Smallpox Threatens an American Privateer at Sea

War at Sea and Waterways (1775–1783)

September 7, 2023
by Christian McBurney Also by this Author


Journal of the American Revolution is the leading source of knowledge about the American Revolution and Founding Era. We feature smart, groundbreaking research and well-written narratives from expert writers. Our work has been featured by the New York Times, TIME magazine, History Channel, Discovery Channel, Smithsonian, Mental Floss, NPR, and more. Journal of the American Revolution also produces annual hardcover volumes, a branded book series, and the podcast, Dispatches

Two important books in the twenty-first century have focused on the impact of terrifying smallpox contagions on the American Revolutionary War.[1] Understandably, most of their stories are about smallpox infecting soldiers on land. As the two books relate, smallpox wrought havoc on Benedict Arnold’s small army outside Quebec in 1775 and 1776, and likely killed more than ten thousand Continental Army troops, many of them prisoners of war.  The smallpox scourge impacted the miliary strategy of both side’s armies.

Smallpox posed a unique danger to warships at sea because of the relatively small size of sailing vessels and the often crowded quarters.  Indeed, the disease could threaten to kill so many of a crew that the ship’s mission might have to terminate, and the ship might be forced to return to a safe harbor. The Rhode Island privateer Marlborough faced such a risk in January 1778.

On January 2, the Marlborough departed Edgartown in Martha’s Vineyard, commencing one of the most extraordinary voyages ever undertaken by an American privateer during the war. Its mission was to attack and plunder British slave forts and capture British slave ships operating on the West Coast of Africa.

The story started in Providence, Rhode Island, with John Brown, the main investor and mastermind behind the voyage. He belonged to the Brown family of Providence, among the most successful merchants in the state. In 1772, he organized and led the burning of the British revenue cutter Gaspee, an important early violent act of resistance against Great Britain leading to the Revolutionary War.

In 1776 and 1777, Brown got rich investing in privateers.  America’s most effective weapon at sea by far was privateering—the operation of privately owned commerce raiders. From British ships, Americans captured gunpowder, weapons, food and other supplies they desperately needed.  Privateers were not pirates. Privateers were commissioned by the Continental Congress to attack only enemy shipping.

The net proceeds from a privateering voyage would be divided, typically 50 percent to the privateer’s investors and the rest among the privateer’s officers and crew pursuant to a formula agreed to before the voyage.

In the early years of the war, American privateers easily seized hundreds of poorly defended merchant ships sailing between Britain and both the Caribbean and Canada. Brown grew rich. But the days of easy conquests eventually ended. Powerful Royal Navy warships began protecting commercial vessels in convoys and seizing privateers. Most crews of captured privateers went to horrible British prisons in New York or back in Britain. Many prisoners died of malnutrition and disease.

Brown decided in the second half of 1777 that, with his new wartime profits, he could afford to construct a large privateer that carried at least twenty cannon. Such a privateer could avoid capture by a British sloop-of-war and defeat armed merchantmen. But it could still be captured by a thirty-two-gun Royal Navy frigate, many of which were hunting for privateers in the Caribbean and on the Canadian coast. What to do? Brown had the brilliant idea of sending his new privateer to the coast of West Africa.

Brown figured, correctly, that the Royal Navy was overstretched. It had few ships remaining to patrol the far-away African coast and British interests there. At the time, Britain’s merchants were the world leaders in the transatlantic African slave trade. Brown also had personal experience investing in two slave trading voyages, so he knew about the West Africa Coast.

In late 1777 in Providence, Brown completed construction of his new twenty-gun, three-masted brig. He named it the Marlborough. After breaking through a blockade of British warships in Narragansett Bay (a narrow escape), the privateer sailed to Martha’s Vineyard where it enlisted twenty-four more sailors, to round out its crew of “men & boys” to ninety-six.

The choice of the captain of a privateer could make or break a voyage. Brown chose George W. Babcock of the small port of Updike’s Newtown (now Wickford) in North Kingstown, Rhode Island. It was somewhat of a risky choice, for Babcock may not have previously commanded a privateer.  However, he had served as a lieutenant on one of Brown’s privateers, so Brown must have known and trusted him.  Whether Brown made a suitable selection would soon be put to a major test.[2]

What we know about the Marlborough’s voyage mostly comes from a journal kept by John Linscom Boss, the clerk to Captain Babcock.  Boss recorded the key events of each day.[3]

On January 13, Babcock’s first crisis began to take shape. Samuel Babcock, the ship commander’s younger brother, became ill. That evening Captain Babcock, the ship’s doctor, and the rest of the officers diagnosed Samuel as suffering from smallpox. Some of the sailors, prior to the voyage, had already had the dreaded disease or had been inoculated for it and were therefore immune from catching it again. But more than half of the sailors had not had the disease or been inoculated. If the smallpox virus spread to the unprotected crew the natural way, by human contact, it could kill dozens of sailors and cut the voyage short.

A key reality was that the Marlborough, while large for an American privateer, had a confined space.  Its hull was about 100 feet long; the beam was about 26 feet wide; and the depth in the single hold below the main deck was 13 feet.

The ship was also crowded with crew members and marines. A merchant ship the size of the Marlborough could be sailed by a crew of around twenty-nine. But during war, a privateer needed a larger crew, with extra men needed to man the cannon, be ready to storm the decks of an enemy ship, or defend against an attack.  Marines on board also helped the ship’s officers maintain control over the crew.  Thus, the Marlborough carried a relatively large crew of ninety-six. The officers and crew worked in a small and crowded space and could easily infect each other.  It would be difficult to contain the contagion unless extraordinary measures were taken.

On land, a traditional approach was to isolate smallpox victims in a so-called pest house to avoid contagion. Captain Babcock decided to isolate the stricken Samuel from the rest of the crew. “For the preservation of those that never had it,” the ship’s commander ordered Samuel to be placed by himself halfway up the foremast on a small flat platform called the foretop. It must have been a wrenching decision for Babcock to take this harsh step, but he decided to risk sacrificing one sailor in order to spare others, even if that one sailor was his own brother.

After Samuel Babcock spent a night at the foretop alone and seeing him suffer in front of the entire crew, the captain reconsidered his prior order. He directed a sailor, identified only as Mr. Smith, to care for Samuel at the foretop but “to be careful not to spread the smallpox in the ship.” The next day, Boss wrote in his journal, crewmen “Thomas Carpenter & Thomas Brown stationed in the foretop to watch and take care of S. Babcock there to stay night & day & Smith to go up and down.”[4] Presumably, Smith climbed up and down the rigging of the mainmast bringing water and food as needed. The three men must have previously had smallpox, leaving them immune from contagion.

The patient’s illness lingered for twelve days. Spending all that time in the foretop, exposed to the weather, must also have weakened him. In the early morning of January 24, Boss wrote in his journal, “Samuel Babcock departed this transitory life in hopes for a better.” His lifeless body was “decently sewed up in Captain Babcock’s hammock,” a high honor. At 8:00 a.m., in a driving rain, Boss “read prayers over his body” and “it was committed to the watery deep.”[5]

Captain Babcock’s precautions did not entirely contain the smallpox outbreak. In the afternoon of January 20, crewman David Wilcox displayed symptoms of the disease. The next day, John Larkin did too. They contracted it “the natural way,” by exposure to a crewman who had the disease, the deadliest way to catch the virus. Wilcox died nine days later, but Larkin survived.

Babcock then considered an alternative measure, inoculation. If adopted, it would mean that each crew member who had never had smallpox would have live Variola virus deliberately implanted into an incision on his hand or arm. The disease from inoculation was generally mild and the death rate from the procedure was much lower than for those contracting the illness naturally. Still, on occasion someone who contracted the illness through inoculation died of it. More importantly, those who fell ill could spread the disease to others in the more deadly natural way.[6]

Seeing how the disease had decimated his army’s ranks, and in contradiction of a 1776 proclamation by the Continental Congress prohibiting inoculations, in February 1777 George Washington ordered his Continental troops inoculated.[7]  Babcock, of course, was not under Washington’s orders.

While a North Kingstown resident in April 1777, Babcock had been inoculated in a pest house in neighboring Exeter, where he was raised. But because he did it without permission from the Exeter Town Council and was not then an Exeter resident, the council fined him six dollars.[8] Babcock must have regretted not bringing Samuel with him, even if that might have doubled his fine.

Babcock made his decision: “for the benefit of the cruise,” all sailors who had never had smallpox were ordered to be inoculated.[9] This meant forty-nine men and boys went through the procedure.

On January 27 and 28, inoculated crew members broke out with smallpox. Most of them had mild cases of the disease. They were likely quarantined to the extent possible, so as to prevent others from catching the illness. Still, a few others who had not been inoculated complained of having smallpox symptoms.[10]

Two crewmen who underwent the procedure died on February 1 and 2: sailor Jedidiah Collins and “gunners boy” Stephen Congdon. The last victim was John Davis, who claimed he had contracted smallpox as a young boy in the west of England. As a result, he was not inoculated. Davis must have been mistaken. He died on February 12.[11]

Fortunately for the surviving crewmen, no other sailors died of the disease, and the crisis ended. The inoculations finally contained the outbreak, even if there had been a steep cost.  Captain Babcock had passed his first command test. But with the five deaths, his crew was reduced to ninety-one “men & boys.”

For the surviving officers and crew, while the first crisis was behind them, many more adventures, dangers and challenges, as well as scenes of wonder and cruelty, lay ahead of them.[12]


[1]See Elizabeth A. Fenn, Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775–1782 (New York: Hill and Wang, 2001) and Ann M. Becker, Smallpox in Washington’s Army: Disease, War and Society During the Revolutionary War (Lexington Books, 2022).

[2]The summary of how the idea for the Marlborough’s voyage to West Africa was decided upon and the initial stage of the voyage is from Christian McBurney, Dark Voyage: An American Privateer’s War on Britain’s African Slave Trade (Yardley, PA: Westholme Publishing, 2023), 1-85.

[3]See John Linscom Boss, Journal of a Voyage in the Good Ship Marlborough George Wt. Babcock Commander Bound on a Five Month Cruise Against the Enemies of the United States of America from Rhode Island, Dec. 23, 1777–June 12, 1778, microfilm, Morristown National Historical Park, Morristown, NJ (Journal of the Marlborough)

[4]Journal of the Marlborough, January 13–14, 1778.

[5]Journal of the Marlborough, January 23, 1778. The ship’s log was kept from noon one day to noon the next day; Samuel Babcock died after midnight on January 24.

[6]Fenn, Pox Americana, 32–33.

[7]George Washington to Dr. William Shippen, February 6, 1777, The commander in chief wrote, “Finding the smallpox to be spreading much and fearing that no precaution can prevent it from running through the whole of our Army, I have determined that the troops shall be inoculated. This expedient may be attended with some inconvenience and some disadvantages but yet I trust its consequences will have the most happy effects. Necessity not only authorizes but seems to require the measure, for should the disorder infect the Army in the natural way and rage with its usual virulence, we should have more to dread from it than from the sword of the enemy.”

[8]Town Council minutes, December 10, 1777, Town Council and Probate Records, vol. 4, 1756–1786, 38, Exeter Town Clerk’s Office, Exeter, RI.

[9]Journal of the Marlborough, January 20 and 29, 1778. Wilcox died on January 29. The American privateer Defence, shortly after sailing out of New London, Connecticut, in early 1778, had five sailors break out with smallpox, at least one of whom died of the disease. Journal entries, April 7 and 9, 1778, in Timothy Boardman, Remarks of Our Gunner on Charlestown, in S.C., in Timothy Boardman, Log-Book of Timothy Boardman; Kept on Board the Privateer Oliver Cromwell, During a Cruise from New London CT., to Charleston, S.C., and Return in 1778; also a Biographical Sketch of the Author by the Rev. Samuel W. Boardman, D.D. (Albany, NY: Joel Munsell’s Sons, 1885), 51. See also Kylie A. Hulbert, The Untold War at Sea: America’s Revolutionary Privateers (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2022), 56-58.

[10]Journal of the Marlborough, January 26–27, 1778.

[11]Journal of the Marlborough, February 1, 5, and 11, 1778. Collins died on February 1 and Congdon on February 2.

[12]For a full account of the voyage, see McBurney, Dark Voyage, An American Privateer’s War on Britain’s African Slave Trade.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *