Lakehead University researcher delves into 200-year-old Caribbean mystery

A team of researchers led by an anthropologist at Lakehead University, in Thunder Bay, Ont., is shedding new light on what caused the deaths of sailors buried at a British Naval Hospital cemetery in Antigua in the late 1700s and early 1800s.

New research indicates some, but not all, of the British sailors who died in the Caribbean had lead poisoning

Researchers have only recently gained access to the skeletal remains of British sailors buried in Antigua in the late 1700s and early 1800s, says Tamara Varney, an associate professor of anthropology at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay. (Tamara Varney)

A team of researchers led by an anthropologist at Lakehead University, in Thunder Bay, Ont., is shedding new light on what caused the deaths of sailors buried at a British Naval Hospital cemetery in Antigua in the late 1700s and early 1800s. 

People have long thought that the deaths were linked to lead contamination in their daily rations of rum, said Tamara Varney, who has been studying the deaths since 2009, adding that the alcohol was made with lead equipment. 

Varney and her team have been able to access skeletal remains, and test them using a powerful piece of technology that acts as a giant microscope, allowing them to map out the lead in the bones. 

What they found was somewhat surprising, said Varney.

"I had suspected that we would see mainly levels that would be much higher than today, and maybe some that would be very extreme," she said. "Instead what we're finding is they're all over the map."

"There's some that are very extreme and then there's some where it looks like maybe they were exposed to very little lead in their lifetimes," Varney said. "It barely registers." 

The research raises new questions about the longstanding theory, and about why sailors were exposed to lead to such varying degrees, she said. 

Her team is also trying to solve the mystery of where the lead came from, she said. Contaminated rum is still a strong possibility. 

"There were physicians at the time saying 'hey — this is due to lead poisoning, possibly due to the rum that they're drinking,'" said Varney. 

"And it was just dismissed. No one believed it."