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Wednesday
May212014

Was cholera spread by steamship in Bahia in 1855?

The Brazilian Northeast suffered far more loss of life and costs from cholera in the nineteenth century than any other region of Brazil.  According to the official government report, 30,000 people were killed in Bahia between 1855 and 1856, more than any other province.  Cholera continued to infect people in the Northeast from 1857 to 1860 and 1861 to 1867, although with less severity in most places.

Asiatic cholera (as opposed to "sporadic cholera") was first diagnosed in Salvador on 21 July (although there are some clues it arrived earlier).  Between the end of July and September, the disease spread throughout the Bahian Recôncavo, a relatively densely settled agricultural zone surrounding the All Saint's Bay (Baia de Todos os Santos) where much of Brazil's sugar and tobacco was grown.

There is little doubt that that steamships caused the early diffusion of cholera in this important region.  In 1855, the company Bomfim operated four steamships under government subsidies.  These steamships departed Salvador and made two trips a week to Santo Amaro, São Franciso, Cachoeira, and Maragogipe; one trip a week to Nazareth and Jaguaripe; and one trip a month to Valença.  Among the first cities to report cases of cholera outside of Salvador were Santos Amaro, São Francisco, Cachoeira, Maragogipe and Nazareth.  Cholera also arrived in Jaguaripe and Valença earlier than most other Bahian towns.  Bomfim expanded its steamship service only a few months before cholera arrived in Bahia.  Officially reports do not connect cholera and the steamships probably because the elite hoped to expand navigation for commercial purposes, not call on its epidemiological risks.

From each of these steamship ports, the disease spread outward, so that by the end of August, people were dying of cholera in nearly every town and village on the shore All Saint' Bay, its major river tributaries, and deep into the inland farming zones.  I am exploring the economic impact of cholera.  For example, the Bahian president reported that large sugar plantations in places like Iquape lost 20-40 slaves from the disease, ending or greatly diminishing production.

We can see the spread of cholera in the maps below.  The red pin marks are towns and parishes where the epidemic spread according to the official provinical report.  The orange circles locate the  seven ports serviced by the Bomfim steamship company.

July, 1855

 

Early to mid-August

Mid- to late August

Early to mid-September

Mid-september to October

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