BED BUGS PLAGUE houses, apartments, hostels, hotels, motels, barns, caves, and even ships on the high seas. There is no escaping bed bugs, even for frigates, warships, passenger ships and pirate boats plying the world’s oceans. If you doubt it, just talk to U.S. Navy entomologists like David Claborn at the Entomological Society of America (ESA) meetings.
Cockroaches, rats, lice and bed bugs sometimes outnumber sailors on ships at sea. About the time of the American Revolution, in the 1770s, ships were often such damp, putrid, scurvy-ridden pest-holes that half the crew would be sick during the voyage. And mortality was high. Captain James Cook of Great Britain’s Royal Navy was one of the early advocates for bringing ship hygiene up to modern standards.
Scrubbing decks with dilute solutions of sweet-smelling vinegar was one of Captain Cook’s practices to keep rats, lice, bed bugs and cockroaches at tolerably low levels. Caribbean pirate ships, a less sanitary lot, used “primitive fumigation techniques” like placing “tubs full of flaming tar and sulfur inside the hulls to kill the vermin and improve the odor,” said Claborn. Infestations were sometimes so bad that brandy casks were poured onto the decks as mop water and scrubbed into the wood.
In the modern world of asymmetrical warfare in the pirate-ridden waters off the coast of East Africa, bed bugs and other vermin have been used like weapons by the pirates. When a small pirate boat fired a rocket on a U.S. Navy ship, the U.S.S. Fearless, a wooden minesweeper, took action. The Fearless scooped up the pirate boat into its well deck. The well deck, a dock for floating military equipment, was raised up and the pirate ship came to rest high and dry.
“That’s when the insects and the rats started leaving the boat, perhaps lonely for the recently incarcerated pirates,” said Claborn. “When the corpsmen called me from the ship they reported, and I quote this: ‘at least three species of cockroaches, bed bugs, spiders, rats and some really scary things that we don’t recognize’. Our immaculately clean warship now has a Trojan horse populated not with Greek warriors, but with bed bugs, cockroaches and rats.”
Just like on land, the bed bugs and their harborages were hard to find and hard to disinfest. A minor victory for the pirates. All infested shipboard items had to be discarded, all the fabrics washed, and crack and crevice residuals were sprayed to stop the bed bugs from biting.