Tag Archives: earthquake

Death and Disease in Jamaica

aedes aegypti – the mosquito that transmits yellow fever


The colonists who went to Jamaica in the 17th and 18th centuries were aware of many of the risks to their health but not of the causes.  Much has been written about the reasons why white society in Jamaica never became established to the same extent as it did in North America in spite of the fact that the Caribbean islands were regarded as part of the same territory.

It is notable that of the early colonists who arrived with Penn and Venables from 1655 onwards few had descendants still on the island a century later.  Very many marriages were terminated within a short time by the death of one partner. Infant and maternal mortality even by the standards of the time was shockingly high, and more than one colonist died at sea fleeing the island for the sake of their health.  Of the eight children of the Rev William May featured in an earlier article only one survived to full adulthood, with two sons aged fifteen and twenty dying at sea on their way to Boston “for the recovery of their health”.  Young girls seem to have married earlier on average than their equivalents back home in England, and it is likely, quite apart from the shortage of young white women in Jamaica, that this was at least in part an attempt to ensure the production of children before their parents’ anticipated early death.  Visitors to the island noted with shock that few of the tombstones recorded Islanders who had made it past their early thirties.

The reasons for the very high infant mortality included waterborne infections such as diarrhoea and dysentery, measles, smallpox, whooping cough, and especially in the case of infants born on the plantations to enslaved mothers infantile tetanus (known as lockjaw).  This disease whose spores are transmitted through animal faeces nearly wiped out the population of the Scottish island of St Kilda in the 19th century, until the local minister studying a course on midwifery prevented the anointing of the baby’s cord with sheep dung.  On the Jamaican plantations where women carried baskets of dung on their heads to manure the sugar cane, such knowledge and choice was unavailable.  There is no record of the number of babies who died in this way but it must have been high.

Infections such as measles, smallpox and whooping cough were no respecters of colour or class but there is evidence of appallingly high mortality among slaves newly arrived in Jamaica.  Their health already compromised by dehydration, poor food, lack of fresh air or exercise and suffering from grief and depression, those on the lower tiers of a slave ship spent the voyage unable to avoid the urine and faeces of those above them. If they survived the voyage they too easily succumbed to epidemic diseases on arrival. It was generally the practice to “season” new arrivals allowing a period of acclimatisation often by working on the pens tending livestock or producing provisions before they were put to work in the cane fields or at the more skilled and exhausting tasks in the boiling houses.

Major epidemics killed white settlers and slaves alike, with regular outbreaks of yellow fever, measles, smallpox and yaws all of which were highly infectious. There is evidence that on some plantations it was realised that the slaves themselves were better at treating yaws, with which they were familiar from their home countries, than the European doctors who prescribed mercury itself a poison and used by them to treat the related condition of syphilis[1].

Yellow fever had probably arrived in the West Indies from Africa by the mid seventeenth century. Like malaria it is dependent for its transmission on mosquitoes breeding in stagnant water, both then present in abundance in Jamaica. The clay pots used in sugar production when broken were cast down and provided small pools of water; hurricanes and earthquake tsunami created larger bodies of water ideal for breeding.

Following the disastrous earthquake of June 1692 a correspondent of Sir Hans Sloane wrote on the 23rd of September, “We have had a very great Mortality since the great Earthquake (for we have little ones daily) almost half the people that escap’d upon Port-Royal are since dead of a Malignant Fever, from Change of Air, want of dry Houses, warm lodging, proper Medicines, and other conveniences.”[2]

Another wrote “The Weather was much hotter after the Earthquake than before; and such an innumerable quantity of Muskitoes, that the like was never seen since the inhabiting of the Island.”

In addition to infectious illness with high mortality Jamaica’s inhabitants had to contend with problems caused by ticks and jiggers. Blood sucking ticks particularly attack bare flesh around the legs and infected bites could lead to more serious problems. Jiggers, or chigoe fleas, bore into the feet to lay their eggs and were particularly problematic for anyone without shoes, which of course was most of the enslaved population as well as some poor whites. It was important to remove the jiggers early in their life cycle using a specially designed knife, and many cases of lameness among slaves were attributed to the lesions from untreated jiggers. They could also attack the hands, and any part of the person exposed to the ground, such as legs or buttocks. Many plantations carried out weekly hand and foot inspections.

Europeans arriving in Jamaica recognized smallpox and dysentery, measles and whooping cough but yaws, tropical ulcers, the dry bellyache and miscellaneous fevers were new to them. Most were infections against which there was little remedy but the dry bellyache should have been avoidable by the mid-eighteenth century when its cause was understood to be lead poisoning resulting from the stills used for making rum.

Benjamin Franklin “wrote about lead poisoning on several occasions, in particular about a disease known as the dry-gripes (or dry-bellyache) that had plagued Europe and the colonies for years….in 1723 the Massachusetts colonial legislature passed a bill outlawing the use of lead in the coils and heads of stills.  Observance of this law led to vastly decreased incidence of the dry-gripes, as the population drank less and less lead-contaminated rum.” [3]

In 1745 Thomas Cadwalder had drawn attention to the extreme cases of colic ‘West India dry gripe’ that were caused by the use of lead piping in rum distillation, but it seems nothing was done and it is not clear when the use of lead was reduced in Jamaica, with large scale illness and death among the garrisons and in the navy still occurring at the end of the eighteenth century.  The better off colonists avoided the worst of this by drinking imported claret, brandy or Madeira as well as rum, but excessive use of alcohol leading to liver damage further weakened their ability to withstand illness and live to see old age.

One notable exception was Jane Gallimore born about 1664, who outlived her husband Matthew Gregory by nearly forty years and whose burial record in St Catherine in 1754 gave her age as ninety. Mary Bailie was buried on 22nd July 1756 when her age was recorded as ‘about 95’.

Many colonists chose not to risk the hazards of Jamaica once they had established their plantation, or made their fortune as merchants and left the island for ever hoping thereby to live a long and healthy life ‘back home’.

[1] Richard B. Sheridan, Doctors and Slaves, Cambridge University Press, 1985, reprinted 2009, pp.86-7

[2] Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 1694, 18, pp.78-100

[3] Lisa Gensel , The Medical World of Benjamin Franklin, Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, Vol. 98, No 12, pp. 534-538


The Great Jamaican Earthquake of 1692

The terrible earthquake that struck Jamaica just before noon on the 7th June 1692 changed the geography of the island for ever and set its progress back by many years.  The timing of the earthquake was recorded by survivors but confirmed by the discovery of an early pocketwatch, made about 1686 by Frenchman Paul Blondel, during an underwater excavation.  The watch had stopped at 11:43 am.

Looking at this 1670 map and comparing it with one drawn nearly a century later, you can see that a huge area around Port Royal, notorious it is true for its pirates and brothels but nonetheless the centre for a lively trade with the outside world, simply ceased to exist.  Port Royal was described as the wickedest city on earth, but mostly after its destruction when people were looking for an explanation and seeing it as God delivering a just punishment on a sinful people.


Port Royal in 1670

Port Royal in 1755

About two thirds of the town of Port Royal disappeared in the quake, much of it because of liquefaction of the sandy soil on which the town was built.  Brick buildings and wooden warehouses collapsed and slid into the sea. According to Robert Renny in his An History of Jamaica of 1807, “All the wharves sunk at once, and in the space of two minutes, nine-tenths of the city were covered with water, which was raised to such a height, that it entered the uppermost rooms of the few houses which were left standing. The tops of the highest houses, were visible in the water, and surrounded by the masts of vessels, which had been sunk along with them”.

In the triple shocks of the quake the liquefied soil flowed in waves, fissures opened up and then closed again trapping victims as the sand solidified, some horrifically left with just their heads visible.  In the tsunami that followed most of the twenty or so ships in the harbour were sunk or carried right over the town, and many who had survived the initial quake were drowned.

The horror of the survivors at the huge number of corpses floating in the harbour was increased when they realised that many of these bodies had been washed out of the town’s graveyard. Looting began almost at once with the looters even hacking fingers off the dead in order to obtain their rings, and goods were stolen from the wharves and warehouses.

The earthquake, which modern estimates suggest was about 7.5 in magnitude, was not of course confined to Port Royal.  A huge landslip occurred at Judgement Hill.  At Liguanea, the site of modern Kingston, the sea was observed to retreat 300 yards before a six-foot high wave rushed inland.  Most of the buildings in Spanish Town were destroyed and serious damage occurred all across Jamaica.

Worse was yet to come, for the survivors then had to endure a series of epidemics particularly of Yellow Fever.  Perhaps 2000 of the 6500 inhabitants of Port Royal perished in the quake, many more died across Jamaica in the following few years. The island was over dependent on imported food and goods from England, and the disruption to its main harbour, loss of ships and warehousing brought about shortages of essential goods and reduced the ability to export.

The Jamaican Assembly removed from Port Royal to Spanish Town and rebuilding began almost at once, but it has been suggested that the progress of the colony was set back by 20 years as a result of the devastation.  Port Royal itself was so much reduced in area and further devastated by fire in 1704 that it never recovered.  Two years after the quake Dr Fulke Rose, one of the early colonists who had been in Jamaica since at least 1670,  returned to London with his family in order better to plead the cause of the island.  He died there in March 1694 and you can read a transcript of his Will here.

During the 1980s and 1990s underwater excavations took place at Port Royal which revealed much about life there before the quake struck. You can read about that project here.

Jamaica suffers up to 200 earthquakes every year, most of which are quite minor, but the Earthquake Unit of the University of the West Indies at Mona describes the quake of 1692 as ‘perhaps our largest and most damaging natural disaster’.