Protection from contagion – two centuries ago

John Lynn – A Bermudian Schooner Yacht Offshore (1834); public domain image from National Maritime Museum

In the current pandemic era, countries worldwide have developed policies to prevent the introduction of the Corona virus. St Kitts and Nevis has its own version; they are now allowing passengers from a limited number of cruise ships to enter their country for short, strictly regulated visits referred to as “bubble tours”.

A newspaper article in the August 1839 issue of The St Christopher Gazette and Charibbean Courier described procedures that had been put in place in St Kitts two centuries ago to prevent the spread of smallpox via shipping lanes. This included the appointment of a commission responsible for overseeing the policies. Smallpox is a deadly infectious disease that spread worldwide for thousands of years. Like Covid, the virus was airborne, and could be passed by infected people through coughing or sneezing. Killing about one in three people who caught it, it was finally brought under control in the twentieth century through immunization efforts.

The 1839 regulations bear some resemblance to some of the restrictions of the last two years:

  • Any ship coming from a region experiencing an outbreak of smallpox was not allowed to discharge passengers or goods, until they either spent a period of time in quarantine, or were certified by local authorities as contagion free.
  • When a ship entered a Kittitian port, they would be “hailed” by a gunner (which I take to mean a warning cannon shot would be fired off), and stopped until it could be determined whether they were arriving from an infected area.
  • A government-appointed medical officer would then board the ship to determine if anyone on board was suffering from smallpox. If anyone was sick, the vessel was sent off to quarantine; otherwise, the physician would certify the crew, passengers, and cargo as safe.
  • Penalties for disregarding the law were set out. A captain or crew member that began unloading before proper clearance were fined 100 pounds (about $4000 today) and given a prison sentence of six months. Anyone who boarded the ship before certification would be fined fifty pounds and imprisoned for three months.

The five local Kittitians appointed to superintend the smallpox procedures included two physicians, William Henry Cock and Howard Maillard Clifton. Clifton’s middle name is of interest to me, as it is a surname from my husband’s Kittitian family tree. Whether Clifton’s middle name meant that he had a blood relationship to the Maillards of St Kitts, I don’t yet know. Cock was named a commissioner, while Clifton was given the job of Medical Officer. The implication seems to have been that Clifton would have the unenviable task of boarding the potentially contagious ships. It seems that Howard Maillard Clifton managed to perform his inspection duties without succumbing to a fatal case of smallpox though – he lived until 1859, when he died in St Kitts of dysentery at the age of 70.


  1. Carib Journal, St Kitts and Nevis Marks Return of Large Cruise Ships, 2021
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, History of Smallpox, 2021
  3. British Newspaper Archive, August 30 1839 issue of The St Christopher Gazette and Charibbean Courier

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