King's College London
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The great leveller: humanity's struggle against infectious disease

Yellow fever on Boa Vista

Plan of buildings and area on the island of Boa Vista where the sick were landed from the <em>Éclair</em> Steamer, with a page of text oppositePlan of buildings and area on the island of Boa Vista where the sick were landed from the Éclair SteamerAfter returning from a day of shore leave in Sierra Leone in July 1845, several members of the crew of the Royal Navy steamer Éclair fell ill. Shortly thereafter, the vessel began the long trip home, during which the fever spread rapidly, often proving deadly.

By the time the Éclair reached Portsmouth more than two-thirds of the original crew of 146 were dead. Any sense of optimism the beleaguered survivors may have felt at the sight of British shores was cruelly short-lived. The ship was immediately placed under strict quarantine. It was another 33 days before their ordeal came to an end, with those who remained alive finally given leave to abandon the diseased vessel.

The decision to isolate the crew of the Éclair brought to public attention quarantine laws many considered inhumane and archaic, sparking widespread public outrage which led to considerable pressure for reform.

Yet internationally there was pressure in the opposite direction. This was the first time yellow fever had been found on board a steam-ship, and the rapid spread of disease this development threatened sent shockwaves of fear throughout Europe. A second outbreak on the Cape Verde island of Boa Vista, which began after the Éclair made a stop there on the route home, compounded this fear, causing several ports in the Mediterranean to refuse entry to all British ships.

In an emerging global economy reliant upon the free movement of goods and people, it was seen as vital that British authorities took a firm stance in containing and eradicating the disease, in order to regain the confidence of their trading partners.

The image shown here is from a report by the prominent naval physician James Ormiston McWilliam (1808-62), who was commissioned by the Privy Council to investigate the Boa Vista epidemic. It is from a compilation of Foreign Office correspondence and official reports on the affair, reflecting the political significance it acquired. No doubt contrary to the Council’s hopes, McWilliam concluded with certainty that the illness that ‘ravaged Boa Vista, was the same as that which prevailed among the crew of the Éclair’, leaving ‘no doubt of its having been introduced by the Éclair’.

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