‘May it be the last of our sorrows’: Disease and death at sea

  • Robin Haines


Like shipwrecks, vessels suffering a high fatality rate from disease were relatively rare on the Australian route from the 1840s.1 Nevertheless, high mortality on ships that suffered epidemics distorts the average annual death rates for the colonial period, and it is the distress and horror of these atypical voyages that resonate in historical memory. The tendency to extrapolate from these, and from the tragic passages of the Atlantic ‘coffin ships’ of the late 1840s, has created a picture of nineteenth-century emigrant voyages as a calamity of universally tragic proportions.2 The suffering on the fever ships was truly appalling in an era when the aetiology and transmission of cholera and other infectious diseases were not yet understood. Yet from the beginning of government-assisted emigration to Australia in 1831, humanitarian concern was widespread, leading to tighter regulations governed by the Passenger Acts.


Typhoid Fever Scarlet Fever Large Ship Irish Family Immigration Agent 
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  1. 2.
    M. Cannon, Perilous Voyages to the New Land, Loch Haven Books, Mornington, 1996Google Scholar
  2. R. Scally, ‘Liverpool and Irish emigrants in the age of.sail’. Journal of Social History, XVII, 1983, 5–30CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    J. McDonald and R. Shlomowitz, ‘Mortality on Immigrant Voyages to Australia in the 19th Century’, Explorations in Economic History, 27, 1990, tables 1 and 2, 89–91 (reproduced in Shlomowitz, Mortality and Migration in the Modern World.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. See also M. Staniforth, ‘Dangerous Voyages?’, unpub. MA thesis. University of Sydney, 1993, for an account of some high mortality voyages in the late 1830s.Google Scholar
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    See also J.H.L. Cumpston and F. McCallum, The History of the Intestinal Infections (and Typhus Fever) in Australia 1788–1923, Commonwealth of Australia, Melbourne, 1927, 334.Google Scholar

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© Robin Haines 2005

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  • Robin Haines

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