Delving Deeper: Malaria Devastated Bytown’s Irish

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When Irish immigrants stepped off the end of the gangway in the mid 1820’s and onto Bytown’s Upper Canada soil, they were undoubtedly relieved that their harrowing journey was over. Left behind was the menace of tyranny. Before them lay the possibility of land ownership and hopes for a prosperous future.

How could they have predicted that malaria carrying mosquitos would be their undoing?

Many newly arrived Irish men were employed in the digging of the Rideau Canal, a 202 km waterway connecting Bytown (modern day Ottawa) on the Ottawa River to the city of Kingston on Lake Ontario. The canal served a dual purpose: military and economic. It allowed for secure communications and supply movement in the event of American invasion. Goods could be shipped to the Great Lakes without passing through a series of treacherous rapids. The excavation of the canal lasted six years, from 1826 to 1832.

Malaria was also known as lake fever, swamp fever or ague. The labourers dug through the swampy areas and bogs where mosquito populations prospered and spread malaria. The men’s close living quarters also contributed to the spread of the illness.

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Colonel By Watching the Building of the Rideau Canal, 1826. Charles William Jefferys, Imperial Oil Collection series, Library and Archives Canada, accession number 1972-26-795, C-073703

Construction of the canal was orchestrated by Lieutenant-Colonel John By. He wrote on April of 1827 about the impoverished living conditions of his ailing Irish workers : “I therefore expect to collect a great number of persons on the Works by the first May and fear from the wretched condition of most of the emigrants applying to me for work, that it will indispensable necessary to issue bedding to prevent sickness … at present the poor fellows lay with nothing but their rags to cover them, and their numbers are increasing, and the rainy season coming on, I dread the effects of Sickness and feel convinced that the distribution of bedding will be of the greatest importance.” Colonel By was granted 1000 sets of bedding which hopefully brought comfort to some.

Colonel By ordered that lumbermen cut down the trees flanking the canal excavation areas. Today, we know that this was a good strategy he was reducing the mosquito habitat. At the time, however, it was believed that “bad air”, which is the English translation of the Italian word malaria, caused the illness. His goal was to encourage the flow of fresh air into the work area to minimize infection.

Lower Bytown, from the Barrack Hill, near the head of the Eighth Lock and the “Sappers’ Bridge,” 1845 Watercolour Thomas Burrowes fonds Reference Code: C 1-0-0-0-11 Archives of Ontario, I0002129

Lower Bytown, from the Barrack Hill, near the head of the Eighth Lock and the “Sappers’ Bridge,” 1845 (Source: Water colour, Thomas Burrowes fonds Archives of Ontario, I0002129)

Some of the Royal Sappers and Miners (engineers) who worked on the project, left for fear of contracting the disease, forfeiting the land grant promised to them upon completion of the canal. After reading the first hand account of surveyor John McTaggart, I can understand why. “The fever and ague of Canada are different, I am told, from those of other countries; they generally come on with an attack of bilious fever, dreadful vomiting, pains in the back and loins, general debility, loss of appetite, so that one cannot even take tea, a thing that can be endured by the stomach in England when nothing else can be suffered. After being in this state for eight or ten days, the yellow jaundice is likely to ensue, and then fits of trembling … For two or three hours before they arrive, we feel so cold that nothing will warm us; the greatest heat that can be applied is perfectly unfelt; the skin gets dry then the shaking begins. Our very bones ache, teeth chatter, and the ribs are sore, continuing thus in great agony for about an hour and a half; we then commonly have a vomit, the trembling ends, and a profuse sweat ensues, which lasts for two hours longer. This over, we find the malady has run one of its rounds …”

quinine malaria

Malaria was incurable but the symptoms could be treated with quinine. Label reads “SOUTH END EXCELSIOR PHARMACY, W.F. GIBSON, DISPENSING CHEMIST, 1105 BANK ST, OTTAWA. No. Dr.[?], Quinine Capsules, 3gr.” (Source: Library and Archives of Canada)

In 1826, Colonel By built a military hospital on Barrack Hill where the Canadian Parliament Buildings stand today. Only military personnel and a few civilians with deep pockets were admitted there. One year later, Dr. A.J. Christie arrived in Bytown operating as a military doctor then opening a civilian practise. The Irish were at the bottom of Upper Canada’s social hierarchy , so it is unlikely that they received any type of health care. Impoverished people looked after their own medical needs. The only known treatment for malaria was quinine. William Bell’s diary entry in 1827 give some insight into what a precious and costly commodity quinine became the malaria outbreak : “On Monday being my well day, I was not quite so bad; but on Tuesday, O what I suffered! The shivering fit lasted all the afternoon, and was the severest I had ever experienced. Next day I was fortunate enough to get some quinine, for at this time it was so scarce that, when an ounce could be procured at Montreal, it was sent by post, and long before it arrived it was all bespoke, and even paid for. It was sometimes as high as 16 Dollars an ounce, but such was the scramble to get it, that no one complained about the price. To me, from 6 to 10 grains always producing a certain cure. Taking this quantity, it stopped the ague, and I got better every day.”

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Celtic Cross Monument in honour of the workers whose lives were lost during the creation of the Rideau Canal. (Source: Gwen Tuinman)

There are no exact record of the number of men who worked on the canal, but it is estimated that 2500-4000 men were working on it at any one given time. Because of worker turnover and soaring deaths due to malaria, some estimate that the collective number of workers rests as low as 4000 and as high as 10 000 men. Of the estimated 1000 deaths that occurred during the six-year construction span, 500 were attributed to malaria. Where to lay the bodies to rest became an issue because of the great numbers of dead.

My own Irish ancestors arrived in 1830, two years before the canal was completed. What an extraordinary canvas formed the backdrop of their early days in Canada.  I have written a prize-winning historical fiction short story that will soon be published in an anthology. The story is based on my ancestors who emigrated from Cootehill, Cavan County, Ireland.  My future plans involve expanding it into novel form. This exercise of amassing research is a true labour of love.

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Base of the Celtic Cross Memorial shown in the above photo (Source: Gwen Tuinman)

Lead photo source: Library and Archive of Canada

Are you surprised that malaria was a North American issue? Perhaps you have a piece of trivia to share.

I’d love to hear from you. Please leave a comment.

Categories: Delving Deeper | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Curating Wonder — A Newfoundland Fishing Cove

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(A four photograph series)

by Gwen Tuinman

“I wonder …”

How would you finish this sentence?

Categories: Curating Wonder | Tags: , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Feeling Nostalgic — A Rural School Experience

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September is the month when children return to the hallowed halls of education to rejoin their friends for another nine months of lessons. No matter my age, I still feel the urge for back-to-school preparations. The arrival of September brings with it a sense of urgency. It feels like a time of renewal or the beginning of a new cycle.

I grew up on the outskirts of a small town in Norfolk County, an area in southern Ontario. A shivering cold early morning roadside wait for the school bus is how the day began. It was a 45 minute trip to school and I was the first picked up and last dropped off. The bus wound its way through country side roads, through hamlets, and past barking farm dogs racing through ditches. I’ll also mention here that I have motion sickness issues and leave you to fill in the blanks.

The kindergarten program I attended in the village of Courtland was one of the first in our area. In the photo above, I am the child wearing the turquoise blouse and standing next to the teacher. I have a strong recollection of napping on mats in a darkened community room. Miss Anderson was our teacher. I remember her swatting my bottom when I tarried in the play area instead of coming to story time as I’d been instructed. No grudges. It was a sign of the time.

Gwen in first grade

The next school I attended was called The Goshen Junior Public School. My day was very different from the ones experienced by my own twenty-something children and the neighbourhood children who pass my house on their way to elementary school.

The Goshen Road school  had three classrooms: one for grades one and two, three and four, five and six. I do recall a few names. Mr. Abbey was our principal, Mrs. Howey taught the youngest children. Miss Maxwell was my third grade teacher. My strongest memory of that year was playing multiplication baseball. The multiplication tables were rehearsed religiously. After all, calculators weren’t common place and the emphasis was on rote learning.

When I first attended the school, there was a library in the basement. The younger children gripped the handrail and made their way down the steep stairs. The basement library felt ominous for reasons I can’t recall. It was replaced by visits from the Bookmobile, a purple transport truck and trailer transformed into a travelling library. We were all very excited on book day. To sign out a book was such a treat. This is a feeling that remains with me today.

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Third grade teacher and Bookmobile librarian at The Goshen Junior Public School

Recesses were great fun. Our playground was surrounded on three sides by cow pastures and the fence rows were lined with milkweed. Many is the recess I spent petting cows’ soft muzzles. We’d open milkweed pods and blow fluff into the air. Another popular pastime was the hunt for puff balls. In nice weather, we played wall ball and jump rope.

In the winter, we brought our skates to school. The yard was full of depressions that filled with water and froze over. The older children coerced the younger students to lie down on the ice shoulder to shoulder like a row of logs. The older children would skate toward them, picking up speed, then jump over them. I cringe at the memory of this. Where were the teachers? They sat inside a picture window sharing cigarettes. If there was a glaring behaviour issue, they banged  on the window to get our attention, and the behaviour ended. It was a different place and time. The expectation for obedience was high and compliance was immediate. When the strap was meted out as punishment, we could all hear the crying because the school was small.

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Report cards were produced on typewriters. I have some that were written out by hand.

In those days, we all wore rubber galoshes pulled on over our shoes. Our boots needed to be lined up perfectly, heels against the wall. It was very common to come to the hallway at the end of the school day only to discover that your boots were missing. The principal checked for tidiness when we’d returned to class after last recess. If the boots had toppled over or were left carelessly out-of-order, he tossed them in a snow bank in front of the school. When children complained, parents replied “Well, you won’t do that again. There are rules for a reason.” I can’t help thinking that the response would be quite different were that to happen today.

As I write this morning, I’m thinking indeed of the cycle mentioned in the beginning of this piece. I was unable to find online photos of the schools I mentioned, and so I assume they’ve been torn down. I used to walk my three children down our street — issuing reminders, asking about their friends, and doling out farewells when we reached the playground. The school they attended is closed down and stands vacant at the end of our street. My children are beginning to make statements that begin with, “Kids today …”.

I watch the young parents who walk past my house on crisp mornings, sipping coffee from travel mugs. Some chat on their cell phones or listen to their Ipods while the children dash ahead on the sidewalk, eager to reach the school yard. Their cycle is beginning and mine has ended. I wonder what stories they’ll tell one day.

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Grade 4 report card comment

Do you have school days memories to share? 

I’d love to hear from you. Please leave a comment.

Categories: Feeling Nostalgic | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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