Being lucky enough to live in an era where immunization has wiped out or greatly reduced the chance of being infected with a virulent, communicable disease such as smallpox, scarlet fever, typhoid, etc, I always feel a moment of shock when I find an ancestor who died of what is now a preventable disease.
I recently ran across the cemetery transcription for the Soames' Island Cemetery. Soames' Island, located in the Wellington harbor, was used for many years, beginning in 1868, as a quarantine station for ships arriving at Wellington with disease onboard. The last five burials in the cemetery took place in 1919 and were related to the influenza pandemic.
Epidemics of communicable diseases existed in New Zealand long before the mass arrival of European immigrants. In 1790 an epidemic of rewha-rewha (influenza) killed 60% of Maori population in North Island. Early influenza outbreaks among Maori were reported at Foveaux Strait in Southland between 1817 and 1820, and in the Bay of Islands and Mercury Bay in Coromandel in 1838 and 1839.
In 1835 measles were reported among Maori working at the South Island whaling stations. This was the first time measles appeared in New Zealand, and was believed to have been introduced by a Maori native returning home from Sydney on the sailing vessel 'Children'. Unaware of how to cope with a foreign disease, entire Maori communities apparently resorted to bathing in streams in order to rid themselves of the spots. T. A. Pybus wrote: ‘The death rate was serious, and in many cases the people died as they stood. Even in later years skeletons have been found far from their kaikas (settlements) … lying one across another indicating the suddenness of the end. Measles was also reportedly prevalent in 1838 on South Island's Otago Peninsula.
A Measles epidemic occurred in 1854, brought in by passengers on a Tasmanian ship that arrived in North Island. The epidemic spread concurrently with a scarlet fever epidemic.
Scarlet fever was introduced to New Zealand during the late 1840s or mid-1850s. The first really severe outbreak occurred in Dunedin during 1863-64. Diarrhea, dysentery and typhoid were also prevalent during that time. The next major outbreak of scarlet fever apparently was imported from Australia and occurred in 1876-1877. It spread across New Zealand, although some areas suffered more than others. Scarlett fever struck again in epidemic form during 1881-82.
Whopping Cough epidemics occurred in 1873 and 1907. Prior outbreaks of Whopping Cough occurred in 1818 and 1847 but at the time the disease did not have to be reported to health officials.
Once European settlement of New Zealand began in earnest, communicable diseases often arrived on ships filled with immigrants. Once these sick passengers joined the local communities, the disease could spread quickly. Early European settlements often lacked clean water supplies and effective sewage disposal. Typhoid and other bacterial infections were common, along with diphtheria, measles, whooping cough (pertussis), scarlet fever and tuberculosis. Infant mortality rates were high and medical treatments were often ineffective. Typhoid was a killer between the 1810s to 1890s. Tuberculosis was also a constant killer during this period – an endemic epidemic – and wasn’t brought under control until the 1950s.
Health Officers or other officials usually met a ship when it entered harbor and were given a report of any disease onboard. Various quarantine methods were used through the years.
(Next installment - the founding of Soames' Island Quarantine Station)