LATE FEBRUARY IN 1856
SMALLPOX EPIDEMIC BEGINS -
AT LEAST HALF OF GUAM DIES
In late February of 1856, an American ship, the Frost, arrived on Guam from Manila. That very day, a passenger died of smallpox and was buried at sea. The government medical officer believed there was no cause for concern and that a three-day quarantine of the passengers would be sufficient. But some passengers managed to come ashore the following day.
By early March, another passenger became ill and it was found to be smallpox. The government moved quickly to isolate all the passengers by moving them to the hills. Food was provided them from a distance and no one was allowed to go near them. But it was too little, too late. In the days prior to the second passenger falling sick, other passengers had mixed freely with the island population.
At the height of the epidemic, in the fall months, as many as eighty people were dying daily. Carts going from the city of Hagåtña to the burial grounds at Adilok (Adelup) went back and forth all day long.
Vaccines from Manila would be sent, but would arrive spoiled. Finally, good vaccine arrived and those not infected were given inoculations. Hospitals for the sick were erected in several rural areas, to isolate them from the general population. But the numbers of sick grew so much that many of them stayed at home, where a little sign was placed to warn others that a sick person lived there.
Government inspectors looked for the sick, but the family members often hid them in order to keep them at home, rather than see them leave for the rural hospitals.
On the other hand, some families and neighbors were not so conscientious of the state of the sick and carted them off to the burial ditches even though they were not "completely dead." Sometimes even the living members of the family were so weak from the disease that they had no strength to bury their dead and let others come and take away the cadaver.
Different sources give different numbers, but, when the epidemic was over, Guam had lost between 50-60% of its 8,000 residents. It would take years before the 4,000 or so survivors would recover.
Years later, when construction was needed in Hagåtña or Asan, trenches three feet deep were discovered with 50 or more bodies, all piled up on top of each other. People were buried without ceremony.
Many conjecture that the epidemic dealt a devastating blow to the more indigenous families; the ones with more Chamorro, and less outside, blood. The idea that the more purely Chamorro population died off at a higher rate seemed to be strengthened by the kind of bones found in these common graves. The bones indicated a race of people bigger boned than the present-day Chamorro.
This also may have had an impact on the language, in that perhaps the more indigenous families used many native words which were then lost when they died in the epidemic. These are just suspicions of history.
HOW BAD WAS SMALLPOX?
Most of us are familiar with chicken pox. Smallpox is worse. You can look up images yourself; they are hideous.
Smallpox is believed to have been eradicated in the entire world since the 1970s. Vaccinations against it stopped. Those vaccinated a long time ago may no longer be protected. That leaves a lot of people vulnerable, but they say smallpox does not exist anymore. But the virus has been kept alive in some laboratories. There is some fear that terrorists could get a hold of them and use them as a biological weapon against whole populations.
AN UNFORTUNATE OVERSIGHT
The Balmis Expedition of 1803-1806
In 1803, a Spanish doctor named Balmis took the smallpox vaccine, and live hosts of it, to half a dozen Spanish colonies, including the Philippines. He reached Manila in 1805. Most of the population was thus inoculated. But Balmis never made it to the Marianas. Perhaps the smallpox epidemic of 1856 would never have occurred on Guam had he come.