News People Garry Linnell: A horror voyage to Australia undoes the anti-vaxxer argument
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Garry Linnell: A horror voyage to Australia undoes the anti-vaxxer argument

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Thank you for coming.

Many of you may be wondering why we have gathered you here on this decrepit wharf in the Cove of Cork on Ireland’s south coast.

No doubt you are also asking how we transported you back in time to the year 1837.

Quite simple, really.

The celebrated American writer and humorist Mark Twain said it was best not to argue with stupid people because they will always drag you down to their level and beat you with experience.

So rather than endure another futile quarrel, we decided instead to show all you misguided mummy bloggers, middle-aged Mullumbimby residents and the rest of Australia’s hysterical anti-vaccination mob what happens when immunisation is unavailable.

And that time travel stuff? Easy as.

We just borrowed some gadgets from the garage of Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton – because he’s always tinkering with ingenious ways of sending Australia back to the past.

Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton. Photo: AAP

So please pay attention. Swaying gently before you is the Bussorah Merchant, a 590-ton teak vessel that has seen better days and will certainly not be seeing any more of them.

See that man on the top deck busily nailing a notice to the main mast?

He is Morgan Price, the ship’s surgeon and the man responsible for the welfare of almost 300 passengers who are hoping to escape Ireland’s endless cycles of poverty and civil unrest and start a new life in Australia.

Let’s have a close look at Dr Price’s list of rules and regulations.

There will be “no smoaking” between decks.

All male emigrants “must be shaved every Wednesday and Saturday”, while the poorest passengers will have to drag their bedding from the dingy and musty recesses of the ship’s hold and scrub it with brittle holystone twice a week.

Dr Price, you see, is doing his best to keep his flock of free emigrants as safe as he can in an era when infection can roar as furiously through these wooden decks as that other enemy of the seafarer – fire.

The man knows he will need all the help he can get.

Included in Dr Price’s ‘General Regulations’ is this: “You are required strictly to attend to the sacred commandments … and to seek opportunities in your spirits before God … as He knoweth every secret thought.”

BOUND FOR SOUTH AUSTRALIA - BUSSORAH MERCHANT - 1848 by DIANE CUMMINGS
The Bussorah Merchant. Photo: State Library of South Australia

Within a few weeks these poor Irish passengers will be down on their knees praying for forgiveness. But if the Lord knoweth their thoughts, He will be in no mood for mercy.

See that proud couple over there with their six sons? They are John and Ellen Cosgrove. John is a wheelwright from the small town of Cloyne and will no doubt find plenty of work repairing wooden wheels when the Bussorah Merchant arrives in Hobart in four months’ time.

But three of his six boys won’t be there to follow their old man into the family business.

Their smallpox-ravaged bodies will be wrapped in calico and sent into the deep waters of the Atlantic as an outbreak of the pox and the measles turns the Bussorah Merchant into one of the most horrific sea journeys in history.

Spare a thought, also, for Edward Fennessy, a sawyer from Fermoy, and his wife Ellen. Ask them about all those dreams they share about a new start in a new world and their words of hope will excitedly tumble out in the sing-song patter of their Cork accent.

They have four children with them. The first they will surrender to the icy waters is little Peggy. Not long after that an outbreak of measles will claim the rest of their brood – Mary Anne, John and Edward.

At least they will have plenty of companionship in their grief.

James Byrne, a labourer from Balriggen, and his wife, Mary, will be forced to bury three of their children at sea, as will William and Ellen Clancy.

Try, if you dare, to imagine the long days and even longer nights that lie ahead for this ship of cabinetmakers and shepherds and carpenters as the Bussorah Merchant creaks and groans through the heaving seas and their hearts sink each time one of their children coughs or begins to scratch an itch.

By the time the ship limps into Hobart on the other side of the world four women and 64 out of 133 children will have died.

It will be a journey that historians more than a century later will cite as one of the most confronting examples of “ignorance of good hygiene”.

Dr Price will spend the rest of his life haunted by his failure to protect those children. But what else can he do?

His medical kit contains instruments to pull teeth, saw off limbs and ineffective herbal concoctions to ward off dysentery. Even if he wants to isolate the infected, a small ship crammed with passengers packed cheek to cheek has no spare room.

Most of all, Dr Price has no vaccine created through rigorous scientific testing in sterile laboratories with the backing of billions of investment dollars.

So let us wave farewell to the Bussorah Merchant, a ship of the damned if ever there was one.

Scott Morrison has said the Oxford vaccine offered a ray of ‘hope’. Photo: AAP

And to all you deluded anti-vaccination campaigners, think about those passengers before you post another of your wacky theories on Facebook or rant and complain about mandatory federal government vaccination programs.

When the coronavirus vaccine finally arrives, take your medicine.

And if you don’t?

Stay the hell away from the rest of us. You’re just relics from a past we’d rather forget.

Garry Linnell was director of News and Current Affairs for the Nine network in the mid-2000s. He has also been editorial director for Fairfax and is a former editor of The Daily Telegraph and The Bulletin magazine

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