In his book, East to the Isles, Colin Urquhart, details the history of the islands in Algoa Bay. Amongst the numerous stories of death, destruction, progress, and growth, Urquhart narrates the saga of the Canadian brig, RLT of 444 tons en route from Mauritius to Europe. This event commenced on the 23rd of December 1891 when the RLT’s master, Captain W Thompson, informed the Harbour Master, Captain Young that he suspected that 10 passengers and crew were infected with smallpox.
To say that the town erupted in consternation would be an understatement.
Main picture: St. Croix Island seen from the nearest landfall at Hougham Park, just east of the Coega harbour development.
In that era when plagues erupted, humans died in their hundreds, if not thousands, as there were largely only ineffectual treatments for most of these contagions. The primary concern of the townsfolk was that the dreaded disease would spread rapidly throughout the community. There was only one solution: isolation. To this end, the crew and the passengers of the RLT were ordered to remain aboard their ship. For fear of the contagion being dispersed on the wind, the ship was commanded to remain anchored at a safe distance in the roadstead while a plan of action was drawn up.
Being two days before Christmas, the main roads in Port Elizabeth were clogged with ox-wagons which had recently arrived like spring-awakened flowers. Instead of their usual cargo of agrarian products, these overburdened wagons carried whole families with their brood of children numbering at least six. Those with relations in the town would park these wagons in the street outside their homes. While parents greeted their kin, over-excited children, unused to large towns, would immediately commence exploring. Some would take a ride on that new-fangled contraption, the horse-drawn tram, while others would wander down to North End beach, a wonderful swathe of yellow sea sand stretching from North Jetty, past the mouth of the Papenkuils River mouth, past Deal Party with its New Brighton Hotel and the racecourse owed by Berry and finally to the mouth of the Zwartkops River. In 1891, Gomery or today’s Humewood was far out in the country. Without a direct route to it, one had to travel through South End in a southerly direction and then northwards down south of the Shark River. There was one reason why North End beach, despite its spectacular sandy beach was suspect, and that was Port Elizabeth’s lack of a sewerage reticulation system. As a solution, overfull chamberpots were borne seaward once the sun had dipped below the horizon to be deposited in the surf.
At first the “authorities”, presumably in the form of the Harbour Master, suggested that a temporary quarantine station be erected on Bird Island, but, when it was pointed out that the island was inhabited by guano and lighthouse personnel, the proposal was not implemented. A decision was then taken to allow the ship to sail to the lee side of the small, rocky and uninhabited St Croix island and set up a hospital there. Unlike the residents’ usual resentments at the Council spending their hard-earned money even if it is on the most worthy of causes such as the installation of sewerage pipes, in this case, they felt that no expense should be spared to prevent the contagion from gaining a foothold in the town.
Urquhart notes that An editorial in the EP Herald at the time noted that ‘the death of a dog in Main Street is of more importance to the town than the loss of a crowned head in Europe and every effort should be made to cut through the red tape in order to prevent the spread of this dreaded disease.”
To ensure that there was strict observance of these strictures, the RLT was placed under strict surveillance 24 hours a day until the construction of a tent hospital on St. Croix, was completed. Nobody was allowed on, off or near the ship for fear that the contagion would spread.
Urquhart describes the arrangements as follows: On the 29th December 1891, Captain Young, the Harbour Master accompanied by the plucky young doctor Bruce, who had accepted the post of temporary medical officer of the camp paid a visit to the island to arrange accommodation for the sick at the most suitable site amongst the penguins. Two days later doctor Bruce, the likable policeman Sergeant H van der Meer, who became the doctor’s right-hand man, two nurses, two guards, a steward and a cook landed on the island. The team excluding the nurses were accommodated in two old wood and iron huts built years earlier by fishermen near the only practical landing site upon the windswept rocky outcrop. A number of bell tents were erected for those crew members and passengers not showing any signs of the disease either way with the tents for the sick while the nurses were housed in another tent a little distance from their patients. It was arranged that a tug would be sent out weekly with a supply of fresh food and water.
The first transfer occurred only on New Year’s Day 1892 when the first 12 passengers suspected of being infected with smallpox, were landed on St Croix. It was only two days later that the rest of the passengers and one very sick crewman were disembarked. The rest of the crew were requested to stay aboard the RLT.
Urquhart now enumerates that numerous problems were experienced for instance “when the authorities discovered that the number of people aboard the RLT was in fact far greater than had been first reported and, to make matters worse, each caste amongst the Indian passengers was calling for separate living quarters. When things are finally settled the healthy passenger list consisted of nine Chinese men, 18 Indian men and one woman, one Teluga man from Madras, his wife and son, two men of colour and a white woman accompanied by a black manservant i.e. 35 in all. The patients were one Mauritanian seamen – very ill indeed, one Chinese man, one Teluga man, one Telugu woman and one Indian woman and her four children, two boys and two girls aged between 13 months and four years – 9 in all – that made a total of 34 poor souls from between the decks of the small vessel. A few days later two crew complained of feeling “poorly” and were landed and joined the sick.
Next on the agenda was to disinfect the vessel from stem to stern. With time on their hands, the crew in all probability amused themselves by fishing, catching penguins and stealing their eggs for a change in their diets. Perhaps, somebody had a pack of cards. Due to there being a threat to the residents of the town, they were not permitted to disembark. If they had done, they would undoubtedly have been attracted to the numerous canteens in Strand Street where sailors sought release in booze and women of ill repute.
Urquhart records the living conditions as follows: “Upon investigation, Dr. Bruce discovered that the passengers’ fare had paid for only a space between the decks, water, and firewood for cooking. They had to provide their own food for the voyage but the ship had taken much longer to reach Algoa Bay than expected and according to Dr. Bruce those poor wretched souls had exhausted their provisions. He found the RLT lacked any skilled medical attendants and stocked no medicines except for the usual items like Epsom salts and castor oil. To compound matters, the water supply was strictly rationed and the living quarters were grossly overcrowded – young, old, sick and lame – all huddled together in badly ventilated, dark and dingy conditions. Given fresh water, good food (biscuits, meat, sugar and tea) and lots of sunshine, the people will soon recover he said. One of the problems that Dr. Bruce had to overcome on the island was the differences in the various religious beliefs. The devout asked regarding the right to slaughter and cook out animals, as was their custom.
The island was demarcated into two areas, one for the sick and the other for the healthy. To ensure the separation, two guards were posted to prevent any contact between the groups. Soon Dr. Bruce was able to report that the poor, emaciated men, women and children, who had arrived ashore in their weakened frames were now beginning to look the picture of health except one miserable soul. On 16th February, the Mauritanian seaman died and was cremated according to orders there being no soil upon the island in which to bury him. Confined to this windswept rocky outcrop the nursing staff and patients whiled away the days and weeks until again it was thought safe enough to leave the hospital island and returned to the ship. Everything that had been used was either disinfected or burnt and the RLT with its healthy band of passengers and crew returned to the roadstead on the 3rd of March
Finally their three month long isolation was over. Using St Croix as an isolation area had been a masterstroke but the cost had been high. One these costs apart from food and water, had been the use of the tug The John Paterson which ferried water – totalling 73,250 gallons – and food to the island almost in the manner of a shuttle service. With a sigh of relief, Port Elizabeth were thankful that none of the residents had paid the ultimate price.
East to the Isles by Colin Urquhart & Norbert Klages (1996, Bluecliff Publishing, Port Elizabeth)