Pox in the Pacific: Syphilis and the Hawaiian Islands

18 December 2013

Empire and Globalism | History

Upon Captain Cook’s arrival in 1778 the population of the Hawaiian Islands was estimated at around 500,000. By 1848, however, this number had fallen to less than 90,000. Explanations for this exponential decline vary quite considerably, with many historians citing war, famine, and disease as potential factors. Yet contemporary narratives largely focus on one primary cause; the arrival of syphilis. In his study of the Islands in 1853, G W Bates described the impact that the disease had on the population, noting that:

Credit: California Historical Society

The deadly virus had a wide and rapid circulation throughout the blood, the bones, and sinews of the whole nation, and left in its course a train of wretchedness and misery which the very pen blushes to record. In the lapse of a few years, a dreadful mortality, heightened, if not induced, by their unholy intercourse, swept away one half of the population, leaving the dead unburied for want of those able to perform the rites of sepulchre.

The devastation described by Bates was by no means unusual. The continuous movement of seamen from port to port ensured that there were few parts of the world that were left untouched by this deadly disease. This was also fuelled by the fact that it was not until 1905, with the drug Salvarsan, that an effective chemotherapy against syphilis was introduced. Before this point sufferers relied primarily on mercury, which could be applied as an ointment, pill, or through a steam bath. The side effects of these treatments were often equally as devastating as the disease it aimed to treat, and tooth loss, skin ulcerations, neurological damage, and even death, were potential consequences of exposure to mercury.

Credit: WikiCommons

The disease, which is sexually transmitted, initially starts out as a rash, disappearing after a number of weeks. It was this absence of symptoms that led many contemporaries to think themselves cured, however the infection is merely lying dormant within the body. After a number of years the disease returns, creating disfiguring tumours and lesions, as seen here, and often damaging neurological and cardiovascular processes. 

Credit: The Wellcome Library

There was much debate among contemporaries regarding how the disease first arrived at the Islands, and this arguably still exists today. Despite Bates' claim that the population was already degenerate and lascivious well before Cook’s arrival, it is likely that it was the constant influx of foreign traders and lack of effective treatment that caused this dramatic decline. For traders accounts of the islands and its people, please see China, America and the Pacific

About the Author

Paul Middleton

I am an Editorial Assistant at Adam Matthew Digital and my interests lie in the history of medicine, particularly during the Early Modern Period. Since joining the company in September 2013 I have worked on our China, America and the Pacific project, and I am now working on American Consumer Culture: Market Research and American Business