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The year is 1706. Charles Town is in the grip of a deadly epidemic of yellow fever and almost every man, woman and child is sick. Many have died and the mortality rate keeps climbing. The few doctors in the colony barely understand the disease (also known as Black Vomit) and their treatments are largely unsuccessful. Then, just when it looks like it can't get any worse, the town is awakened by the cry that just outside the bar, a fleet of armed, hostile ships-an expedition from St. Augustine of French and Spanish soldiers-are planning to invade and take the town. Governor Nathaniel Johnson calls out the militia, but with so many of the inhabitants affected by the fever, finding able-bodied men poses a serious problem. A report later sent to London stated that "sickness raged in Charles Towne and had swept away great numbers of our men.and that upon the account of the sickness the Country Planters.[were] unwilling to come to defend the town." Luckily, enough men came to the city's defense. With the help of the Indians, the Spanish-French invasion was routed. Still, 140 people died in the yellow fever epidemic.
Disease was becoming the colony's most feared enemy. It had become increasingly evident that the source of epidemics was from the outside. Quarantine was the answer and in 1707, an act was passed providing for the building of a brick lazaretto, more commonly called a "pest house," on Sullivan's Island. It was to be used as a place to quarantine anyone coming into the colony found to be carrying a disease.
Pest House. It is a dismal name and it had to be a dismal spot. The first pest house was a small brick building, only 30- by 10-feet in size, and one canonly imagine the wretched living conditions inside. Certainly, it was no hospital in the modern sense of the word. Its exact location is unclear. It is shown on early maps as being generally between Fort Moultrie and the Point.
There are scant records concerning the pest house until the 1740s. Following a boom in the importation of African slaves to provide labor for the ever-increasing number of Lowcountry rice plantations, fears mounted that the shipments of slaves were also bringing disease. For a time, the importation of slaves was forbidden by law. It was discovered that during this lull, the frequency of disease was, in fact, greatly reduced. Thus, on May 29, 1744, an act was passed "for the further preventing of the Spreading of Contagious or Malignant Distempers in the Province," which read, in part: "BE IT ENACTED, that no ship or vessel.shall arrive or come into this province over the bar of the harbour into Charlestown, with Negroes from the coasts of Africa or elsewhere.before all Negroes imported or brought in such ship or vessel shall have been landed and put on shore on Sullivan's Island.and there shall have remained for the space of ten days."
The act also called for the building of a new, "more commodious," pest house, but considering a 1747 notation in the Journals of the Commons House of the Assembly, the place was still a hellhole. The Journals describe the pest house as only including four rooms of brickwork, "without lining, ceiling or windows.too airy to afford much shelter to the sick."
Without question, the pest house is one of the most important and least studied aspects of South Carolina history, particularly black history. For decades, every slave imported into the colony, sick or not, was quarantined at the pest house. The first soil they touched after leaving Africa was the sand of Sullivan's Island. Imagine what it must have been like for these poor souls. After spending months at sea, they arrived scared, unknowing of what the future held and, in many cases, sick. They must have found at least some relief when they finally stepped ashore and felt those first soothing, southerly breezes-the same "salubrious" air that eventually made the island famous as a resort.
Early descriptions paint a vivid portrait of what the slaves experienced during their arrival to America. Henry Laurens was a leading merchant in the traffic of African slaves (he would later denounce the practice of slavery and attempt to free his own slaves), and in a letter written in January 1756, he wrote: "our Pest House where the Slaves are to be placed during their Quarantine is in good order & they have a plenty of Wood at hand so that we hope the Cloathing they have will be sufficient But Captain Moses informs us he was oblig'd to put their Cloaths on a few days after they left Barbados to preserve them from the Water that came down through the Deck." Visitor Peletiah Webster visited the island in 1765 and noted in his journal, "Went with Mr. Liston [probably Thomas Liston, of the firm of Middleton, Liston & Hope, merchants in wines, hardware and slaves].to Sullivan's Island where were 2 or 300 Negroes performing quarantine with the small pox.there is a pest-house here with pretty good conveniences.the most moving sight was a poor white man performing quarantine alone in a boat at anchor ten rods from shore with an awning & pretty poor accommodations."
One of the most harrowing experiences for the inhabitants of the pest house came with the hurricane of 1752. It was one of the worst hurricanes ever to hit the coast and the South-Carolina Gazette reported: "At Sullivan's Island, the pest-house was carried away, and of 15 people who were there 9 are lost, the rest saved themselves by adhering strongly to some of the rafters of the house when it fell, upon which they were driven some miles beyond the island, to Hobcaw."
Not all inhabitants of the pest house were slaves. In 1772, immigrants from a ship from Belfast, Ireland, were quarantined at the pest house, thus sparing the colony from an epidemic. In 1783, laws were passed which not only called for the quarantine of people, but which also ordered all cargo imported from disease-prone areas such as the Mediterranean to be "landed at the warehouse so erected on Sullivan's Island, and there be aired; and kept exposed to the air for not less than forty days, and until it shall be thought such infection contained in such cargo shall be got rid of."
Because of the continued prevalence of disease, the pest house remained a sad necessity. Still, conditions there were so deplorable that in 1770 the South-Carolina Gazette wrote, "if the Pest House on Sullivan's Island was made tight, warm, comfortable.and if some proper person was appointed constantly to reside on the Island.who would say, we wanted common Humanity?"
The pest house remained on Sullivan's Island until the 1790s, just before Moultrieville was incorporated, when it was relocated to Morris Island. The building was modified into one of the island's first churches, Grace Episcopal Church.
Today, all traces of the pest house are gone (Grace Church was destroyed during the Civil War) and it is difficult to imagine the lower end of Sullivan's Island, as peaceful and picturesque a spot as one can find in America, as being the same place on which the pest house stood. Where thousands of people-both black and white-were quarantined. Undoubtedly, many died, buried in a potter's field, long lost to the shifting sands and the sea.
It is something to remember, however, as we enjoy the freedoms and luxuries which today's life affords us. There were times in history when life held a darker side and even laws passed for the common good brought into being such extremes as the pest house. For almost a century, our beautiful and beloved Sullivan's Island wasn't known as a place for carefree days with children's laughter heard on the beach. For the thousands who performed their required quarantine at the pest house, it was a place where sorrow and bondage met hand in hand.