The Cholera Epidemic of 1853–1854
Early on a Friday morning in December 1853, three fishermen from the Hull Bay plantation on the north shore of St. Thomas gave aid to a sailing vessel that appeared to be drifting and in distress. Unbeknownst to the fishermen, the vessel was a “plague” ship, and the gifts from the passengers that the fishermen had taken home as rewards for their assistance were infected with a deadly strain of Asiatic cholera [STPP, 1853-55].
It was not until December 16 that the outbreak of the disease at Hull Bay was first reported to the authorities, by which time it had already claimed many lives among the workers on that estate. Despite efforts to quarantine the area the sickness continued to spread. Within a week’s time the cholera had made its way over the hills and down into Charlotte Amalie, where it spread like wildfire among the overcrowded shanties of the hundreds of newly-freed workers who had only recently converged on the town. As the New Year approached, the death toll ran as high as sixty persons per day, and the outbreak had only just begun [STMC, 1853-54].
The people of Danish West Indies had long known their share of sickness and disease. Outbreaks of yellow fever and smallpox were regular occurrences; malaria and leprosy were always present. But in past years it had mostly been the busy port of Charlotte Amalie, with its polluted harbor, poor sanitation system, and a constant flow of transient seaman, that had taken the brunt of disease. On the estates, the restrictions of slavery had resulted in a rural population who lived primarily in widely-separated, and therefore, well-insulated villages — a situation that made an outbreak of sickness relatively easy to contain, and outside intrusion difficult. But with emancipation had come increased mobility, and it was this newly-acquired freedom of movement that made the 1853 cholera epidemic so impossible to forestall.
As early as December 19th, various leaflets had begun to circulate throughout the islands warning of the severity of the outbreak, informing people of the symptoms, and suggesting precautions and treatments for the disease [STMC, 1853-54]. The owners or managers of all rural estates were instructed to immediately report any instances of sickness or death that occurred on their properties, and travel between islands was closely monitored. For a time it appeared as though the disease might be contained to St. Thomas, but on January 1, 1854, the government administrator (Landfoged) on St. John received a hastily-penned note informing him that a death had taken place on one of the estates under his jurisdiction:
Cinnamon Bay, 1st January, 1854
The Honorable Judge Hanschell
I am very sorry to inform you, that there has occurred a case with a child of seven years here today, taken with purging and vomiting, and died two hours after. The symptoms are very much like that of cholera. I have had him buried immediately in haste.
Yours truly, Thomas Ivinson
Once the cholera reached St. John it quickly spread until no quarter was spared the ravages of the disease. At Cinnamon Bay, estate owner Thomas Ivinson, along with his young friend and associate, A. C. Hill, desperately struggled to curb the outbreak and save as many lives as they could. The task, as expressed in their own words in a series of urgent communications to Judge Hanschell in Cruz Bay, was both daunting and horrifying:
Cinnamon Bay, January 3, 1854
My dear sir,
A woman has just died of cholera on this estate. She was taken at 1 o’clock this morning and died at 3:30. A little boy about 5 years is also very bad who was taken at the same time, and I am afraid will not be alive when you receive this.
Please send for use of Estate a bottle of Bitters and a vial of Camphor Drops — everything has been done that has been recommended: particularly rubbings to cause a perspiration, but is no avail.
I remain my dear sir, yours truly,
A. C. Hill
for, Thomas Ivinson
Cinnamon Bay, January 3, 1854
I have received your letter of this days date.
I am cleaning out the Negro Houses and white washing as fast as I can get the lime. The little boy is something better. This moment there is a woman taken sick, no doubt the cholera, though she only complains of her head. I would freely take the People on America Hill but it is too bleak, I am afraid they will be worse. I have sent for medicine. I think Doctor Robuck ought to attend, perhaps he may be of some use. I am afraid it will be soon as bad here as on St. Thomas.
Cinnamon Bay, January 5, 1854
One child 4 years old died this morning, 3 more sick same complaint, Cholera. The woman who was sick Tuesday is better. We have no greater people sick at present, and I hope to god there will be no more…
Cinnamon Bay January 6, 1984
I am truly sorry to inform you we have since I last wrote you 10 more cases and 1 death. If possible I would like to see you. There is so many sick, I can scarcely get people to bury the dead.
Yours in haste,
Cinnamon Bay, January 7, 1854
Names of the dead
John Charles 45 years of age Cholera 29 Dec 1853
Henry 6 “ “ 1 Jan 1854
Maritchy 25 “ “ 3 “ “
Cornilious 3 “ “ 5 “ 1854
Pennea 40 “ “ 6 “ “
Philipena 63 “ “ “ “ “
Lydia 31 “ “ “ “ “
Moses 5 “ “ “ “ “
Charity 37 “ “ “ “ “
Henry 4 “ “ “ “ “
Patrick 70 “ “ 7 “ “
Franscisco 34 “ Drowned 3 “ “
This is quite enough for one week, 6 deaths yesterday were all in a few hours. I called the doctor and he done his best and I think he has saved our own 2 children, and one more now sick but I think they are out of danger.
Cinnamon Bay, January 11, 1854
Since I last wrote you we have lost five more: David, Juliana, Madlane, Johannes, and Wm. Henry. Sick: 4 children and one woman. All that has got the real cholera has died. The doctor has tried everything, no use.
…Hoping yourself honestly is well.
America Hill, January 12, 1854
My dear Sir,
Mr. Ivinson begs me to inform you that he has moved up here and that the laborers have moved into his dwelling at the works…
Hoping yourself and Cirsh [?] are well.
A. C. Hill
Cinnamon Bay, January 15, 1854
We have to date 21 deaths from cholera, and 3 very ill. We are now using some medicine I think is doing a great deal of good… All of the people is living in my house, not one in the Negro Houses.
I hope yourself and family is all well.
It was never conclusively determined how the cholera was transported to St. John, nor was it found how the first case at Cinnamon Bay became infected. However, it was revealed in Ivinson’s note to Judge Hanschell on January 7, 1854, that the child who died on January 1 had not been the first death from cholera on the Cinnamon Bay plantation, only the first that had been recognized and reported as such. On December 29, 1853, Ivinson’s forty-five-year-old overseer, John Charles, had died of the disease. It is quite possible that Charles, whose position afforded him greater freedom of movement, and who perhaps had occasionally been sent to St. Thomas on estate errands, was the vehicle by which the cholera had spread to Cinnamon Bay [SJLD, 1853-54].
In April, after the outbreak had finally subsided, an accounting of the death toll in the epidemic was compiled. According to the official report of the Crown’s Physician, in the four months that the cholera had gripped St. John nearly 10% of its population had succumbed to the disease. Among the places hardest hit were Hermanfarm, with 28 deaths; Cinnamon Bay, with 27; Enighed, with 25; and, the town of Cruz Bay, where 20 deaths occurred. But no single location seems to have suffered as great a loss as the Beverhoudtsberg plantation, where the 29 deaths represented a total depopulation of the estate [STMC, 1853-54; SJR, 1850].
[STPP, 1853-55] West Indies Local Archive, St. Thomas Byfoged, Police Journal, 1853–1855 (Rigsarkivet, Denmark).
[STMC, 1853-54] Central Management Archives, West Indies Journals, Health-services, 1817–1916 (Rigsarkivet, Denmark).
[SJLD, 1853-54] West Indies Local Archives, St. John Landfoged, Diverse Correspondence, 1819–1870 (Rigsarkivet, Denmark).
[SJR, 1850] Central Management Archives, Registers for St. John, 1835–1911 (Rigsarkivet, Denmark).