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Reviewed by:
  • Ship of Death: A Voyage that Changed the Atlantic World by Billy G. Smith
  • Robert V. Wells (bio)

Yellow feve, Bolama, Hankey, Transatlantic, Caribbean

Ship of Death: A Voyage that Changed the Atlantic World. By Billy G. Smith. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013. Pp. 320. Cloth, $35.00.)

Ship of Death is a difficult book to review as it tells several stories, from the colossal failure of a small colonizing venture on the island of Bolama off West Africa in 1792 to the epidemic of yellow fever in 1793 that swept from Grenada and other Caribbean islands to Philadelphia, killing thousands. Linking these stories together is the ship Hankey that first took prospective colonists from England to Bolama in April 1792, and then sailed from Bolama to the Caribbean and on to Philadelphia by July [End Page 495] 1793. Although the story of the rapid collapse of the Bolama enterprise might easily be relegated to the dust bin of history, Smith sees this trans-Atlantic tale of contingencies and unintended consequences as helping to explain events from the success of the Haitian Revolution via yellow-fever deaths in European armies to Napoleon’s decision to sell Louisiana to the United States, giving impetus to the creation of a continental nation. In addition to small actions having large consequences in the 1790s, Smith contends, the lesson of the global effects of local events has relevance today.

Smith devotes the first six of nine chapters to the Bolama colony, with the Hankey receiving scattered attention. He begins with the efforts of abolitionists in England to sponsor a colony that would purchase rather than seize land from the locals, and would rely on hiring rather than enslaving African workers. The organizers and subscribers of the venture were inspired by reformist ideals, but the motives of the ordinary citizens of London and Manchester, who made up the majority of the 275 colonists, were more practical, such as improving one’s fortune or escaping from the law. They set sail on April 11, 1792, with the Calypso and the Beggar’s Benison joining the Hankey. Future problems were foreshadowed as no one actually knew Bolama’s location, and the ships soon separated. The Calypso somehow found the island on May 24, where, without contacting local Bijagos, they began to move ashore. On June 3, the Africans attacked, ultimately killing eight and taking seven more prisoners. The settlers on the Calypso fled, but on June 5 encountered the other two ships. After recovering their prisoners, they all returned to the island, but on July 19, one hundred and forty-six discouraged colonists sailed for home on the Caylpso. Of the ninety souls remaining with Philip Beaver, who took command of the effort, only twenty-eight stayed passed November 23, when the Hankey set off on its fatal voyage taking sick survivors and infected mosquitoes. Beaver and the remaining colonists struggled mightily, recruiting Africans to work with them, but as 1793 came to an end, the six surviving settlers abandoned the effort.

Chapter 7 returns to the Hankey and its infamous voyage. With sick passengers and a dwindling crew, the ship struggled to the Cape Verde Islands by early January 1793. Aided by two passing naval vessels in repairs and the loan of four sailors, the Hankey sailed for the Caribbean on January 27 with six passengers and a crew of four, reaching Barbados on February 14. Shortly after it anchored at Grenada on the 19th, a virulent form of yellow fever broke out among the crews of other ships [End Page 496] in harbor; soon the disease spread ashore and as the ships departed, around the Caribbean. In July, the Hankey docked briefly at Philadelphia.

The last two chapters of the book retell the familiar story of 1793 epidemic in the nation’s capital, with the various disputes over it causes and treatments.

Often engaging, this book is not without problems. While the stories linked by the Hankey are wide ranging, Smith at times provides more context than we need to know, such the description of Canary Islanders’ mummification practices (19). But more important, the whole rests on probable, but...


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pp. 495-498
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