Death Abroad: Cholera Among Merchants

For many American merchants, traveling to India was seen as a trip to “the grave of thousands” and the first hand experience of traveling within India reinforced this sense of mortality that was associated with the landscape. The prevalence and visibility of death informed many American merchants’ understanding of India. Although dying from cholera, malaria, or dysentery was more prevalent among the lower class of dock workers, American merchants working in the offices were not immune to these diseases. Citizens of Boston were also dying of cholera, yet dying of the disease in India seemed more violent and repugnant and dying abroad was more distressing to the families left in Boston.

Otis Blake describes European and Indian dock workers contracting cholera.

“Calcutta, March 15, 1854 Dear Father, I wrote you a few lines from here by last mail. I have been very busy since then and have hardly had time to call round on my old acquaintances here. Calcutta has not changed much. It is the same hot, dirty place. All the Americans are living out of town and have offices in town. The weather is fearfully hot, and it is very sickly. Many Europeans are dying amongst the shipping, of cholera. The natives are dying by scores. I have enjoyed perfect health since I have been here, and am very careful about my diet, &c., in order to keep it[…]” Image courtesy of the South End Historical Society

Elizabeth Everett mentions cholera has hit the lower classes in Boston.

18 June 1864: “The cholera has made its appearance in Boston, but as yet is confined to the lowest and dirtiest. Active means have been taken to prevent its spreading, and we have not much fear of their success.” Image courtesy of the South End Historical Society.

Otis Blake describes a merchant boat captain coming down with cholera.

20 March 1856: “We have had very disagreeable weather for the last ten days. It has been very warm and cloudy, with some rain. There have been many[…]” Image courtesy of the South End Historical Society.

Otis Blake describes a merchant boat captain dying of cholera.

“[…]cases of cholera among the natives, and several among the Europeans. Capt. Dale’s first officer, a very fine young man, died after a sickness of about ten hours. I attended his funeral and helped Capt. D. make the arrangements.” Image courtesy of the South End Historical Society.

The idea of dying abroad seemed to haunt Otis Blake Everett. There was a unique stress associated with the idea, especially the troubling thought of dying alone. Otis Blake would have been raised with the notion of “The Good Death” and the idea of falling ill and dying in the tropics would have cause a certain amount of anxiety. He expressed these thoughts of illness and death, while also trying to remain reassuring he was healthy, in several of the letters to his mother throughout his years in Calcutta. In May of 1855 Otis Blake wrote, “…you may expect to see me in the summer of 1857, unless I get sick (which there is little danger of).”

Calcutta was the epicenter for cholera epidemics starting in around 1817 and from 1841 – 1865, 2,500 – 7,000 people each year died from the disease. A fresh wave swept through Bengal and hit Calcutta particularly hard in 1859. The disease seemed to abandon its prevalence among the poor and malnourished due to a heatwave that affected all people living in the city and took the lives of many upper class American and British merchants, including Otis Blake. On the last letter Elizabeth Everett wrote to her son, she wrote on the bottom as a reminder that the letter was never sent, “Last letter intended to Otis but never sent as we heard of his death before the mail closed.”


Next: Thomas Blake Everett, 1831 – 1910