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BBC – The editors of the Rio de Janeiro newspaper Gazeta de Notícias (1875-1942) were not exaggerating when they said, in the September 16, 1918 edition, that the Demerara made a “bad trip.” When he left Liverpool on August 15, 1918 for Buenos Aires, the English ship’s commander, JGK Cheret, had no idea of the setbacks he would face on the way.

The following day, August 16, he suffered the first scare: around 8 in the morning, the Demerara was attacked by two German submarines, in the middle of World War I.

One of them even fired a torpedo that, according to the newspapers of the time, passed “a meter from the bow.”

The passengers panicked and, fearing the worst, went to look for “life belts”, which was what was used at the time as life jackets.

With 562 passengers and 170 crew on board, the Demerara probably would have sunk on the spot had it not been for the saving intervention of an English aircraft carrier and six American torpedo boats, which shot down one of the submarines and forced the other to retreat.

The journalist and writer Wagner G. Barreira explains that this was not the first time that the English ship fought a real naval battle with German submarines.

“The Demerara was the first British merchant navy ship to sink a submarine. The captain was decorated, he won an award. But the ship became a target for the German navy,” says the journalist.

Wagner’s grandfather, the Galician Bernardo Gutiérrez Barreira, arrived in Brazil on one of the many Demerara trips and, almost a century later, inspired his grandson to create the protagonist of his first historical novel, Demerara (Editora Instante, 2020) .

After the initial scare, the Demerara continued its journey. It was owned by the Royal Mail, the postal service of the United Kingdom, and the ocean liner operated the Liverpool-Buenos Aires route and carried, in addition to passengers, goods (sugar, for example) and mail.

On the return trip to Europe, he carried meat and coffee, among other provisions.

“The movement of the ships, at least according to the records of the Port Authority of Vigo, Spain, decreased a lot during the war. First, because it was dangerous to cross the Atlantic, due to the German submarines. Then, because the main countries of Europe they were at war and the young people – the mass of immigrants – had been summoned to the trenches, “says the journalist.

After passing through Lisbon, the ship crossed the Atlantic to Brazil.

The journey lasted 25 days. On September 9, the Demerara docked in Recife. It was the first of four stops on the Brazilian coast: Recife, Salvador, Rio and Santos.

“The Demerara was the ship that brought and carried the letters from the front. In each port where it docked, the crowd anxiously awaited the news of the soldiers fighting in the First World War”, explains Dr. Dilene Raimundo do Nascimento, doctor in Social History from the Fluminense Federal University (UFF) and researcher on the history of diseases at the Fiocruz Foundation.

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With the port of Recife under construction, passengers and their luggage, among other loads, had to disembark in giant baskets lifted by cranes.

“There is no news of when the virus (of the Spanish flu) got on board: if at the previous stop, in Lisbon, or if the ship had already been infected in England”, explains historian Heloísa Murgel Starling, professor at the University Federal de Minas Gerais (UFMG) and co-author of A Bailarina da Morte: a Gripe Espanhola no Brasil (Companhia das Letras, 2020), in collaboration with the anthropologist Lilia Moritz Schwarcz.

“In any case, once on Brazilian soil, it spread easily and quickly, from Recife to Rio de Janeiro, from the coast to the interior, through the railways,” he explains.

From Recife, the Demerara went to Salvador, where it arrived on September 11. On the way, the captain decided to clean the boat with creolin. It didn’t do much good.

In the capital of Bahia, the neglect was repeated: passengers and crew descended to the mainland without being inspected by the health authorities.

Two weeks later, the newspaper A Tarde, founded in 1912, counted some “seven hundred patients” scattered everywhere: from barracks to hospitals and from schools to churches.

“Both in Recife and in Salvador, the governors denied the existence of the Spanish flu. If the ship was infected, they would have to close the ports. In order not to compromise the local economy, they preferred to let the Demerara go, as if nothing were happening,” Heloísa registers.

The next destination was Rio de Janeiro. In Guanabara Bay, in front of the Island of Cobras, a yellow flag was already flying from the top of one of the masts, a sign that there was disease on board.

The port’s sanitary inspector, José María de Figueiredo Ramos, examined some passengers – two of them in serious condition – and found that the ship was infected.

Still, he was allowed to dock the Demerara. It was September 15, 1918. Only in the capital of the republic 367 passengers disembarked.

Some complained of a slight cold. Others complained of body aches. Even others with more serious symptoms, such as bleeding from the nose, mouth and ears, among other orifices, had to be hospitalized.

After disembarking, the Demerara continued its journey. “Although serious, the disease is not contagious,” the inspector assured. Wrong: it was, in fact, highly contagious .

By then, the Spanish flu had already earned the most unusual nicknames: “Russian phlegm”, “evil of the trenches”, “three-day fever” …

In Rio they gave him yet another nickname: “clean old people”, because it was believed that the new virus attacked only the elderly population.

“Many described it as a common flu,” reports infectologist Stefan Cunha Ujvari, author of the book História das Epidemias (Editora Contexto, 2020). “They never imagined the mortality of all age groups.”

Many families left their dead on the sidewalk for funeral homes to collect.

Beds were lacking to care for so many patients and gravediggers to bury so many corpses.

“From one day to the next, everyone began to die. The first were mourned, veiled, and flowers were put on them. But when the city felt that it was like a plague, no one cried, watched, or laid flowers. The wake was an unbearable luxury for the other deceased. It was in 1918. Death was in the air and I repeat: diffuse, volatile, atmospheric; everyone breathed it … “, wrote the journalist Nelson Rodrigues (1912-1980) in the March 8, 1967 edition of the Correio da Manhã newspaper.

Then the Demerara went to Montevideo, where it docked on September 23.

On board, the “dancer” -as she was also called- continued to claim victims. In Buenos Aires waters, the balance was already six dead and 22 infected.

Brazilian newspapers tried to alert the Uruguayan authorities. But the director of Public Assistance in that country, Horácio González del Solar, did not listen to him.

“What an exaggeration!”

When it arrived in Buenos Aires, the Demerara finally underwent a rigorous inspection.

“The Argentine authorities did what the Brazilians did not have the courage to do: secure the ship and disinfect it,” says Heloísa Starling.

Then the Demerara went to Montevideo, where it docked on September 23.

On board, the “dancer” -as she was also called- continued to claim victims. In Buenos Aires waters, the balance was already six dead and 22 infected.

Brazilian newspapers tried to alert the Uruguayan authorities. But the director of Public Assistance in that country, Horácio González del Solar, did not listen to him.

“What an exaggeration!”

When it arrived in Buenos Aires, the Demerara finally underwent a rigorous inspection.

“The Argentine authorities did what the Brazilians did not have the courage to do: secure the ship and disinfect it,” says Heloísa Starling.

At least five people died during the journey: four passengers, the Portuguese Antonio Teixeira, Germana Moreira Valente, Gracinda Ferreira and Maria dos Anjos, and a crew member, the Spanish Juan Cajal.

Of these, only one was diagnosed with influenza.

“The number of patients on board varies a lot according to the sources. But, if you imagine that the third class used to fill up and the ship is a confined environment, it generates agglomeration, you can guess that the virus spread,” Barreira observes.

“The first wave of flu was not as deadly as the second. It knocked you down, but it didn’t kill. The second wave was the one that spread around the world, and it was this wave that boarded the Demerara.”

One of the first newspapers to report what everyone suspected was O Combate, from São Paulo.

In the September 27, 1918 edition, the title page was printed: “The ‘Spanish’ has already arrived in Brazil.

At that time, the Demerara was already known by the macabre nickname “ship of death”.

It is estimated that in Brazil alone, the Spanish flu killed 35,000 people. Worldwide, the disease would have decimated, according to the most conservative estimates, 30 million people, almost four times the death toll from the First War (1914-1918).

On October 10, 1918, the then Director General of Public Health, Carlos Seidl (1867-1929), who was the Minister of Health at the time, called a press conference.

In front of doctors and journalists, he downplayed the epidemic, questioned the figures and called the newspapers “irresponsible” and “sensational”.

A week later, the President of the Republic, Venceslau Brás, (1868-1966) called him to the Catete Palace – then the headquarters of the Brazilian Executive – and fired him.

In his place, the doctor Theóphilo de Almeida Torres (1863-1928) assumed, who summoned the health worker Carlos Chagas (1879-1934) to head a working group against the Spanish flu.

In the hope of fighting the disease , the most varied treatments were tried : from indigenous herbal potions to a syrup of brandy, lemon and honey that, they say, did not alleviate the problem, but instead gave rise to caipirinha.

The Demerara made its last voyage in the late 1930s.

The English ship that, according to historians, brought the Spanish flu to Brazil in 1918 was not the only ship named after the sugar originating in Guyana.

In 1872, one went down on his first voyage. Another sank with less than a month of use.

“I found another Demerara, a sailboat, with such bad luck that it was in trouble on each trip and ended up sinking,” says Barreira.

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