Mid-ocean plague ship disaster

Ocean Navigator|July/August 2020

Mid-ocean plague ship disaster

As we experience the disjointing of our lives during this pandemic, it is useful to put it in historical perspective. As Americans, we don’t have to go back far to see how things were in the 19th and early 20th centuries when many of our ancestors immigrated to North America.

Between 1836 and 1914, more than 30 million immigrants left Europe and came to the U.S. The death rate during passage was one fatality per seven, or a little more than an astronomical 14 percent (the African slave trade, which is entirely another nightmare, had a fatality rate of about 15 percent). An essential like freshwater was a luxury. A contemporary account describes the drinking water aboard ship for the passengers in steerage as follows: “Our water has for some time past been very bad. But its dirty appearance was not its worst quality. It had such a rancid smell that to be in the same neighborhood was enough to turn one’s stomach.”


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July/August 2020