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Ship of Death

Ship of Death: A Voyage That Changed the Atlantic World

Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 328
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  • Book Info
    Ship of Death
    Book Description:

    It is no exaggeration to say that theHankey, a small British ship that circled the Atlantic in 1792 and 1793, transformed the history of the Atlantic world. This extraordinary book uncovers the long-forgotten story of theHankey, from its altruistic beginnings to its disastrous end, and describes the ship's fateful impact upon people from West Africa to Philadelphia, Haiti to London.

    Billy G. Smith chased the story of theHankeyfrom archive to archive across several continents, and he now brings back to light a saga that continues to haunt the modern world. It began with a group of high-minded British colonists who planned to establish a colony free of slavery in West Africa. With the colony failing, the ship set sail for the Caribbean and then North America, carrying, as it turned out, mosquitoes infected with yellow fever. The resulting pandemic as theHankeytraveled from one port to the next was catastrophic. In the United States, tens of thousands died in Philadelphia, New York, Boston, and Charleston. The few survivors on theHankeyeventually limped back to London, hopes dashed and numbers decimated. Smith links the voyage and its deadly cargo to some of the most significant events of the era-the success of the Haitian slave revolution, Napoleon's decision to sell the Louisiana Territory, a change in the geopolitical situation of the new United States-and spins a riveting tale of unintended consequences and the legacy of slavery that will not die.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-19923-9
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xvi)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xvii-xx)
  5. CHAPTER 1 The Hankey
    (pp. 1-27)

    TheHankey, like all wooden vessels of its time, whispered to its inhabitants. In the early morning dawn, its anchor and rigging lines tugged and groaned in the breeze. The timbers of its hull made lulling sounds in the estuary’s sometimes slapping roll. The vessel was a fully rigged ship: it contained a foremast in front, the tallest mast, the mainmast, in the center, and a shorter mizzenmast at the back; square sails hung on all three. TheHankeywas a relatively large oceangoing vessel for its time, designed to sail across the Atlantic with a 260-ton cargo or the...

  6. CHAPTER 2 The British Colonists
    (pp. 28-61)

    What motivated this group of Britons, mostly middle- and working-class white residents of London and Manchester, to dream of establishing a colony in Africa, a place that many of them feared was both barbaric and dangerous to the health of Europeans? As in all human endeavors, their motivations varied from person to person. But their incentives grew out of the events and circumstances of their everyday existence within the context of the larger Atlantic world. The horrors of the slave trade and the enormous profits realized from that commerce outraged the moral sensibilities of many of the migrants, spurring them...

  7. CHAPTER 3 West Africa
    (pp. 62-74)

    While theHankeyandBeggar’s Benisonwere sailing from port to port searching for the expedition’s missing third ship, Henry Hew Dalrymple, the original organizer and governor of the colony, and 148 other passengers on the fasterCalypsowere enduring a much rougher voyage along the European and African coasts. After theCalypsohad sailed ahead, smallpox scythed through the ship’s passengers, killing some and terrorizing all. When the ship finally anchored at Tenerife to await the rest of the expedition, the captain initially lied to port officials, claiming the vessel carried no contagion. However, Dalrymple, the moralist, could not...

  8. CHAPTER 4 Cross-Cultural Negotiations
    (pp. 75-97)

    Ironically, and certainly unknown to them, the antislavery colonists had chosen an island that lay at the heart of the region where the Atlantic slave trade had begun. After the Portuguese tried unsuccessfully to conquer the Vincheai in the Canary Islands, northwest of the Bijago’s homeland, they established an outpost on an unoccupied island of the Cape Verde archipelago south of the Canaries. In 1446, two Portuguese ships, commanded by Gil Eannes and Nuño Tristão, became the first European vessels of record to sail down the West African coast as far south as the Bijagos Archipelago. They were equipped with...

  9. CHAPTER 5 Death in Bolama
    (pp. 98-123)

    With the band of hopeful pioneers of the Bolama Association torn asunder by the departure of theCalypso,the rump council recognized Philip Beaver’s energy and leadership qualities by voting unanimously to make him their new president. Beaver, in return, demanded nearly unlimited authority. His conditions were not unprecedented. As Beaver was aware, John Smith had used dictatorial power nearly two centuries earlier to save the Jamestown colony in Virginia from starvation and failure.¹

    The council agreed, perhaps because many of them were planning to return to England, perhaps because the mostly affluent councilors had never fully embraced the radical...

  10. CHAPTER 6 Grumettas and the Final Days of the “Canabacs’ Chickens”
    (pp. 124-156)

    Remarkably, after all their setbacks, twenty-eight colonists had remained on Bolama rather than flee on theHankey. Twenty-three of them were ill (a handful too sick to make an informed decision about staying or leaving). Some, like Philip Beaver, remained committed to the ideal of establishing a successful settlement. Others still clung to the hope of a bright financial future in the new outpost. Some did not want to go home to a life of servitude in England. One or two had no choice: if they returned to Britain after being sentenced to transportation, they would hang. These remaining colonists...

  11. CHAPTER 7 Yellow Jack Comes to the Caribbean
    (pp. 157-186)

    After leaving Bolama, theHankeycrisscrossed the Atlantic for six months, disgorging sick passengers and infectious mosquitoes wherever it went. In addition to the ports at which it landed, theHankeyliberally spread yellow fever to other ships, widening the scope of the virus exponentially as the newly contaminated vessels visited dozens of ports in the West Indies, North America, and Europe, dropping off their own infected insects. The result was a pandemic that killed hundreds of thousands of people around the Atlantic Ocean. And the death toll did not end with theHankey’s last call. The ship of death’s...

  12. CHAPTER 8 Calamity in the United States Capital
    (pp. 187-205)

    TheHankeydocked in Philadelphia for only a week—long enough to disembark sick refugees from Saint-Domingue, try to find a cargo, and trade empty water casks and jugs for full ones on the piers. Virus-carryingAëdes aegyptiand their eggs traveled in or flew alongside the containers. Almost immediately, yellow fever broke out quayside. Other craft from Saint-Domingue and elsewhere in the West Indian islands undoubtedly also contributed infected passengers and mosquitoes, setting loose a disease that burned through the city during the next three months. Yellow jack had not visited Philadelphia for more than thirty years, so residents...

  13. CHAPTER 9 Journal of the Plague Months
    (pp. 206-241)

    “They are dying on our right hand and on our Left; we have it opposite us, in fact, all around us, great are the number that are called to the grave. To see the hearse go by is now so common that we hardly take notice of it; in fine, we live in the midst of death.” So wrote Philadelphian Isaac Heston to his brother on September 19, 1793, at a time when yellow fever claimed the lives of roughly seventy city residents a day. “When I see the Metropolis of the United States depopulated,” the twenty-two-year-old moaned, “it is...

  14. Epilogue: The Living and the Dead
    (pp. 242-253)

    In July 1793, after docking for a few days in Philadelphia, where he unloaded sick refugees and infectious mosquitoes, Captain Cox needed to sail theHankeysouth to join the convoy of British merchant vessels from the West Indies to London. Britain and France were at war, and French flying squadrons threatened to seize lightly armed commercial vessels as prizes. Cox was eager to have the protection that the Royal Navy afforded the convoy on the last leg of the voyage home. TheHankeyjoined the fleet as it was massing in Golden Rock harbor at Saint Kitts in the...

  15. The Legacy of the Hankey
    (pp. 254-256)

    The tale of theHankeyand its passengers—both human and insect—brings together peoples who lived thousands of miles apart who discovered, perhaps to their surprise, that far-distant events could have impacts, sometimes fatal, on their own lives. The close-up view from the ship’s deck allows us to see in greater detail, and sometimes for the first time, clusters of ordinary men and women who built the societies on the perimeter of the ocean. Whether they lived in Britain, West Africa, the Caribbean, or Philadelphia, their lives were interconnected; sometimes they shared similar quests to shape their communities and...

  16. Notes
    (pp. 257-288)
  17. Glossary of People and Places of West Africa
    (pp. 289-294)
  18. Index
    (pp. 295-306)