top of page

The Quarantine:

Sir John Gaspard Le Marchant (Governor of Newfoundland) in Conversation with Dr. Samuel Carson (District Surgeon)

on the Evening of May 29th, 1847, St. John’s, Newfoundland


Sir John Gaspard Le Marchant


Dr. Samuel Carson

Forward: The following is a fictional dialogue between the newly appointed Governor of Newfoundland and local bureaucrat Samuel Carson. These historic figures and all other persons referenced, are true and verifiable, as are all the events described.

  • Good evening Doctor, won’t you please come in?

    • Sir John, thank you. Not a bad evening. That cursed wind’s still up though.

  • Here, allow me to take your coat. How did you fare in all that February madness? I understand the snow trapped people in their houses.

    • Indeed. You were fortunate to have missed the worst of it. But a douse of weather can be liberating. A freedom of sorts. The poor take to the streets as they would not dare in summer. They believe that the snow blanketing all the accumulated filth quells the miasma.

  • Come sit by the fire Doctor. We are fortunate indeed to have such accommodations. The isolation others endure is oft far more tenuous I fear. Tea? Or a brandy perhaps? Take away the evening chill?

    • A brandy if you please.

  • I think you know why I beckoned you here this evening.

    • You want to quarantine the port.

  • I’ve little choice now have I? But I need your medical influence to give this order the credence it requires.

    • Well it’s just short of total panic out there tonight. You can sense it. You can see it on people’s faces.

  • Then let’s approach this systematically. I understand my predecessor passed quarantine legislation in forty-three.

    • All cribbed from the act passed by our neighbours in Nova Scotia, which itself was derived from the Imperial quarantine legislation.

  • Forgive me, but I’m just finding my way through all this today.

    • Quite understandable.

  • And that I need only issue a proclamation…

    • And it’s done. We are required to appoint a Board of Health – with executive oversight – to enforce it. … By Jove, that cognac is rather full-bodied!

  • Dupuy. 1807. Vintage year…

    • I must make a note of it.

  • The town should not have dropped its guard.

    • John. You know how people are. When cholera was confined to India nobody cared. As it moved across Europe, concern began to grow. When it hit London and the West Indies the newspapers had everyone worried that the next ship could be the one. It hits Lower Canada and all hell breaks loose. So we lock down the port. At first everyone is on board. Then, as the weeks drag on and there are no new cases, the merchants get restless. They were cautious at first. Don’t get me wrong. But the economic loss stemming from quarantine has to be weighed against the utter disaster of being singled out as a destination rife with cholera.

  • It has been a difficult few years I understand. What with the colony on the verge of a bankruptcy. And that fire last summer! It must have been horrific. I don’t know how this place will ever recover.

    • Twelve thousand homeless in a town of nineteen. Yes. Horrific may not put a keen enough edge on it. Combined with the potato blight, then an August gale that blew down Native Hall and every other bit of reconstruction progress. And a high tide in September that washed up to the second storey of houses on the south side of Water Street…

  • Yes. Yes. A year to forget. But now this.

    • Typhus.

  • Doctor. May I call you Samuel?

    • You are the Governor, Sir.

  • Samuel, how did you, we, come to such complacency?

    • Obviously if you forestall the inevitable long enough you begin to think it isn’t real.

  • I can assure you, cholera was no hoax. St. John’s was lucky…

    • Hardly lucky given…

  • Listen to me Samuel. The immigrant ships are rife with typhus. We know the conditions below decks to be abhorrent. Everyone in this port was well aware of the spring arrivals. Yet here we are today, the Margaret Parker, an infested scow, sails unfettered in through The Narrows and ties up. Straight from Waterford.

    • Galway I believe sir.

  • Really? Does it matter? Before the medical officer gets down to the bloody beach three passengers are walking up Lower Path and God knows how many locals are on board! Now we have … how many?

    • Eleven with the fever. Two dead already.

  • And panic settling in like a fog. People are terrified of their neighbours. The hospital will be overflowing before the week is out.

    • John. Sign the proclamation in the morning and I will prepare a list of candidates for the Board tonight. We will need both civic and clerical leaders. And we have to include the Liberal Leader.

  • A political appointment? Oh surely not, Samuel! Can’t we keep Kent out of it? The Bishop’s bagman! Bloody Irish rabble rouser!

    • We have to be seen to balance out the influence of the merchants.

  • You mean the Protestants. They will scream patronage.

    • John. Listen to me. You are new here. Let me help you. The natives have never taken to their appointed governors, I can assure you. Especially military men. You don’t want to be the scapegoat here. They’ve already burned your effigy…

  • Yes. I went down there last night.

    • You didn’t! Good God man!

  • I had to make sure they got my nose right.

    • That’s not funny, John. You could have been killed. You’re not in the army now. You have to learn to distance yourself.

  • Noted. So what is the plan?

    • We lock down the port. All vessels will anchor in The Narrows until one of the health officers, Fred Elliot or George Gaden, boards and determines past ports of call. If they’re fourteen days out of an infected port, nobody comes on or off the ship until the isolation period has passed.

  • How long is that?

    • Six days. Thirty days out and we can reduce it to forty-eight hours if there are no symptoms.

  • How do we pay for it?

    • Each quarantined ship pays the tonnage fee when they tie up at the pier. If they don’t agree to pay we send them on their way.

  • I feel we have to do something about the filth and nuisance in the streets. If conditions on the ground are no better than on board the immigrant ships, I cannot imagine we will ever be able to contain this thing.

    • You must appoint Patrick Morris to chair the Health Board. He’s long out of the political arena and has garnered a great deal of respect. He has committed to food security in the colony, and has advanced agriculture.

  • How sensible! And the Catholics will listen to him no doubt?

    • He has distinguished himself, John. You need him up front so that the common folk will abide by the restrictions. They trust him. I propose that he give updates in the papers. We need to run this like a campaign.

  • What we need is proper sewers.

    • Can’t afford it.

  • Damn it man! We are rebuilding the entire town! Now is the time!

    • We’ll tell Morris to hire health wardens. Residents will be forbidden to throw their garbage into the streets.

  • As appears to be the custom here…

    • We will rebuild the refuse pounds that were constructed for the cholera outbreak…

  • That never happened…

    • And see to it that contractors haul the rubbish away. The wardens will be charged to hire scavengers to collect night soil. We will inforce the law that forbids the dunging of gardens with caplin and fish offal. Oh the stink of it. You cannot imagine! If everyone abides by the regulations we have a chance to beat this.

  • If people are listening.

    • Penalties will be imposed.

  • And enforced?

    • That’s what the stipendiary magistrates are for.

  • Samuel, I believe the port should be subdivided into wards, and a magistrate assigned to each … for the purpose of enforcement.

    • As you wish, John. That sounds simple enough.

  • We need structure is what I’m saying. Reporting. Morbidity rates, Isolation. Treatment. Death counts.

    • Your esteemed military service is showing.

  • I am simply not accustomed to civic matters and politics.

    • But you will further your agenda with such leadership, if I may say so, John.

  • I will require the means to fight a cholera epidemic. It will be much worse I fear. This typhus is frightening I grant you. But I have witnessed the Blue Death. And mark my word good Doctor. It will come. The cloud of miasma.

    • I have no doubt, Sir. We do not know what horrible mutation awaits us.

  • Right then, Samuel. Are we done here?

    • I believe we are. I will begin early in the morrow. I will have the proclamation drafted and delivered for your signature before noon. John: you must be seen to lead this. It is in your best interests politically.

  • Are the people here so naïve as to place their trust in politicians?

    • Lesson one. Never underestimate the Newfoundland politic.

  • Then I shan’t. I am indebted to you for your council. Another brandy then?

    • I really should be going. We have a huge task ahead of us. Dupuy was it you said?

  • 1807.

    • Marvelous.

  • I shall see you out then Samuel.

    • Good luck, Sir.

  • I shall not base my tenure on luck.

    • Well said, Sir. Goodnight.

  • Goodnight, Doctor Carson.



Acknowledgement: Disease and Public Health Measures in St. John's, Newfoundland, 1832-1855 by Melvin Baker (c)1983; Originally published in the Newfoundland Quarterly, vol. LXXVIII, no. 4 (Spring 1983), 26-9.

bottom of page