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Discrimination, vaccination and federation in colonial waters

The German steamship SS Preussen, which journeyed to Australia in 1886–87, left a trail of wreckage that carried over into the subsequent century.

The Preussen departed its home port of Bremen in northern Germany on 3 November 1886. It then called at Antwerp in Belgium, where most of the 570 passengers were boarded after first passing a medical inspection. The majority were British emigrants seeking cheap passage to Australia.

The steamer paused at Port Said in Egypt, unfortunately sparking an outbreak of dysentery on board. Then one English passenger, 24-year-old John Pryce, presented to the ship’s German surgeon, Dr Otto Jens. At first suspecting dysentery, Dr Jens soon revised his diagnosis to smallpox.

Highly infectious – especially in the crowded spaces of a steamship – smallpox also regularly killed at least 20 per cent of patients. As Dr Jens knew, the most effective way to prevent disaster was to isolate Pryce and encourage all aboard to undergo vaccination. Although imperfect in the 1880s, vaccination did reduce both the transmission and the severity of smallpox.

From this moment, the voyage became a maelstrom of maladministration. Aboard a German ship carrying mostly British emigrants, neither Dr Jens nor the Kapitan’s Carl Pohle had the legal power to compel their passengers to accept vaccination. While most of the 123 crew members agreed, only a quarter of the patients offered up their arms for inoculation. Travers later suggested that this reluctance was ‘partly on account of a strong disbelief in the results of vaccination, and partly pretending that they would undergo the operation if undertaken by an English doctor, but not by a German doctor’.

When the Preussen arrived at Albany in Western Australia, the local Health Officer refused to allow the dying Pryce ashore. The ship next sailed to Adelaide, where Pryce was buried at sea. By now, new cases of smallpox had appeared, so several patients were transferred to the Torrens Island Quarantine Station. Yet, the city could not spare any vaccine lymph before the liner hastily departed.

Reaching Victoria, the Preussen disembarked 260 passengers at Point Nepean Quarantine Station. Since further smallpox cases soon appeared, the crew agreed to be re-vaccinated.

The Preussen, meanwhile, continued to Sydney’s North Head Quarantine Station, where additional smallpox cases developed. Although vaccination was not compulsory in New South Wales, two-thirds of the 312 arrivals now agreed to be inoculated. By the time the final passengers were released in March 1887, 13 victims had died.

Recriminations soon proliferated. Both Victorian and New South Wales health authorities criticised the lack of standardised quarantine procedures among the Australian colonies. Subsequent attempts to harmonise systems became an early impetus for Australian federation. Indeed, quarantine was one of the first powers handed to the new Commonwealth of Australia in 1901.

This is an edited extract of Dr Peter Hobbins’s article ‘The wreck of the Preusseun’, published in edition 15 of Traces magazine.

Pictured: Vaccination against smallpox was often performed on board ships during the nineteenth century – in this case, aboard RMS Sumatra off Port Phillip Bay in 1876. Image courtesy Australian National Maritime Museum

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