Life on board the ships. Diseases and pandemics

For centuries, ships served as a platform for explorations to discover new territories and, of course, diseases that led to epidemics and pandemics on land.

Life on board the ships. Diseases and pandemics
Life aboard ships. Image by Comfreak from Pixabay

After the conquest of Mexico Tenochtitlan 500 years ago, and of the Yucatan Peninsula (1547), people, products, ideas, and, of course, diseases were transported aboard the ships, which led to epidemics and pandemics on land. Many of them began to be associated with the poor sanitation, hygiene, and food conditions that prevailed during the ocean voyages, decimating the crews and contaminating the population of the ports of anchorage and arrival.

Variola or chickenpox, a disease endemic in Europe since the Middle Ages, reached the West Indies in 1518, where the first "zero" patient in the American continent was registered. That same year, the disease moved to the islands of Hispaniola (Dominican Republic) and in 1519, it burst into Cuba to continue its journey to the mainland.

In 1520, it disembarked on the beaches of Cempoala (Veracruz) in the person of Francisco de Eguía, a slave who accompanied the hosts of Pánfilo de Narváez, a Spanish military and conquistador sent by the Adelantado and governor of Cuba, Don Diego Velázquez y Cuéllar, to subdue Hernán Cortés de Monroy and Pizarro Altamirano.

Between the 16th and 19th centuries, the living conditions on board the ships were improved through the issuance of constant Naval Ordinances, as well as the elaboration and diffusion of several Medical Works. The work of the illustrious Basque doctor, Don Vicente de Lardizabal, entitled: " Political-medical considerations on the health of sailors" (1768), dictates a series of measures to prevent and cure ailments that occurred at sea to avoid spreading them at the points of disembarkation, stands out.

The accounts of some travelers are essential testimonies to reconstruct the environment of daily life during the voyages aboard the ships. A letter from Eugenio de Salazar, a Spanish official who made a voyage from Spain to Santo Domingo in 1574, stands out. In this document he writes to his friend, the lawyer Miranda de Ron, about life at sea, recounting the details and events of the health and illness conditions during his voyage.

The ship as a source of infection

If we consider it, a ship itself was and still is a floating focus of infection. In the lower part of the hold, called the bilge, all the water that seeped over the sides or drained from the deck was collected. This stagnant water was corrupted, giving off foul odors that impregnated the ship, while generating microbes and bacteria. It was also a den for rats, cockroaches, and mosquitoes that reproduced uncontrollably, becoming pests that contaminated fresh water and food, transmitting diseases. Eugenio de Salazar, who must have experienced this situation, wrote in his 1574 letter:

"The bilge always smelled bad, because of its lack of ventilation and the diversity of its contents. When the bilge hatches were opened the sailors instantly fainted and fell into it to meet a horrible death."

The lack of personal cleanliness on transatlantic and transpacific voyages also contributed to a hostile environment that bordered on stinking. Drinking water on board was rationed exclusively for human consumption, so it could not be used for hygiene, washing clothes, or the ship's floors. As the days of the voyages passed, the unpleasant odors emanating from the unwashed bodies and dirty clothing were present in every corner of the ship, as mentioned by Dr. Vicente de Lardizabal:

"As the sailors do not change their linen and footwear as often as necessary, and also retire to dor-mir with sweat sticking to their clothes, and often with wet clothes, it is necessary that by exhaling with the heat the humidity of the clothes, and mixing with the rotten and fetid perspiration, the atmosphere is loaded with this corruption...".
"...and that these exhalations usually adhere to the planks (of the ship)..."

Derived from so much filth, it was normal for lice, bedbugs, and ticks to proliferate, vermin that moved and jumped at ease on the deck and between decks, feeding on the blood of sailors and animals. The navigator Antonio de Guevara's work "The Art of Seafaring" (1532) bears witness to this fact:

"It is a galley privilege that all the fleas that jump along the planks, and all the lice that breed in the seams, and all the bedbugs that are in the chinks, are common to all, and are distributed by all and are kept among all...".

Keeping one's distance onboard the ships

The deck was the space where the passengers and crew of a ship were distributed, that is, where many aspects of daily life took place during the voyage. A 100-ton ship measured approximately 16.5 meters in length by 5.2 meters in breadth, which means 85.8 m2 habitable, while one of up to 1000 tons in tonnage measured 54.5 meters in length by 15.56 meters in breadth, that is, 848.02 m2 for interaction.

The between-decks or corridors that formed the different decks were narrow and barely reached 1.65 meters in height, so they were practically stooped; they were also occupied by artillery, supplies, and products that had no place in the hold. Although cabins were improvised for passengers who paid for a private space, the rest were accommodated and slept crammed between merchandise and luggage. Salazar describes the ship as follows:

"It is a strange floating city, where most of its inhabitants lived underground (referring to the between decks) in a crowded and stinking space."

Until the 16th century, there were no regulations to control the number of people to embark. In a ship of fewer than 100 tons, in some cases, more than 100 people could travel in limited conditions. It was not until 1633 that it was decreed in the " Ordinances of the Good Government of the Navy of the Ocean Sea", that for safety and hygiene reasons, up to 42 people per 100 tons of tonnage were allowed on board, which corresponds to approximately two m2 of living space for each person.

Poor food during overseas voyages

The great absentees in the ships' pantries were fresh food and fruits, due to the difficulty of preserving them. The menu per person consisted of a ration of 766 grams of cookie or sponge cake (hard bread made from unleavened wheat flour), which was baked twice to preserve it for a long time; 60 grams of stew (soup prepared from rice, beans, or chickpeas); a liter of wine and two liters of water. Four times a week, 180 grams of salted pork called "bacon" were served; twice during this period, 180 grams of salted fish, and once a week 180 grams of cheese. On days when no fish or cheese was given, one ounce of olive oil (30 grams) was distributed, as well as half a quart of vinegar (0.5 liters).

Drinking water traveled stored in wooden or ceramic barrels or pipes. Its conservation was equally problematic. As the days passed, its clarity became cloudy, and green sludge formed in its containers, which corrupted it, favoring the appearance of bacteria. Its taste and smell must have been as unpleasant as Salazar describes:

"One had to lose the sense of taste, smell, and sight to even be able to swallow it."

Therefore, it is understandable that during the long periods that the voyages across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans lasted, under conditions of overcrowding, insalubrity, pests, and poor nutrition, there were devastating effects on the health of the sailors, causing terrible diseases that generally ended in death.

Diseases on board

As happened with smallpox, other unknown diseases arrived in the West Indies over three centuries. There are records of approximately 16 epidemics between the 16th and 18th centuries in the territory of New Spain, which are mainly attributed to smallpox, typhoid, and measles. During the 19th century, four epidemics struck the population: measles in 1804, typhoid in 1814, cholera in 1833, and yellow fever in 1833.

One ailment much feared by sailors was scurvy or the "plague" of the sea. This was caused by the lack of ascorbic acid (vitamin C) in the body, derived from a diet that did not include fresh fruits or vegetables, due to the impossibility of preserving this type of food during the long voyages. Sailors with the ailment presented symptoms such as red spots on the skin, bleeding gums, teeth falling out, extreme halitosis, inflammation and paralysis in the extremities, as well as weakness in the connective tissue, and even death. For a long time, the origin of this disease was unknown, is believed to be infectious.

This disease killed entire crews. A recorded episode was that of one of the Manila galleons, the San Felipe, a ship that ran aground on the beaches of Baja California (Mexico) around 1576, with people decimated by scurvy. Another similar case is the Oriflama, a ship of the record off the South Pacific coast; in July 1770 it was found drifting by the San José aka Gallardo with 70 survivors affected by scurvy, out of an initial total of 200 sailors. A huge storm prevented the rescue, and the ship sank with the survivors.

These stories have fed the collective imagination for centuries, generating legends about ghost ships that drifted without a crew.

It is known that during the voyages of the British explorer, when Lieutenant James Cook, between 1768 and 1771, aboard the HMS Endeavour, the cause of this disease was finally discovered, thanks the contributions of Dr. James Lind in the diet and the "in-person" experimentation of the botanist Joseph Banks.

The marine environment, with its humidity and cold or fresh air, contributed to the development of pulmonary ailments such as pneumonia, tuberculosis, joint diseases such as arthritis, arthrosis, and rheumatism, without forgetting, of course, the afflictions caused by the lack of hygiene such as leprosy and scabies.

Methods to prevent diseases and epidemics in ports

In addition to keeping the distance between sailors and the mainland populations, in 1554 some basic sanitary measures were recommended to improve hygiene on ships, such as sweeping and cleaning the decks monthly, perfuming them with rosemary once a week. In his work, Dr. Lardizabal comments on washing planks and decks with vinegar, which has antiseptic properties and periodically perfuming them with sulfur to reduce infections and scare away rodents and insects that contaminated the decks.

Another recommendation was to constantly purify the bilge water using a bilge pump installed on the ship. The captains and chiefs were asked to take care of the hygiene of their crew, ordering them, on calm days, to expose their clothes and sheets to the open air, so that they could be "ventilated and purified".

As of the Ordinances of the Good Government of the Navy of the Ocean Sea of 1633, the existence of health personnel on the ships was made obligatory, an activity that fell to the figure of the surgeon-barber. This person, with no professional medical training, sometimes of converted Jewish origin, knew to cure wounds, perform amputations, pseudo-surgical procedures and administer some medicines. In his spare time, he earned a few coins shaving the beards of the crew members with his instruments, which consisted of various blades and razors.

It was not until 1748 that the first Royal College of Surgery of San Fernando was founded in Cadiz, Spain, providing the navy with a professional ship's surgeon, an individual with the necessary knowledge to practice the profession of doctor and pharmacist indistinctly. The surgeon had a medicine cabinet that contained mixtures called balsams, electuaries, plasters, and powders, made from medicinal plants such as cinchona, sarsaparilla, ipecac, and Simarouba, which were fused with small amounts of mercury, nitro, cyanide, alkaline salts, and other chemicals, depending on the case. Syrups of lemon and sour orange juice were among the remedies to combat all kinds of periodic fevers, which functioned as a preventive for scurvy since the end of the 18th century.

Quarantine was a method used since the Middle Ages, not only at the urban level but also in the maritime sphere. It was first introduced in 1374 with the edict of Reggio, in the city of Modena, Italy. The first port in which quarantine was decreed (which was only thirty: it would later be extended) was Ragusa on the Adriatic (today Dubrovnik, Croatia) in 1377. Six years later, Marseilles increased the time limit to forty days.

In New Spain, during the viceregal era, the restriction with the subsequent period of isolation was applied to ships coming from infected ports, foreigners, or those transporting prisoners, slaves, or any person suspected of carrying a disease. The reason why it was not applied in all cases was perhaps due to the economic losses it represented for commerce, so it was decided to disembark the ships by isolating the suspicious crews in hospitals called Lazarettos, buildings constructed on the outskirts of the ports.

Despite these efforts, epidemics did occur on the high seas. An example of this is what happened to the patache Nuestra Señora del Pilar in 1745. During its voyage from the port of Acapulco to Manila, an epidemic of "calentura" ("fever") affected the passengers, among them the lawyer Joseph de Leagui, ombudsman of the Royal Court of Manila, his wife, and son, who died. Another episode occurred in 1796 to the warship El Monarca. After four days of having sailed from the port of Veracruz to Cadiz, the crew fell ill with "putrid fever" (smallpox), for which reason it was requested to arrive at the port of Havana to help the troops and sailors.

In the years following Mexico's Independence, with the opening of new ports to navigation and the arrival of ships of different nationalities, health visits to the vessels were implemented. At the port of departure, a doctor was present to certify the hygienic conditions of the vessel and the absence of any sick crewmember or under suspicion of having any condition, granting, as the case may be, a "clean" or "dirty" patent. At the moment of arrival, a new inspection took place, and if everything was in order, the merchandise and crew were authorized to disembark.

In Campeche, one of the most important ports of the Gulf of Mexico, the authorities implemented this sanitary fence, granting sanitary patents to vessels that traveled to ports of Yucatan and Tabasco, among them: the ship Union, the schooner Anita, the pilot boat Progreso, the pilot boat Moctezuma, and the pilot boat El Rayo. In 1853 the Spanish ship Martin was detained due to a smallpox epidemic and in 1854 a ten-day "quarantine" was imposed on the Norwegian brig Argos due to suspicion of disease on board.

By Helena Barba-Meinecke and Abiud Pizá Chávez, Source: INAH Campeche Center