Tuesday, 11 September 2007

A splendid dream?

One of the prerequisites for travel in the age of sail was a strong stomach. A similarly strong stomach is required to read about everyday life on board ship. Admittedly, the title of the book I’m reading, Life and Death in the Age of Sail: the Passage to Australia, should give ample warning of the contents.

I am not a particularly squeamish person. You can’t be if you have children. But some of the descriptions of the illnesses on board ship, the births and the deaths bring nausea to the surface. Others just bring tears to my eyes. Edward Allchurch wrote in his diary that “a poor little Child died last night …so they opend [sic] the [Surgeon’s] Cabin Windows and threw it out.” I simply can’t imagine the parents' grief and pain in this situation.

Mortality on most voyages was about the same as on land, but as on land, disease could have a rapid effect. With the passengers closely confined, a narrow variety of food, and small amounts of poor quality water, diseases could sweep through the ship. Measles and whooping cough were common, as was diarrhoea, other gastric upsets and worms. One passenger in the 1860s reported that “a child this morning brought up a worm just like a garden worm 9 inches in length, the child has been very ill for a long time, several has [sic] been the same.”

On the other hand, each ship had a surgeon and for many of the migrants, this was the first time they had had access to a doctor. Surgeons were kept busy dealing with shipboard illness but also with what the health insurers now call “pre-existing conditions.” Edward Allchurch’s wife, Anne, reported that the birth on board of her fourth child was the easiest delivery of all her children. It was the first time she had been attended by a doctor and the first time she had access to painkillers during delivery.

Ship surgeons and captains had a financial interest in the safe arrival of passengers. In addition to the regular salary, a gratuity would be paid for each passenger on arrival if the Immigration Agent was satisfied with their condition and that of the ship. In 1866, the surgeon of the Atalanta sailing from Plymouth to South Australia was paid £1 for each “live migrant,” while the master received 2 shillings per migrant. The first and third mates, volunteer schoolmaster, matron, voluntary constables and hospital assistants all received small gratuities.

Edward’s verdict on a voyage that had seen him caring for a constantly seasick wife, three sickly children under the age of seven and the birth of a fourth child? “The Voyage seems like a dream tis been a splendid one.” Edward died aged 88, father of eight children, having risen to being Constable in Charge of the Glenelg police station.

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