The British colonists who set out to establish a settlement on the island of Bolama had high ideals. They wanted to demonstrate that they could thrive in Africa by hiring and cooperating with the native people of Africa rather than enslave them. The problem is that they were ill-informed and ill-prepared. Early on, while en route, problems arose with "the expedition leaders' belated realization that they knew neither the exact location of Bolama nor how to get there."
When they finally found Bolama, cultural misunderstandings, weather, predators (of the four-legged and two-legged variety), lack of materials and skills requisite for starting a new colony, and lots of bad luck combined to make life difficult, to say the least. But more than all of that was the prevalence of yellow fever, which killed off colonists indiscriminately.
The colony finally folded, having been reduced from 275 people to a small handful, due to desertion and death. The Hankey left Bolama with some of the survivors and some unexpected passengers: mosquitoes, living and laying eggs in the water kegs and animal troughs aboard ship. As they stopped in ports on the west side of the Atlantic, "through terrible timing coupled with the worst of toxic luck, the Hankey created the first major pandemic of yellow fever in the Western Hemisphere."
In the West Indies, "fully one-half of the white population of Grenada died within six months of the arrival of the Hankey. . . . The onslaught of disease would not halt for the next dozen years." The disease killed off thousands of British troops in the West Indies, and aided the Haitian slave rebellion by killing off European troops. As the Hankey fled to Philadelphia, starting an infection that would claim thousands, the epidemic there helped to "finalize the decision that made Washington rather than Philadelphia the political center of the country." And in France, Napoleon decided that, due to his disease-weakened troop presence in the Caribbean, he would sell off the Louisiana Territory at a bargain-basement price to the United States.
Smith writes as an academic historian, yet he writes Ship of Death in a readable, engaging style. As the narrative unfolds, Smith sheds light on the harsh realities of colonial life and life at sea, and deftly places the trials and tribulations of the Hankey and the Bolama colonists into the context of their time. In the latter chapters, the tight strand of the story that he had been spinning for the first portion of the book begins to unwind, but I think that may be most reflective of the widening spread of the yellow fever, brought over from Africa by the Hankey and liberally spread through the new world in ever-expanding networks.
Ship of Death is interesting and readable, and highly relevant. The challenges and dangers of globalization are even more of a reality today, in our time of constant international travel, than in the days of weeks-long crossings of the Atlantic. The experiences of the Hankey and the destruction it left in its path serve as a reminder of the difference one small event, oversight, or action can make in changing the course of history.