A fog of ignorance in the cholera epidemic of 1854

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The Moravian Archives in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania holds a wealth of period documents from their missionary efforts in St Kitts. Examination of the death records from 1854 shows a heartbreaking number – page after page – of parishioner deaths from cholera. Unfortunately, a combination of poor sanitary conditions and ignorance about  the disease made the death tolls even higher than they might otherwise have been.

Cholera is caused by drinking water or eating food that has been infected by cholera bacteria. It spreads quickly in areas where sanitation is poor and clean drinking water isn’t available. In 1854, little was known about the disease. There were popular theories that it was spread through bad air or “miasma”,  was caused by temperature changes or eating too many vegetables, occurred more often in low-lying areas, or was less severe in areas that enjoyed an east wind.  Residents of St Kitts even reported

“…a peculiar mist over the town of Basseterre, especially the low parts, just at the time the Cholera first made its appearance. Such an unusual phenomenon at such a time is, to say the least of it, an exceedingly curious coincidence.”

The colonial powers sometimes blamed the victims. In British parliamentary papers, the Medical Inspector General Dr. Thomas Cooper reported to the Lieutenant Governor of the Leeward Islands in early 1855, on his findings on the cholera epidemic. He stated that despite efforts to enforce quarantines in the Caribbean by preventing ships from traveling between the islands, the sickness spread quickly. He said that the disease was more likely to strike “the idle, dissolute, and drunken”. Cooper also targeted the former slave population with criticism, writing that

“… the general habits of the black and coloured populations is a dislike to regular medical attendance on them, they prefer to quack themselves with herbs and barks.”

If there was mistrust of the established medical authorities on the island, it might have been partly caused by a prescription that some local Kittitian doctors advised for treatment, composed of pills and mixtures of opium, laudenum, capsicum pepper and spirits of ammonia. The printed directions unfortunately tripled the proper dosage, with serious effects to patients. There was even a man calling himself “Secchi” who came to the island with a fake cholera elixir that he sold to unsuspecting residents, resulting in deaths.

Dr. Cooper gave some credit to local clergy and missionaries who attempted to relieve the suffering. He wrote that Moravian missionaries were particularly active, and Dr. Mumford of Cayon “deserved the greatest praise for his unwearied attentions in this way to the sick poor of his locality”. Mr. Weymouth of the Weslyan mission and Archdeacon Jermyn were also mentioned, although Reverend Weymouth appears to have limited his ministrations to only twelve parishioners at a time to “enable him to properly superintend the treatment”.

Death estimates at the time totaled 3,920, or 15.78% of the population. More women died than men, with 2229 women vs. 1691 men. The large numbers affected the labor force needed for sugar cane cultivation, leading to the importation of workers from places like the Portuguese island of Madeira.

Even with current knowledge of the causes and treatment of cholera, it is still occurring in some parts of the world. Tragically, there is an outbreak in Yemen as of this writing, due in large part to the ongoing civil conflict in that country.

 

Sources

  1. Morvavian Archives collections, Bethlehem Pennsylvania
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – Cholera – vibrio cholerae infection, 2016
  3. UCLA Department of Epidemiology, Competing Theories of Cholera
  4. Parliamentary Papers, House of Commons and Command, Volume 42, “Dr Cooper’s Report on Cholera” 1855
  5. Corner of History and Genealogy blog, Madeirans in St Kitts, 2014
  6. CNN report Yemen cholera outbreak grows, with children bearing brunt, 2017

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