By Dario Forte
20, 727 Barbadians died during the cholera epidemic which ravaged the island between May and November 1854. Of this number, St. Michael and Bridgetown accounted for 9,127 of the lives lost.
The introduction of cholera into Barbados is attributed to the ship Derwent, which was anchored in Jamaica during that country’s cholera epidemic, prior to its arrival in Barbados. It is, however, important to note that there are other theories about cholera’s arrival here, with some scholars arguing that the responsible ship had arrived from St Croix. Nonetheless, the seamen from the ship brought their garments to a washerwoman in Jemmott’s Lane to be laundered. The washerwoman contracted the disease thus facilitating its transmission from the ship to the shore.
It quickly spread across Bridgetown and the surrounding St Michael districts; devastating poor communities such as Nelson Street, Collymore Rock, Light Foot Lane and Mason Hall Street. St. Michael residents panicked and migrated to rural districts, including St. Joseph, thus taking the disease with them. The situation was exacerbated by the Governor’s decision to release several prisoners from the Public Goal into the general public.
Officials believed that diseases like cholera were a result of the miasma or rather, a consequence of poisonous fumes which came from decomposing bodies. With the high mortality rate, officials grappled with the question of cholera burials. Families buried cholera victims in church burial grounds such as St. Mary’s, Holy Innocent, St Stephen’s and the St, Leonard’s church burial ground as well as plantation sites. In the parish of Lucy, the dead were burned along with their homes and worldly possessions.
New regulations prohibited cholera burials in church grounds or any place of worship, unless bodies were housed in lead or copper coffins. High mortality and widespread panic forced officials to seek alternate burial grounds. Indian River (Peaza), located at Lands’ End between Fontabelle and Brandons, was one of the additional sites acquired by the government for the purpose of cholera burials. Purchased from Susan Boyle at the cost £125 per acre, it became one of the most heavily utilized cholera burial grounds in St Michael. Other sites included the Leper’s Cemetery (Lazaretto) and a neighboring a plot of land adjoining Batts Rock beach.
Cholera revealed the poor social conditions under which many Barbadians lived and the limitations of the public health infrastructure. In response, the Barbados’ government introduced regular cleaning and washing of the streets, infant schools for the poor, and established a piped water system by June 1861. More importantly, in 1856, the Assembly passed legislation to appoint a permanent Board of Health. There was also a notable increase in marriages, baptisms and the growing number of persons attending church. The 1854 cholera epidemics stimulated developments in Barbados’ public health, improved some social conditions and inspired a sense of spirituality among the population.
Dario Forte is Assistant Researcher at the Barbados Museum and Historical Society. This work is adapted from his Caribbean Studies Thesis “Cholera and the Cholera Burial Grounds in Barbados” and provides a brief analysis of the impact of the 1854 cholera epidemic.