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July/August Issue 263: Mid-ocean plague ship disaster

Jun 25, 2020
An artist’s conception of the burning of the ship William Nelson in the Atlantic in 1865.

An artist’s conception of the burning of the ship William Nelson in the Atlantic in 1865.

Dickinson College/House Divided Project

As we experience the disjointing of our lives during this pandemic, it is useful to put it in historical perspective. As Americans, we don’t have to go back far to see how things were in the 19th and early 20th centuries when many of our ancestors immigrated to North America.
 
Between 1836 and 1914, more than 30 million immigrants left Europe and came to the U.S. The death rate during passage was one fatality per seven, or a little more than an astronomical 14 percent (the African slave trade, which is entirely another nightmare, had a fatality rate of about 15 percent). An essential like fresh water was a luxury. A contemporary account describes the drinking water aboard ship for the passengers in steerage as follows: “Our water has for sometime past been very bad. But its dirty appearance was not its worst quality. It had such a rancid smell that to be in the same neighborhood was enough to turn one’s stomach.”

Fear of illness was in every ship captain’s mind. In order to belay any contagion, fumigation was often performed. The process was fraught with the danger of fire. Passengers were herded on deck, and the crew would shut the hatches and go below with buckets of pine tar and hot irons. They’d place the red-hot irons into the tar, and the pine tar smoke would disinfect the living quarters. Sometimes, though, things didn’t go as planned. Such was the case involving the ship William Nelson in 1865.

William Nelson was 1,039 tons, built in Somerset, Mass., and carried 600 tons of merchandise, 30 crew and 450 passengers bound for New York. Under the command of Captain Levi Smith, the ship departed Antwerp, Belgium, for New York on June 1.

On June 26 at a DR of 52° 20’ N by 41° 20’ W, illness had already broken out. Captain Smith, fearing a contagion, ordered the passengers on deck so that the crew could fumigate the vessel.
 
The fumigation was almost complete when the last tar bucket burst into flames, the boiling tar flowing out onto the deck, burning the carpenter and another sailor. The sails and rigging almost immediately caught fire. The captain ordered the crew to prepare the boats, which were lowered — but, of course, there weren’t enough, and the passengers began panicking, jumping into the water. Many, not knowing how to swim, drowned; others, who stayed aboard, were consumed by flames. Twenty-four men and six women were rescued, not counting the crew.

Let’s go up on deck with Captain Smith before the fire for a noon sight. We’ll use a DR of 52° 20’ N by 41° 20’ W while he does a sun sight. The day is June 26. We will use the 2020 Nautical Almanac. Height of eye is 15 feet and the sextant reads 2 minutes on the arc. First, calculate time of LAN. With an Hs of 60° 49’, we want to find the Ho and the latitude, then plot our estimated position (EP).

A. What is the time of LAN?
B. What is Ho?
C. What is the latitude?
D. What is the EP?

Answers
A. Time of meridian passage in GMT is 14:48:20
B. Ho is 60° 58.6’ or 60° 59’
C. Latitude is 52° 20.8’ N
D. EP is 52° 21’ N, 41° 20’ W

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