They may have played a major role in the spread of civilisation, taking people and goods from one corner of the globe to the other. But ships have not always been bearers of growth and progress. Indeed, many have played very destructive roles, and spread death across the world. In fact, the very word “quarantine,” which is being used widely today in association with Covid-19 treatment, actually comes from the shipping business. According to renowned medical practitioners, Philip A Mackowiak and Paul S. Sehdev, in 1377, the city council of the Mediterranean port of Ragusa (which is now called Dubrovnik and is in Croatia), passed a law that citizens from plague ridden areas would not be admitted in the city until they had remained in isolation for a month. In the years that followed, similar laws were passed in other ports as well, most notably Marseille and Venice. This period of thirty days of isolation was called “Trentino.” Subsequently, this period was extended to forty days and was called Quarantino (“quaranta” means forty in Italian).
There was a time when the arrival of a ship from parts of the world infected with disease was treated as being on par with the arrival of an invading army at the gates. And often, its effects were catastrophic, for the crew and passengers as much as for the public that came into contact with them.
History is replete with instances of ships that carried diseases across the world. Of the many, these five are perhaps some of the most (in)famous:
The ghost ship of Norway- 1349
In 1349, a ship arrived at Bergen, one of Norway’s most popular ports. When no one emerged from it, some of the local populace boarded the ship and discovered that all the crew members were dead. The ship, whose name is not known, had evidently set sail from England, but during its journey, members of the crew began succumbing to the plague, and such was the havoc the disease wreaked, that by the time the ship reached Bergen, no one was alive onboard (although some doubt this, and say that perhaps a few crewmen might have survived). The only ones alive were the rats and flies, which carried the disease into the country and some say, even into neighbouring regions. By some accounts, almost a third of Norway perished.
Grand Saint Antoine: Bring the plague to Marseille (1720)
This merchant ship arrived at the French port of Marseille in 1720. It had been refused entry at the port of Livorno as a passenger had perished from an illness and so had some of the crew and even the chief surgeon. The suspicion was that they had died of the plague, as the ship has stopped at Cyprus, which was heavily infected by the disease. The ship was immediately placed under quarantine by the authorities. However, local merchants who wanted the ship’s cargo of silk and cotton for a very important fair, insisted that the quarantine be lifted. The authorities gave in, and what followed was a massive outbreak of the plague in Marseille with almost half the population of the city being wiped out in two years.
SS Massilia: Blame the Jews! (1892)
When the ship SS Massilia docked at New York, many of its passengers turned out to be Russian Jews. Conditions on the ship were congested and unhygienic for many passengers. However, the authorities did not seem to find anything too disturbing onboard and all passengers were allowed to disembark. Things, however, took a turn for the worse eleven days later, when some of the passengers were diagnosed with Typhus, a very contagious disease. While the disease itself was a serious matter, the manner in which the authorities handled it added a new dimension to the crisis – orders were given to find and quarantine every single Russian Jewish passenger of the ship (no such orders were given for other passengers). More than a thousand of them were quarantined in the Riverside Hospital with allegedly very little medical care. Some others were quarantined in tents on North Brother Island.
Rather shockingly, the Jewish community was blamed for the disease, and allegations got worse when there was an outbreak of Cholera later following the arrival of another ship bearing more Russian Jewish immigrants. Many feel that while the casualty levels were relatively low by pandemic standards in those days, the SS Massilia incident exposed the levels of anti-Semitism in the United States, the very country many Jews were migrating to, in order to escape persecution in Russia.
RMS Niagra: Did it bring the Spanish Flu to New Zealand? (1918)
On October 12, 1918, the British naval ship, the RMS Niagra docked in Auckland, from Europe via Vancouver. Among those on board were a number of extremely important people including the Prime Minister of New Zealand, William Massey, as well as the deputy Prime Minister, Sir Joseph Ward. However, there were also a number of patients infected by influenza among them and the situation was so bad that the ship was not allowed to dock at Fiji. When it arrived in Auckland, the captain informed the authorities that a hundred crew members and twenty-five passengers were infected by Spanish Influenza. The authorities however chose not to put the ship in quarantine, with doctors concluding that the cases were mostly of ordinary influenza and not the deadly Spanish Flu (there are rumours that political pressure also played its role in the decision as the Prime Minister was on board).
When thousands perished of the Spanish Flu in New Zealand later in the year, many blamed the ship and the authorities’ refusal to quarantine it as a key factor. Although many historians contest this and state that the Niagra was made a scapegoat as there is no clear evidence that it brought Spanish Flu to New Zealand, the ship is for many people synonymous with the second wave of the disease in the country to this day.
SS Leviathan: The Ship of Death (1918)
It might not have caused a pandemic where it docked, but when it comes to onboard disease, there are few cases that are as terrifying as that of the SS Leviathan. A massive troop carrier, it had a capacity of almost 14,000 troops, albeit in rather constrained cabins. On September 29, 1918, the huge ship set off from New York for Brest in France, with a crew of 2000 and 9000 troops. By the very next day, several people reported to the sick bay with symptoms of the deadly Spanish Flu. Within three days, more than 700 people were infected and the ship’s floors were littered with pools of blood.
By the time, the ship reached its destination, two thousand people on-board were ill and eighty had died. Many of the survivors were too weak to get off the ship and fourteen more died later. One does not know whether the infection spread inland but the number of casualties and the people who fell sick earned the SS Leviathan the sobriquet ‘The Ship of Death’. Interestingly, one of the crew onboard the ship was a person who would become a huge Hollywood star, Humphrey Bogart. Also, among the passengers was one of the most crucial political figures of the century- Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was at that time a secretary in the Navy. Both survived. But many did not.
Further reading: “The Origin of Quarantine” by Philip A. Mackowiak, by Paul S. Sehdev; “Quarantine!: East European Jewish Immigrants and the New York City Epidemics of 1892”, by Howard Markel; “The Great Rescue” By Peter Hernon