I became interested in the history of hospital ships and shipboard medicine while researching my historical novels, Barbados Bound and Surgeon’s Mate, that take place during Britain’s rise to naval power in the 18th century.  Before that, most battles were seasonal affairs fought close to home; hospital ships were essentially boats used to transport those wounded in battle a short distance back to land.

The 1700s saw the beginnings of far-away wars as European powers began to colonize and wrest economic control from distant lands and seaways.  The Seven Years War (1756-1763) often referred to as the French and Indian War in North America, was the first World War; its conflicts and power struggles were between multiple nations in far flung theaters around the globe.  A threat more deadly than mortar and shot was disease.  Disease killed more soldiers and sailors in the 1700’s and 1800’s than did all the enemies’ weapons combined.  Vessels were assigned temporary hospital duty — especially in tropical latitudes where diseases such as malaria , yellow fever, and other “tropical fevers” were endemic.

Like prison hulks, hospital ships were usually vessels that were no longer suited for the line of battle.  It was cheaper and more efficient to have a floating hospital that could follow the fleet rather than to build and staff land-based hospitals all over the world.  Then too, the air was thought to be more salubrious offshore.  The germ theory of disease had yet to be developed and it wasn’t known that mosquitoes carried the microorganisms that caused many of these tropical fevers.  Many of the ill suffered from scurvy as well – a vitamin C deficiency, as it would later be identified.  Soldiers and seamen too ill or incapacitated to fulfill their duties were sent to hospital ships to recover, thereby relieving the warships of the burden.

The age of steamships meant vessels were no longer at the mercy of the winds.  While their overall speed wasn’t much faster, the speed was consistent and independent of wind direction.  In the late 1800’s as the United States began to embrace steam power and moved from a policy of isolationism to one of imperialism, the outcome was the Spanish American War.  Realizing the success of the Red Rover as a floating hospital (discussed in my previous entry) the U.S. Navy made more extensive use of hospital ships in the war with Spain (Milte Riske, “A History of Hospital Ships.” SEA CLASSICS; March, 1973.)

U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt flexed his muscles, sending a “Great White Fleet” of sixteen battleships on a circumnavigation as a show of U.S. power.  The hospital ship Relief was part of this imperial cruise.  While the fleet was in the Mediterranean it responded to a deadly earthquake in Italy, rescuing many and proving that hospital ships could also be used for humanitarian purposes as well as support for battleships.  Unfortunately, the Relief proved unseaworthy in a Pacific typhoon and was reassigned as a floating dispensary in the Philippines, her name changed to Repose, but other ships were designated as hospitals and played a role in the Spanish American War.

In response to the crisis in Cuba a passenger steamship, S.S. Creole, was purchased by the U.S. Navy, renamed the USS Solace and converted for hospital duties in just sixteen days — thanks in part to a donation from the Red Cross Committee.  The Solace was the first U.S. Navy ship to fly the Geneva Red Cross flag.  Solace was in use during the entire conflict, shuttling wounded Americans back to Norfolk, New York, and Boston.

The Olivette, another American steamer-turned-hospital ship, supported the U.S. invasion of Cuba, receiving wounded Spaniards as well as Americans.  Enemies such as Admiral Cervera, Commandant of the Spanish fleet, along with many of his officers and men.

The steamship Missouri sailed under the British flag before becoming an American hospital ship in the Spanish-American War.  While still in commerce, the Missouri  went to the aid of  the Denmark, an immigrant ship out of Copenhagen bound for New York. The Denmark signaled “Am sinking; take off my people.”  Captain Murell jettisoned his cargo to make space for the rescued passengers and every soul was saved.  Later, this same ship and her crew rescued the steamship Delaware and towed her to Halifax, and towed the foundering Bertha to Barry, England.  The Missouri also carried cargoes of flour and corn to the starving Russians during the famines of 1891 – 1892, after which she was offered to the Surgeon General of the Army by her owner, B.M. Baker, of Baltimore.

“Hospital ships are children of necessity, mothered and fathered by wars,” says Milt Riske in “A History of Hospital Ships.” (Sea Classics, March 1973.  United States Naval Hospital Ships, a Naval Historical Foundation Publication.)  Sadly, that is all too often the case and our country’s shameful actions in the Spanish American War, particularly in the Philippines where we slaughtered so many men, women and children in the name of Imperialism.

In a future post I’ll discuss humanitarian and mercy ships — ships not born of war but of altruism.