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.
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.
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 …”
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.”
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.