|Avis Part Five - FEVER!.|
(Illustrated version available from the Ascension Island Heritage Society)
Today, the threat of a fever does not create such a panic as it once did. Changes in medicine have rightly or wrongly taken the dread out of many sicknesses. It wasn't always so. Only 160 years ago, an outbreak of Measles killed 34 people in St Helena. The most dreaded posting in the Army was the Caribbean; the Fever Islands, where there was up to a fifty per cent chance of dying from fever.
During the 1830s Ascension had become a base for the ships of the West Africa Squadron. These ships patrolling inshore along the African coast were looking for slave ships, as Britain had embarked on an anti-slavery policy. Ships working that coast however, became prevalent to fevers, and the crews became sick. That was where Ascension Island came into its own; the ships limped here as best they could, to rest and recuperate. The effect of one ship called HMS Bann coming here, had already been felt. In 1823, a fever carried by that vessel killed 50 men from the ship and the garrison. A new policy became necessary.
Ships applying to enter a port requested Free Pratique - permission to enter having shown a clean bill of health. A surgeon would board the ship and confirm or deny this. Ships placed in quarantine, particularly those flying the warning flag denoting fever on board, had to be kept separate from the rest of the garrison. The answer was to develop a fever station, much as Lemon Valley in St Helena was to become. On Ascension the chosen site was Sydney Cove, a safe landing beach away from Georgetown, yet within Clarence Bay. It was renamed Comfort Cove. It was soon to acquire a further name, which it still retains today - Comfortless Cove.
Considering the number of ships that did call here, it is strange that the little graveyards at Comfortless are not fuller. Ships logs show that sailing here, some were buried at sea, maybe others were buried at sea here. Perhaps the main reason however was the types of fever encountered. Yellow Fever did occur, but it was not that common. It was not then appreciated that this is spread by mosquito, and during the long sea voyage away from land, the spread of infection would have decreased rapidly as the mosquitoes died, or were blown away.
A far more common fever was dysentery, where fresh food, fresh water and fresh air would rapidly restore the health of the sailors. Influenza, enteric fever and typhoid were worse, as they continued to spread once the ships arrived here. Luckily, they were not that common.
A ship arriving here with fever would be dispatched to Comfortless Cove. Medical help would be offered and an Assistant Surgeon would be dispatched to the cove to help. (Definitely a dodgy career if ever there was one!) Otherwise, there would be no contact with the garrison until the fever had cleared. Water and fresh food would be taken part of the way to the cove, and a pistol fired to indicate that it was there. The fit people amongst the crew would be expected to go and fetch the food, and distribute it among the living.
Comfortless Cove was used in this manner for at least 30 years, possibly longer, although it is probable that the cove had ceased to be used for this purpose regularly by 1899, when the submarine cables were dragged ashore here. There are only a few reminders of its long and sad use, the grave sites, and a few broken beer bottles. It does however have a certain atmosphere. The main graveyard, the Bonetta Cemetery, behind the main beach, is strangely peaceful, and even when the seas are rough, no sound of the sea penetrates the small hollow.
Little is known of the Trident Cemetery. HMS Trident was known to have been at Ascension during 1857, as she was condemned and broken up here during that year. Presumably the graves date from this period. The burial records although complete for this period do not differentiate between the ship's crew and islanders. The only group of men to die closely together in 1857 did so on the 26th, 27th and 29th of December; if these are the crew from the Trident, the graves are those of Tom Bestman, John Fitzgerald and Isaac Cole.
The Archer Cemetery is the strange one; no one is buried there! HMS Archer was a steam sloop that came here in 1866. She arrived, was put into quarantine, 6 officers and 18 men were sent to the Mountain Sanatorium, and others kept on at Comfortless Cove in rudimentary shelters. In all, 3 men died at Comfortless Cove, and a further 6 died at the mountain. The three crewmen at Comfortless are buried in the Bonetta Cemetery. To visit the Archer and Trident sites, take the right hand fork from the main track approximately 200 yards after leaving the main road.
Although called the Bonetta Cemetery, many of the graves are of crew of other ships, and even predate the visit of the Bonetta by a year. HMS Bonetta visited the island at the end of January 1838 with Yellow Fever, while Capt Bate was commandant. The burial records show that four crew were buried in the Bonetta Cemetery, but the ship's log shows many others died during February and were buried at sea. For 9 days following the death of the Captain no entries were made at all. He is one of those buried in the cemetery.
The plight of the Bonetta concerned Bate. He drafted a letter to the Commander in Chief;
"Wooden building of feather edge boards and covered with tarred paper, which would last in this climate for 50 years, to be erected in Comfort Cove capable of holding 20 patients for ships with Yellow Fever or other contagious disease, great misery having been experienced by the sick of the Bonetta, being left in that state that she had scarcely hands to erect coverings for them with her sails etc. and the wear and tear of such articles in the case of much sickness would soon fray the expense of erecting such a building. But should their Lordships object to such a building, suggest that one of the old eight and twenties be sent out to act as a hospital for contagious diseases."
The letter was never sent, and no building was ever built at Comfortless Cove for this purpose. Almost immediately the Thalia arrived bringing with it influenza, it killed Bate and 24 others on the island. Perhaps an answer to the suffering was the Mountain Hospital - The Sanatorium, the early parts of which were started shortly afterwards, and completed by 1847.
To me however, the saddest sites are the graves of the unknown. The records show who is buried and where in the Bonetta Cemetery; we can guess at the Trident Cemetery. At Comfortless just to the west of the cove car park is a valley containing the graves of 5 people. Who they were, when they died and why, no one knows.
For the loneliest grave however, walk to the sand blow hole beyond the cove (along the coast towards English Bay). As you stand looking into the mouth of the blow-hole, marvelling at the force of the waves that have created a beach 100 feet above the sea, you are not alone. Behind you lies the strangest gravesite on Ascension. Why be buried there? Are there other lonely graves in the area? There almost certainly are.
Reflect and wonder about the sacrifice paid by many men and women in those far off pioneering days, and be thankful for the changes in our world since then.