1802: Jonathan D. Lewis to Dr. John Vaughan

The Island of Trinidad off the coast of Venezuela

This letter was written by Jonathan D. Lewis, to his brother-in-law, Dr. John Vaughan (1775-1807), who is credited with performing the first vaccination in Delaware in 1802.

John Vaughan was educated in Chester, Pennsylvania, and in 1793 and 1794, while studying to be a doctor, attended lectures on medicine at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Vaughan practiced medicine in Delaware, first in Christiana Bridge and later in Wilmington. He was a member of several professional organizations, including the Philadelphia Academy of Medicine, the Medical Society of Philadelphia, the American Medical Association, and the Delaware Medical and Philosophical societies. Vaughan was a prolific author, lending his pen to topics of medical and scientific importance. He kept his “Medical Diary No. 3” before and during the serious yellow fever epidemic of 1802. Vaughan died in 1807 of typhoid fever.

Vaughan was an assiduous observer of Wilmington’s climate conditions, often listing the daily temperature, wind direction, and weather. He believed that these conditions influenced the occurrence of diseases at certain times of the year. Thus, on one group of pages Vaughan recorded weather information for a given month, and on another group he noted what his patients suffered from during the same period.

Occasionally, Vaughan broke this pattern to copy an article that he had read, something he had heard, or a letter that he had either written or received about a medical matter. One of his correspondents was Dr. Benjamin Rush. A man of science and medicine, Vaughan wrote perhaps in amusement to substantiate his theory on the influence of weather on disease: “Mr. Alrichs, an ingenious watch maker, informed me that sickly seasons were always characterized by the breaking of watch springs — that the fact was so well established as to be proverbial & that it was peculiarly so this season.” On August 26, 1800, Vaughan said: “Bad accounts from Baltimore & Norfolk — yellow fever spreading with great mortality.”

In 1802 a severe yellow fever epidemic broke out in Wilmington. Vaughan is reputed to have been the only doctor to have remained in town to administer to those who had contracted the dreaded disease. One year later, the American Philosophical Society requested that he write a pamphlet about the incident. A Concise History of the Autumnal Fever which Prevailed in the Borough of Wilmington in the Year 1802 resulted. Vaughan’s manuscript diary features the author’s immediate and private observances of the spread of the disease. In the pamphlet Vaughan detailed why he thought the yellow fever epidemic started, how he thought it spread, and what he thought had to be done to eradicate it. In his diary Vaughan recorded his early visit with Ann Davidson, whom he later identified as the initial carrier of the disease, and noted the conditions in the house neighboring the Davidson’s:

“Hadley’s cellar, adjoining Davi[d]sons has been for a long time full of water — & the common receptacle of every filth … oft condemned as a nuisance by the corporation, but neglected. Wm. Cloud complained of its being very offensive to them.”

Vaughan wrote of the activities of Wilmington residents on September 13: “3/4 of the people left the lower parts of the town — below second street — great alarm. Board of Health disorganized in effect — some resigned — President fled — are not mankind reverting to Barbarism.”

Vaughan probably used his diary, serving as it did as a chronological record and source of valuable details, to construct the narrative of his pamphlet. On September 23, for example, Vaughan wrote a letter on the status of the disease to the president of the Board of Health, Isaac Dixon; he copied this letter into his diary, and it appeared subsequently in the circular. At the end of his pamphlet, Vaughan listed the people who died from the epidemic; in his diary he recorded the names and addresses of those stricken and noted whether they recovered or died.

Vaughan never totally abandoned the original intent of his diary — to demonstrate a cause-and-effect relationship between weather conditions and the incidence of disease — to write about the outbreak of yellow fever in Wilmington. There are, in fact, numerous references to weather conditions during the epidemic, and the concept plays an important role in his Concise History.

Stampless Letter

TRANSCRIPTION
Addressed to John Vaughan, M.D., Wilmington, State of Delaware

Port of Spain [Trinidad]
July 13, 1802

By the late arrivals from Europe &c., I learn that this island is much spoken of and is in most places considered a great acquisition to England. I know that such an opinion prevailed in Philadelphia previous to my departure. I shall therefore make Trinidad the subject of the present communication from a conviction that you will be pleased to receive advice that may be relied on. Before I enter on the subject, permit me to state that I have been in all the richest valleys from the Port de Mona beyond the River Anna and was 7 days in a boat visiting the Trinidad Margin on the Gulph (Paria or Ballena). The latter was performed at the evident risque of my life as in many instances, night came on before I could land, which was done above my knees in mud in an unfriendly climate. In a word, I have been on most of the estates in cultivation and have seen nearly all the best lands which are wild and susceptible of improvement.

The geographical function, and extent of the island may be always seen by having reference to a map. The population agreeably to the last Census taken in October 1801 was about 39,000 souls. _______ of every Colour. More than half the totality of whites are French and the English are more numerous than the Spaniards. There are here a number of M______, Corsicans, Italians, & people from nearly all the Nations in Europe with Creoles from all the Islands in the West Indies.

Batavia (now Jakarta), Java — a wretched reputation for crime and pestilence.

The climate is the most pestilential of any that I was ever in. If Batavia in Java has been heretofore called the Grave of European, the appellation will apply here with much greater force. I can speak respecting the two places in the comparative way from a trifling portion of experience. Certainly Batavia was never so sickly from what I have been able to learn, as Port of Spain has been during the last 2 months. Almost every European is dead that arrived with an intention of permanent residence since the 1st April last (the day I landed). If I should ever have the happiness of seeing you, I will give a detail on this subject that will almost stagger credibility.

The soil is fertile in the valleys and a greater portion of the island is in flat land than perhaps any other in the West Indies. No attention has been paid to manure, which is a strong evidence of fertility, notwithstanding which I have seen cane from the 9th Ratoons as fine as ever grew. Much of the Island may be termed virgin land — not being ever cleared.

The Gulph of Paria certainly offers a base of fine retreat during the hurricane month and is not subject to hurricanes. Violent gales or _____ of wind. I cannot, however, agree with the ____ ____ English journals in attaching such wonderful importance to it. It will be never resorted to as a place of safety except during the Hurricane month and then only by vessels in a windward station.

War ships to leeward, say on the Jamaica Station, where the great force is generally, will never think of coming here & the distance being so great, and be it remembered that the West Indies are not afflicted with a severe Hurricane oftener than once in 7 years on an average. Vessels of commerce may come here but to no great extent. Merchants will pursue commerce during the Hurricane months. They will not allow their vessels to lay up this ____.

We shall now consider the interior commerce of Trinidad and I think I can clearly prove that the great bulk of commercial men in Europe & America have allowed themselves to be deceived. The ministry of Great Britain have continually represented the value of the Island in a great degree to derive from its proximity to the main. From that simple circumstance, they have promised the Nation a most flourishing contraband commerce with the Spaniards. Let us examine the position that part of the Main which his from _____ to ____ of the River & to the Boca Passages is without ______ more convenient to Trinidad than to any other Island. This Port does and will enjoy almost exclusive trade with that port. But in what does the trade consist? In poultry and vegetables, & cocao from the O. I see the vessels as they arrive and depart and consequently given the fact from a primitive knowledge. All that coast described within the limits above is miserably poor — the Spaniards from ______ have introduced less money & have taken _____. We have their purchase been at all considerable. In a word, they have been much greater disservice than benefit to the island.

The main ports on the Main from which an influence of wealth could rationally be expected, are Cumana & Laguina — the former is nearest. From that port the Spaniards can go to various islands with greater facility than they can come here. They can go to Antigua and Curacao particularly with much greater ease. Other Islands could be named. I will now ask whether the system of advantages so frequently held out from ____ is nor totally destroyed. If the Spaniards can go to those places with only the same convenience that they can come here, can they there find the kind of goods wanted? They can. In M & C already mentioned, they are at all times certain of finding the very articles they wish. Dutch, French & German ____ have always pleased the Spaniards but make it the intent of a Spaniard or any other person to presume a particular knowledge of trade and he will pursue it.

What is the object of trade? In addition to what has been said, it may be further observed that French & Spanish habits are congenial to each other. Most of the Spaniards speak spanish and no contemptible number of the latter speak ____.

Lately it has been said that France is to have a direct trade from her ports in Europe to those on the Main. If this be true, no island can enjoy a smuggling trade to any extent. In which case Trinidad can promise herself very little.

I am happy in declaring to you that I have been treated very politely here by many very respectable characters.

I am not finally determined respecting the place of my residence. Would to God I could fix it in America. Wealth there is the only criterion of mint. If I could get forward here, I would agree to undergo any and every kind of hardship & sickness for the purpose of doing something for my brothers. I have not yet heard of old _____. It is the single circumstance that keeps me in the dark.

I am with esteem, your obedient servant, — Jonathan D. Luiz

Remember me Mrs. Vaughan. I am sorry to tell you that Jim is a confirmed thief & liar. All the ______ mint I have been able to inflict has provided no change of conduct respecting the f____ he was sold for. I know not what to do with him. If I sell him here, I am fearful that you or I — perhaps both — may be introduced to trouble. I mean if I sell in time. If an opportunity exists of writing to me, do say whether I can with property dispose of his time provided. Make a Bond opportunity for his delivery at 21 years.

 


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