The Dreaded ‚Yellow Jack’- The silent killer in the Caribbean.

Captains, some of you may have encountered ghost ships littered with corpses and vermin, infected by disease by now. The plague and scurvy were constant dangers for mariners at sea, but on land the no.1 killer in the Caribbean in the late 18th century was the dreaded ‚Yellow Jack’- the popular term for Yellow Fever. (So-called because at the critical stage of the infection the liver of the victim would be damaged, causing the skin to turn pale yellow…)

Yellow fever is a viral disease that was transmitted by mosquitoes, and it was a major health hazard in the Caribbean during the time-period of the game. Tens of thousands of slaves who were brought to the West Indies died of the disease, and it was also responsible for the deaths of thousands of European settlers. During the rainy season when mosquitoes began to breed, the rate of infection would peak and entire towns and ports could be infected.

As events in Europe escalated to a state of war – After France had its revolution and the Revolutionary Wars across Europe began – the Caribbean would be a major theater of conflict as the armies and navies of Britain, France, Spain and Holland battled for control of the West Indies. Thousands of European troops were sent to places like Haiti and the Windward Isles, but were ravaged by yellow fever upon their arrival. Consider these statistics: In 1801 France sent General Leclerc to Haiti, leading 25,000 troops. In just two years, his entire army was practically destroyed by disease and combat and by 1803 he had only 3,000 men left. The British also suffered huge losses during their campaign in Western Hispaniola, and some units were totally wiped out by yellow fever: Every single soldier of the 96th British infantry regiment died. By the end of June 1793 only half of the British troops sent to Hispaniola could still stand up and hold his musket. Officers were not spared either: of the 64 senior British officers sent on the campaign, 34 died of yellow fever within three months; and one of the most famous commanders who died of yellow fever was General Sir David Dundas, who died of it at Guadeloupe.

The threat of yellow fever was therefore a serious one indeed, and soldiers, sailors and civilians were all vulnerable to it. In August 1793 the yellow fever spread all the way to Philadelphia, and the epidemic led to the loss of more than 5,000 civilians there.
So captains, while sailing in the Caribbean, do spare a thought for your crew and be careful!

 

 

13645281_1157069604331471_7027801829383086223_n(Photo: engraving of the yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia, August-September 1793. Source unknown.)

Farish A Noor