Bedbugs and Broomsticks

Joyce Chaplin

  • Contagion: How Commerce Has Spread Disease by Mark Harrison
    Yale, 376 pp, £25.00, August 2012, ISBN 978 0 300 12357 9

The Eclair was a British steam sloop charged with policing the slave trade. In November 1844 she set out hopefully in a naval squadron for Sierra Leone, where she spent five months patrolling for slavers. West Africa was known to harbour ‘fevers’ to which Europeans had little resistance, but the officers and crew remained in good health, and the sailors were even granted shore leave, which they were described as enjoying immensely. After 13 days, the Eclair proceeded to the Gambia, at which point many of the men were seriously ill and bringing up blackish vomit. By the time the ship made Boa Vista in the Cape Verde Islands, one in six men had died. The survivors were taken ashore: healthy men were put up in tents, healthy officers in a house, and the sick men kept on a nearby island. And people kept dying. Three different naval surgeons advised the captain to flee for Madeira’s cooler and healthier climate. But nearly two-thirds of the crew who left Boa Vista were dead by the time the Eclair reached Funchal, so they sailed on, thanks to volunteers who stood in for the fallen crew, to Portsmouth. When the Eclair finally anchored on 28 September 1845, there had been ninety more cases of fever and 45 more deaths.

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