so, for in their haste they neglected to pack construction materials with which to build such a community. If it wasn’t for the fact that an overwhelming majority of the settlers died from yellow fever, one could look upon them and their scheme as an eighteenth-century comedy of errors. Without tools or even official permission to settle on the island, they were doomed. The local population, who did not live on Bolama, regarded the island as their own, and viewed the settlers suspiciously at first. After a cautious scouting of the settlers, the native population attacked them, murdering several. The idealism of setting up a free society vanished instantly for some of the abolitionists, with them clamouring for a return to England as soon as possible.

What made Ship of Death such a suspenseful read was knowing the path of destruction that yellow fever would wreak–from Guinea-Bissau to the Caribbean to Philadelphia and back to England–with the passengers having no idea what was killing them off in massive fatalities. Overnight entire families would perish, and as long as they stayed on board the ship, it was only a matter of time before they themselves got infected by an infected mosquito bite. When the settlers abandoned their plans of establishing a free society on Bolama after two hard years, they travelled across the Atlantic to the Caribbean on a long convoluted route back home. The infectious mosquitoes hitched a ride from Africa and lived and bred among the barrels of fresh water stored on board. Since yellow fever was not contagious, passengers were perplexed. What was killing them off so suddenly? Was it the state of sanitation? Were noxious miasmas circulating on deck? In the late eighteenth century, science was still years away–a century, in fact–from discovering the cause of yellow fever transmission. Doctors could not agree on the cause of yellow fever, or “yellow jack”, so named because ships carrying infected passengers had to fly a yellow flag:

“The sheer lack of knowledge about the causes, spread, and treatment of yellow jack also created extreme unease. Was it contagious, spreading from neighbor to neighbor? Did the miasma, the foul air, in Philadelphia account for the blossoming of the disease? Was it an entirely new disease, imported on ships from the Caribbean or Europe or Africa? Medical men couldn’t answer the questions definitively, so rumors and folk cures ran rampant among ordinary people.”

and, after yellow fever plagued Philadelphia:

“That same day, at the mayor’s request, the College of Physicians met to analyze the crisis and suggest an appropriate response. This group of prestigious Fellows disagreed from the outset, mostly because their explanations of the causes (or even existence) of the disease differed so fundamentally.”

While the slave trade had brought outbreaks of yellow fever to the Caribbean and several American cities in the past, no outbreak killed as many people and instilled as much fear as the plague aboard the Hankey. The ship was shunned, and its passengers quarantined during its ports of call. Smith to his credit spent minimal time discussing the etiology and transmission of the disease. For a while I wondered why the book was even given the Dewey classification assigning it to yellow fever, as Ship of Death seemed more about British abolitionist history (itself one of the book’s Dewey subcategories).

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