It is a long run – some 5,000 miles – from Valparaiso, Chile to Papeete, Tahiti. In the late spring of 1841 the American bark Don Quixote, 260 tons burthen, plowed its way along this path. Captain John Paty was bound Honolulu via Tahiti, on the home passage of a round trip to Chile.
A few days out of Valparaiso it came – the sudden high fever and nausea, the blinding headache and the back pains, the dreaded rash, and finally, on the ninth day, the pustules that can turn a man into a mass of putrefaction.
Eight Hawaiians made up half of the Don’s crew. Six of them caught the pestilence; before Tahiti was raised they were dead. Two lucky Hawaiians, already immunized, escaped the fatal virus.
On June 12 the Don Quixote made port.
Paty warned off the Pilot, who reported the sickness on board. Governor Paraita of Tahiti conferred with his advisers among the foreign residents. All agreed the vessel should stand off.
What happened next is in dispute.
Paty, reporting twelve years after the event, said that the Don Quixote lay under quarantine for fifteen days , that she stayed only three days after quarantine was lifted, that she employed a few Tahitians on board while in Papeete, and that about three days after she left, one of the employed men fell ill.
Samuel R. Blackler was the US consul at the Society Islands,. At the time he was locked in bitter controversy with the Tahitian authorities.
The Tahitians, trying to oust Blackler, told this story:
“When the sickness became known, Paraita urged that the Don Quixote stop at Matavai, a few miles east of Papeete.”
“Within less than a week Blackler declared the bark safe and demanded she be brought to Papeete, to discharge and copper.”
“Paraita refused, but the Don entered port. The consul then insisted that cargo be landed. Again Paraita refused.”
“On June 17 Blackler handed the governor a paper threatening a penalty of $40,511.”
“Paraita, though still withholding consent, relaxed vigilance.”
“On June 19 those aboard the vessel came ashore near Blackler’s house and discharged and sold goods.”
“Soon after the bark sailed a white man died of the pestilence, and two Tahitians soon shared his fate.”
“By August the disease was devouring the island.”
“Blackler, knowing the horror carried in the Don Quixote, was a deliberate killer.”
Paraita ‘s letter charged many other sins to Blackler’s account.
The consul attacked it as an ‘accumulation of falsehoods’, without making direct reference to the epidemic.
Just how long was the quarantine?
The evidence is inconclusive.
Blackler did issue the Don Quixote a bill of health, but as usual did not record the date of the fee.
Was the consul guilty of mass murder?
We know only that he survived the accusation.
This fact, however, is certain: In June of 1841 Honolulu’s deadly Don brought smallpox to Tahiti.
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