Saturday, 22 June 2013

Cholera ship - the SS Dorunda, 1885

In late 1885 a ship carrying over 470 passengers and crew docked at ports in north Queensland en route from London to Brisbane.  It was also carrying cholera. 

SS Dorunda, docked at Port Said, Egypt, n.d.
Image: State Library of Queensland.

The British India Steam Navigation Company’s ship Dorunda sailed from London on 20th October 1885, with many of its 367 passengers, immigrants - bound for the port of Brisbane.  The Dorunda stopped at Malta on October 29, Port Said, Egypt on November 2 and Aden on November 9, where the (mainly Indian) crew was exchanged.  On November 27 the Dorunda reached Batavia, in Java.  Up until this point in the voyage, there had been little sickness of note according to the ship’s medical officer, Dr Thomas Hickling. 

At Batavia about 560 tons of coal was loaded onto the ship, and whilst this was being loaded about twenty of the saloon passengers disembarked and travelled to the township of Batavia by rail.  No other passengers or crew were allowed to disembark the vessel.  Although it was discouraged, a few passengers bought fruit from a small boat that came up alongside the Dorunda.  No cargo was taken on board, but fresh vegetables, fruit and potatoes were brought on board for the consumption of saloon passengers only.  No water was taken on board at this stop.

Four days later, on 2nd December, a 62-year old man became ill with symptoms similar to cholera.  He gradually recovered and Dr Hickling did not believe the man had cholera.  On the 6th December, an 18-month old child died after suffering convulsions from diarrhoea.  Two family members of the child had been treated for diarrhoea just days earlier. 

The Dorunda reached Thursday Island on 7th December and Cooktown on 9th December.  At Thursday Island the health officer had boarded the ship and found no reason not to allow the Dorunda to continue its journey.  The same thing happened at Cooktown, despite the seven cases of diarrhoea.  Twelve passengers (female immigrants) were landed at Cooktown as well as mail and cargo. 

On the same day, a 33-year old man named Thomas Doran fell ill and died that night.  Dr Hickling reported to the captain that he had no doubt the illness was Asiatic cholera.  The Dorunda was now on its way to Townsville.  Two of Thomas Doran’s three children (Frank and Henry) became ill with vomiting and diarrhoea on the night of Doran’s death and died the following day.   

On the 10th December the Dorunda arrived at Townsville.  The health officer was informed of the illness aboard the ship but proceeded to board the ship to decide for himself.  He confirmed that the ship was indeed afflicted with epidemic cholera but returned to town seemingly unconcerned that he might be taking the illness with him!  The residents of Townsville then lobbied to have him placed under quarantine in his own home.  
Under orders from the Colonial Secretary, the Dorunda then proceeded directly to the quarantine station at Peel Island, off Brisbane, bypassing its intended destinations of Mackay and Rockhampton.  Townsville’s quarantine station at Magnetic Island was deemed unsuitable and apparently ill-equipped to deal with so many passengers.  The Dorunda arrived in Moreton Bay on 14th December and passengers were landed at Peel Island on the following day.  The ship was fumigated and the immigrant passengers’ belongings and bedding were destroyed.  All passengers and crew were isolated on Peel Island for several weeks. 
Advertisement advising readers of precautions against cholera and diarrhoea, October 1885. 
Image: State Library of Queensland.
The outbreak of cholera claimed at least 16 lives, possibly several more if the earlier, suspicious cases are taken into account.  In total, 75 people were treated for illness of a choleraic nature.  The source of the illness was not proven.  None of the saloon passengers who had left the ship briefly in Java fell ill with cholera.   

No cases of cholera developed on mainland Queensland. 


Cornish, W.R. ‘On an outbreak of cholera amongst British emigrants proceeding from London to Queensland in the S.S. Dorunda in December 1885’, British Medical Journal, 25 September 1886, pp. 577-580.
Cairns Post, 17 December 1885.
Queenslander, 19 December 1885.