With the coronavirus putting countries around the world in lockdown, can the fever station at Comfortless Cove, Ascension Island, where sailors in the 19th century were forced to quarantine, offer us lessons on how to fight back?
Following the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, the might of the Royal Navy was re-directed towards stopping the slave trade and suppressing piracy. The West African Squadron was tasked with stopping the shipment of slaves from the fever ridden west African coast to the Caribbean by seizing slave ships at sea. Between 1807 and 1866, the Royal Navy captured over 500 slave ships and released 150,000 slaves. This was a dangerous task: in addition to losing ships to pirate action, boarding and cleansing the captured slave ships exposed the crews to viral infection. In 1829, the Squadron’s worst year, 204 out of 792 sailors died of diseases including cholera, small-pox, yellow fever and dysentery.
Barren and uninhabited, Ascension Island was garrisoned by the Royal Navy in 1815 and used as a victualling station and sanctuary for the West African Squadron. Benefitting from one of the healthiest climates in the world, Ascension Island was kept cool by a constant SW trade winds despite its proximity to the equator and was free of endemic diseases.
On 25 April 1823, HMS Bann anchored and sent her sick ashore. During the following six weeks, 26 of the crew and 24 of the garrison succumbed to fever. Following this tragedy, crew with fever were sent to a newly established fever station in a small, sheltered bay named Comfort Cove two kilometres north of the anchorage in Clarence Bay. One of just two places on the island where it was safe to swim, Comfort Cove was soon renamed ‘Comfortless Cove’ once the irony of its former name grew too great to bear in the face of its unsavoury new purpose.
A process was established whereby ships flying the “Yellow Jack” quarantine flag were isolated from other ships at the anchorage in Clarence Bay and sick sailors were ferried to Comfortless Cove to be looked after by their ship mates. Despite its barren appearance surrounded by black volcanic rock, the location held several advantages as a fever station. There was no standing water, buildings, biting insects, flies or mosquitoes and the water in the cove was replenished regularly by the Atlantic swell. Having lazed myself for hours on the sandy beach with the warm sea water swell washing over me I can vouch for its therapeutic valve. Fever victims lived under canvass canopies that allowed the wind to blow through and slept on pockets of sand that were separated from other inmates by protruding rocks. A cat may have been kept to keep any rats at bay. Captain Dampier’s ship the Roebuck, was badly holed and beached close to Comfortless Cove in 1701. The crew reached shore safely as did many of the ship’s rats. Rats multiplied, infested the whole island and continue to be a problem today.
Social distancing from the garrison was absolute but fever victims did not wear masks. The fever station was guarded and to avoid direct contact with the fever victims the victualling party from the garrison would leave the supplies near a conspicuous rock some 500m from the cove. They would then fire a musket and a party from the cove would go and collect the supplies but would never actually meet garrison personnel.
The diet of those in quarantine was a considerable improvement on ship vittles and they would have received fresh clean mountain water. Fever victims rarely have an appetite so Green Turtle gruel must have been on the menu as hundreds of turtles were kept in ponds in the garrison ready for export. Rations would also have consisted of Wideawake tern eggs, there were more than two million of these egg-birds nesting on the island, fresh fish and even some vegetables.
In 1830 the fever-stricken crew of HMS Black Joke an ex-slaver were among the first to test the fever station. The ship had caught nine slavers during the previous year. The garrison killed a sheep each day to provide extra rations for the crew, the sick were looked after by their ship-mates and none died and the ship returned to station.
There are no mass graves in Comfortless Cove instead there are small cemeteries dedicated to the memory of comrades with graves dug by ship mates. Space was limited and rock outcrops prevented any uniformity. The main and oldest graveyard, the Bonetta Cemetery contains the remains of four crew from HMS Bonetta that died of Yellow fever in 1838, together with two from HMS Scout and individuals from other ships that had died of fever at Comfortless Cove. A Sanatorium was built on the island in 1847 but the fever station continued in use. Sailors from HMS Archer a steam sloop and HMS Trident an iron paddle sloop had their own small cemeteries both opened about 1856.
Considering the number of ships that called into Ascension it is strange that the little graveyards at Comfortless Cove are not fuller. Sailors who died before reaching land were buried at sea and as the garrison had its own cemetery the graves at Comfortless Cove only contained those that died in the fever station. The fever station must have worked because, so few died and because the station was in use for more than 30 years. The fever station can provide some lessons for us today. The value of familiar faces such as the ships Assistant Surgeon and other crew members in nursing the sick. The benefits of eating fresh rather than fast food and convalescing outside rather than in overcrowded hospitals helped to speed recovery. The value of using warm seawater and sand for personal hygiene is not to be underestimated. Above all the use of guards rather than masks to prevent the virus spreading. I have seen for myself how todays virus patients would willing exchange the comfort of air-conditioning, the expertise of masked strangers and TV for a balmy sea breeze, the naked hand of a friend and the sight of endless flocks of seabirds passing by.
The closure of the fever station did not send Comfortless Cove into obscurity. The soft sand of the sheltered bay was the perfect place to pull submarine trans-Atlantic cables ashore. In 1899 cables from South Africa, West Africa, central and southern America all came ashore at Comfortless Cove and Ascension Island became the hub of telegraphic communications in the Atlantic. Wireless communication put an end this activity. The cove now has reverted to being a popular recreation spot for island residents and- if the Home Secretary’s idea of using Ascension as a detention centre comes to fruition- for forcibly detained asylum seekers.
This article was contributed by Dr John Hughes,
John was a land surveyor and a professional soldier he travelled the world. He has a passion for birds, lifelong learning and was a teacher. He achieved a PhD aged 69 his research topic was the Breeding Ecology of Seabirds on Ascension Island. John is married with 5 children and lives in Hampshire.
You can find his talks ‘Boobies and Noddies: Birds of Ascension Island’ and ‘Avian Science’ in the Nature section of the Mirthy catalogue.