Mercy for the World: An Overview of Hospital Ships


On a sunny Sunday afternoon, while I was jumping from one news feed to another, I saw an article about Mercy ships and the latest news about Global Mercy, which will be the world’s largest civilian hospital ship. She is still under construction in Xingang, China and she’s being planned to be ready in 2021. Mercy Ships’ blog states that “Over the next 50 years, it is estimated that more than 150,000 lives will be changed onboard the Global Mercy through surgery alone, and countless more lives will be impacted through the ship’s medical training and infrastructure programs. In close collaboration with our host nations in Africa, the Global Mercy, together with the Africa Mercy, will more than double the impact of our work.”

Non-government hospital ship MV Africa Mercy

The idea of helping people who are in need of medical care gave me a hope for humanity especially while we are dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, numerous hurricanes, extraordinary wildfires, and more. Now, let’s look at the history of hospital ships.

What is a hospital ship?

A hospital ship is a ship designated for primary function as a floating medical treatment facility or hospital. Most are operated by the military forces (mostly navies) of various countries, as they are intended to be used in or near war zones. In the 19th century, redundant warships were used as moored hospitals for seamen. During World War I and World War II, hospital ships were first used on a massive scale. Many passenger liners were converted for use as hospital ships.

RMS Mauretania as hospital ship HMHS Mauretania during World War I.

What are the the restrictions for a hospital ship?

  • The ship must be clearly marked and lighted as a hospital ship.
  • The ship should give medical assistance to wounded personnel of all nationalities.
  • The ship must not be used for any military purpose.
  • The ship must not interfere with or hamper enemy combatant vessels.
  • Belligerents, as designated by the Hague Convention, can search any hospital ship to investigate violations of the above restrictions.
  • Belligerents will establish the location of a hospital ship.

Modern hospital ships display large Red Crosses or Red Crescents to signify their Geneva Convention protection under the laws of war. Even so, marked vessels have not been completely free from attack. Notable examples of hospital ships deliberately attacked during wartime are HMHS Llandovery Castle in 1915, the Soviet hospital ship Armenia in 1941, and AHS Centaur in 1943.

Reading about the stories of hospital ships which were attacked on purpose is a tragic example of how humankind can become cruel. On the other hand, humankind has built ships for rescuing people all over the world. As such, humankind accommodates both unrequited goodness and cruelty since ancient times.