The quarantine of the Ticonderoga: The 'hell ship'
For seven days now, a small armada of cruise ships have sat offshore from my local beach. There are always coal ships there, clearly identifiable by the superstructure at the stern of a low hull, but now they’re joined by cruise ships, each of them top heavy and painted crisp white - limousines in a worksite carpark.
The first day I noticed them, there were three cruise ships at anchor. There are now five. Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, there’s news of a cruise ship, the Magnifica, with 1,700 passengers aboard, some reportedly with coronavirus, steaming towards Fremantle.
I’ve imagined myself being on that boat, being on any of them, as the virus spread. Trapped in a floating castle as the invisible enemy cuts a swathe through the pilgrims and wondering who’ll be next. There’s no chance of escape, not even when the ship berths as every passenger is potentially host to another passenger, so to let anyone off - even the apparently healthy - is to compromise the local population.
It reminded me of a book I read recently, ‘Hell Ship’ by Michael Veitch, about the journey of the 169-foot Ticonderoga from England to Australia in 1852.
Launched just three years earlier, the Ticonderoga wasn’t well designed for carrying passengers, especially not over long distances. Partly this was due to the ‘double decker’ design which prevented the top deck from being thoroughly scrubbed as water would drip down to the lower deck, which remained in a permanent state of damp and darkness. Nevertheless, in 1952 the Ticonderoga was one of four ships hired by the UK’s Emigration Society to carry emigrants to Australia.
On the back of the Victorian Gold Rush, the State Government was seeking labour from the UK. In all, 714 migrants answered the call, most of them Scottish Highlanders with a smattering of Irish and English, filing onto the Ticonderoga seeking a new life in Australia.
Just ten days into the three month journey, Captain Thomas H Boyle noticed some passengers getting ill, developing red rashes, strong delirium bordering on insanity, and diarrhoea and dysentery. Boyle and the ship’s surgeon superintendent Dr Sanger correctly diagnosed it as typhus. The situation became more grave as the health of those who’d contracted it declined and the disease spread to others. Within three weeks the first deaths were reported.
At the time it was not known how typhus spread, nor how to stop it from infecting others. The situation deteriorated to such a degree that later accounts describe passengers bundling up to ten bodies at a time into mattresses and bedding to keep the disease away, then eventually jettisoning those stuffed mattresses overboard.
Ninety days after leaving England the Ticonderoga sailed into Port Phillip Bay flying a yellow flag - the flag of quarantine, warning other people to keep away.
Once inside the heads, Captain Boyle pulled the ship to starboard where small waves tapered towards a protected bay and the prevailing wind blew offshore. His crew then rowed a jolly boat to shore, staked off a quarantine area with yellow flags and white paint on the trees. Tents were erected using the sails and spars from the ship.
Melbourne had planned to make a ‘sanitary station’ but the arrival of the Ticonderoga had expedited those plans, and the site had been chosen for them. Governor La Trobe quickly purchased two houses that had been occupied by lime-burners and converted them into hospitals. The Quarantine Station operated from 1852 (when the Ticonderoga landed) until 1980.
Every family that arrived on the Ticonderoga lost at least one family member, and they were greeted by a settlement that feared them and the disease they were carrying. Some emigrants escaped quarantine to head north through the scrub towards Melbourne.
Dr Sanger reported that, during the Ticonderoga’s tragic voyage, 100 people perished and the ship landed with a further 311 cases of typhus, plus 127 cases of diarrhoea, and 16 cases of dysentery. 68 more people died while in quarantine, including two crew members, taking the tally to 170.
Many of those who died on the Hell Ship were buried in the cemetery at the western end of the Quarantine Station, looking down on the protected bay where a very infrequent wave broke down the angled reef as it refracted back into the prevailing wind.
What does this story have to do with surfing?
This story has nothing to do with surfing.