On 10 February 1853, a ship named the Charles Mallory arrived in port in Honolulu, Hawaii, having made the journey from San Francisco in only 13 days, a near-record time, particularly for a ship of its small size. The Charles Mallory was among the newest breed of ships that benefitted from the latest in maritime technology – a marvel of modern engineering and ingenuity that had brought one of the world’s most isolated island chains that much closer to the rest of the world. But any cause for celebration was undercut by the yellow flag flying from the ship’s mast as it docked in Honolulu’s harbour, a harbinger of doom signalling a terrifying disease aboard the Charles Mallory: smallpox.
The Hawaiian islands had never had to deal with the disease before, and despite a hasty quarantine and inoculation effort, smallpox tore through the population. By the summer, the infection had taken hold of Oahu, and quickly began to spread to other islands. The local physician Dwight Baldwin, in a desperate move to keep it out of Maui, raced down the coast, shouting to all who’d listen: ‘Do not let anybody land! Drive them back, drive them back! They bring a terrible sickness!’ All through that summer and fall, smallpox cut a swath through the population. By the time the epidemic had burned itself out in January 1854, the population of Oahu had been halved, and a fifth of Hawaii’s population had been killed.