Contagion

These are extraordinary, unpredictable indeed sobering times for us all.
Bushfires, floods and now contagion!

It is fitting for the MMHN to reflect on maritime involvement with two earlier pandemics and one shipboard epidemic – namely Black Death, Spanish Flu and Typhoid. Much has been written of these catastrophic events – but not always from the maritime perspective the following brief insight prepared by MMHN Board members.

 

MMHN Board Member and Historian Liz Rushen writes:

“We’ve all watched the incubation of the coronavirus on various cruise ships around the world, but spare a thought for those caught up in the Black Death in the 1300s who had no understanding of cross-infection between humans. New research has shown that the Black Death began in the spring of 1346 in the steppe region of the Caspian Sea. The Black Death slipped unnoticed on-board ships carrying Italian merchants fleeing a Mongol attack. Italian ships from Kaffa arrived in Constantinople in May 1347 with the Black Death on board; it reached Marseilles by the second week of September, then to Genoa, Venice and Pisa. The disease spread rapidly northwards from Marseilles to Lyons and southwestwards along the coast towards Spain. Another ship bearing plague left Bordeaux a few weeks later and arrived in the southern English town of Weymouth and rapidly spread inland. This was much the same pattern in northern Europe, illustrating the great importance of transportation by ship and the relative slowness of spread by land. Much like the spread of Covid-19 by passengers on planes and ships today, the plague suddenly appeared over vast distances due to its rapid transportation by ship”.
Extracted from Ole Benedictow, ‘The Black Death: The Greatest Catastrophe Ever’, first published in History Today, Vol. 55, Issue 3, March 2005, reprinted in History Today, March 2020.

 

Moving from one pandemic, Black Plague, to another pandemic ‘Spanish Flu’.

MMHN Board Member, Naval Commodore Greg Yorke provides an account of the remarkable Royal Australian Navy response to the pandemic in our region in:

“This [pandemic] struck suddenly at the end of World War I. But none recall how this crisis brought about Australia’s first overseas humanitarian assistance operation. Between April 1918 and May 1919 influenza, and its secondary complications, caused up to 50 million deaths, far more than had been killed in four years of war. Many died within the first few days of infection, and nearly half of these were young, healthy adults. On 20/11 the Commonwealth Naval Board began gathering a joint relief expedition ordered to embark from Sydney and proceed at the earliest possible date to Samoa. Missing their first peacetime Christmas at home – all the officers and most of the ratings volunteered for this expedition to assist local communities. It would be difficult to find a more telling example of the Australian Navy’s tradition of ‘service before self’ “The pandemic occurred in waves and the [naval] cruisers operating with the British Grand Fleet suffered several outbreaks in 1918, with up to 157 cases in a single ship. When the cramped mess decks and poorly ventilated living spaces of early 20th century warships are recalled, it is perhaps remarkable that the toll was not greater. The saving factor was largely the ready availability of professional medical treatment.
See https://www.navy.gov.au/media-room/publications/semaphore-march-2006

 

And finally from MMHN Board Member, Michael O’Brien recommending

“A great film clip by Tony Robinson on the Ticonderoga incident – a catastrophic typhoid outbreak on this 162ft (52m) 4 masted clipper its way to Port Phillip.
See also the recent book by Michael Veitch: Hell Ship- The journey of the Ticonderoga. He describes the vessel as it enters Port Bay Bay as a “floating catastrophe” See: https://www.hellshipticonderoga.com