6.0 CHOLERA EPIDEMIC
In April of 1866, the S.S. England, a steamship from Liverpool, England, bound for New York with 1202 passengers, suffered an outbreak of cholera. With many of its crew stricken, the England found it necessary to seek refuge at Halifax.
Cholera, one of the most dreaded diseases of the nineteenth century, was no stranger to the citizens of Halifax. In 1834, a major outbreak had occurred in that city which claimed 600 lives. In 1854, over 1,500 cholera victims had died in Saint John.
Port authorities in Halifax, well aware of the potential devastation which could occur if the disease reached the city, ordered the England to anchor in the shelter of McNabs Cove. Over 400 stricken passengers were transferred to the Pyramus, a surplus naval ship which had been anchored just off Findlays Wharf (Figure 17). Those passengers from the England that appeared healthy were then removed to McNabs Island where they were initially housed in buildings used by workers who were constructing Fort Ives. When all passengers and crew had been removed the Cunard Company, owner of the England, began to clean and fumigate the ship.
Little Thrum Cap, at the extreme south of McNabs Island, was designated as an appropriate burial site for those who had succumbed to the dread disease. Additional burial pits were also dug in the vicinity of Hugonins Point by "volunteers" from the city prison.
Dr. John Slayter, the port health officer, provided a graphic, albeit grim, description of the effect of the cholera disease upon its victims:
The illness is virulent, causing death often in less than 12 hours. There is very little pain and purging, some die passing their feculent stools. They have cramps in their stomach and legs, but not to any extent. There is gangrene, cold extremities, vomiting and purging, but during the first stages when aroused they brighten up. Their hands and feet get purple, pulse is small from the beginning, tongue is whitish but not thickly furrowed. There is some suppression of urine. They die from collapse. When dead, their legs and hands are twisted up and very hard to straighten in coffins.
Those not stricken by cholera were subjected to extreme hardship due to of the lack of proper shelter, adequate food, and clothing on the island. On April 14, 1866, Dr. Slayter, wrote to Dr. Charles Tupper, city health office and provincial secretary, from McNabs Island:
The arrangements here are very bad from want of help...more of the people on shore are dying of starvation. When food is sent the strong seize it and the sick and the old who have no friends suffer, having no food. Last night was very bad ... Frank Garvie [a Halifax physician] and myself were ashore most of the night, getting women and children in from the Woods, they having been refused admittance into the tents on account of their not having friends.
Earlier that day soldiers had been sent to the island to try and preserve order. They established their headquarters in the house recently vacated by Captain Hugonin.
All of the passengers were subsequently removed to the south end of the island, near Lyttleton's home and close to present-day Fort McNab. Sentries were posted on the narrow strip of land near Wamboldt's cottage because of a fear that some passengers would escape to Halifax or Dartmouth where the cholera might spread like wildfire.
Dr. Slayter himself contracted cholera on April 16, and succumbed to its effects the following day. He was the last new case of cholera to die on McNabs Island. Two days later the England sailed for New York with its healthy passengers and crew. Fifty-five from the ship remained on the island for several more days. Although reliable statistics were not kept, an estimated 200 cholera victims are believed to have been buried on McNabs Island. The graves at Little Thrum Cap have since washed into the sea while the remaining burial site on Hugonin Point lies hidden beneath the underbrush.
With upwards of 800 hundred people from the England roaming McNabs Island, all of whom were potential carriers of cholera, the residents of the island must have been alarmed. Martin reports that "everyone who had the means or opportunity fled to the country." Perhaps no one lived in greater fear of contracting cholera than Captain Westcote Lyttleton near whose home so many of the ship's passengers and crew encamped. It is not difficult therefore, to understand why he chose to sell his property on McNabs Island a short time later.
Shortly after the England departed with her remaining passengers and crew, John McCurdy petitioned the government for $1,164 in damages for losses he suffered. McCurdy had a portion of his property used for the burial ground and was otherwise inconvenienced by the presence of the passengers on his land.