Cholera is caused by the bacterium Vibrio cholerae. The bacteria releases a toxin that causes increased release of water in the intestines, which produces severe diarrhea. Death is the result of extreme dehydration and loss of electrolytes. People get the infection by eating or drinking contaminated food or water.
In 1854, a widespread epidemic of cholera was sweeping the northern ports of Europe, as well as New York and New Orleans. Cholera is said to have originated in India, and shipping traffic had periodically spread these plagues around the world. Hamburg, London, and unfortunately Liverpool were afflicted during the time the Wends were traveling.
Approximately 73 of the Wendish emigrants from the Lausitz to Texas are said to have died on the journey. Of these, many died of cholera. We can't be sure exactly how many, since the best available record of mortality, Pastor Killian's ship register, is incomplete. He does not specify cause of death, omits some locations and dates, and the document itself, after so many years, is frayed and possibly missing a page. We can estimate the number of cholera casualties, however, by studying the dates and locations reported.
The story of the trip has been recorded in many sources, the most touching of which is Johann Teinert's account, which includes an account of his mother's burial at sea. Dr. George R. Nielsen's book "In Search of a Home - Nineteenth-Century Wendish Immigration" also includes a detailed account. The travelers went by rail to Hamburg and from there traveled to Hull, England, by steamer. From Hull, they traveled to Liverpool to meet the ship, the Ben Nevis, which was to take them to Texas. The ship was not ready when they arrived, so they spent several weeks waiting for it.
Pastor Killian records 12 of the Wendish travelers as having died in Liverpool. On 26 September 1854 the Ben Nevis finally sailed from Liverpool. The cholera deaths continued and the ship was forced to stop at Queensland, Ireland, for cleaning and disinfection. At the time it was widely believed that the disease was caused by bad air or exposure to people and corpses who had the disease. Another 12 are recorded as dying "on ship" or "near Queensland". The ship finally sailed into open water on 23 October 1854. 46 more died on the remaining leg of the journey. Some of these may have been cholera deaths as well.
In 1854, the same year the Wends sailed for Texas, a physician in London, John Snow, deduced by mapping incidents of the disease in a London neighborhood, that the disease was being spread by water from a single pump that supplied the area. When the pump handle was removed, forcing people to find their water at another pump, the wave of illness quickly subsided and died out.
Epidemics became uncommon after Snow's discovery. We still see cholera epidemics in parts of the world where crowded conditions, war, and famine lead to situations where contamination of food and water with human waste spreads the disease rapidly. Cholera is treated by replacing fluid and electrolytes lost through diarrhea. When treatment is available, the disease is seldom fatal.
Knowing this, we can presume that the deaths of the Wendish travelers in Liverpool were due to widespread contamination of food and water in the city during the epidemic. The deaths on board the Ben Nevis after it left Liverpool and before it was forced to stop in Queensland, were likely due to contaminated water loaded when the ship was provisioned at Liverpool prior to departure.
It is possible, in fact likely, that some of the travelers in Liverpool and before Queensland died of some condition other than cholera. And some are likely to have survived the disease. We can probably assume that most of the deaths following the purging of the Ben Nevis at Queensland, Ireland were not from cholera. This table of names of those lost on the journey, with dates and places of death where available.
The age distribution of the victims suggests that the very young and the older people were particularly vulnerable. This assumes that the age distribution of the travelers was fairly uniform.
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