Sailing the British Empire : The Voyages of The Clarence, 1858-73

Cholera: The Killer from Calcutta



Epidemic disease, most notably cholera for ships departing from the Indian subcontinent, has appeared to be the single largest cause of deaths amongst indentured labourers. While the Clarence itself was lucky enough to be spared from a cholera outbreak on her voyages of 1864-5, it would have definitely been a major concern for the ship’s surgeon as well as the crew and passengers. From plantation owners who kept losing their source of labour to the disease, as well as anxious locals in ports where the ships docked, cholera led to multiple areas of concern from external parties as well. In fact, the Clarence’s surgeon, Charles Turner, had already dealt with cholera in previous voyages, and a section of the passengers from the 18th Hussars would later become all too familiar with the disease, when it ravaged their regiment in 1871. More information about the Hussars can be found on “18th Hussars" written by Sam Bryggman. However, an epidemic of a different nature affected the passengers on the Clarence, more about which can be found in the pages written by Noelle.

Historical Overview

No disease has had quite the impact that cholera has had in South Asia, and the shipping routes that originated or led to the region. A disease that showed no discrimination in claiming victims of different races, castes and gender, cholera struck suddenly and unpredictably, causing acute diarrhoea and vomiting, that rapidly led to severe dehydration and death.


Endemic to Bengal- present eastern India and Bangladesh- cholera’s first documented spread of considerable magnitude, outside of the subcontinent, began in 1817. Since then, seven pandemic (spanning continents) cholera outbreaks have occurred.

Although the perceptions of the disease varied over time and from person to person, as highlighted by the contradictary nature of some accounts, the magnitude of its impact is undisputed. With cholera claiming over 48 million lives between 1817 and 1945, and disrupting numerous political and mercantile interest, there is no dearth of historical information surrounding it. What was also agreed upon was the fact that cholera was the disease most closely associated with mobility and migration across the 19th century.


Kiple, Kenneth F. The Cambridge World History of Human Disease. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1993. Print.
Arnold, David. "Cholera." Colonizing the Body: State Medicine and Epidemic Disease in Nineteenth-century India. Berkeley: U of California, 1993 N. p. Print.
May, Jacques M. Map of the World Distribution of Cholera. 41. Vol. American Geographical Society, 1951. Print.

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