- Health, Medicine, and the Sea: Australian voyages, c. 1815-1860 by Katherine Foxhall
British and Australian historians of nineteenth-century colonialism have always been linked, one way or another, because the history itself was. The great upsurge in transnational scholarship that has characterized Australian history-writing over the last decade continues this conversation—one which has engaged Australian historians at least as much with British historical geographers as with scholars from their own discipline. UK-based Katherine Foxhall offers a distinguished book that again brings Australian history and British history together, examining the period between the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the 1860s.
Health, Medicine and the Sea is about Britain and its colonies at the end of the earth. Really, it is about all the space and time in between. To get to the end of the earth, colonists, convicts, officers and their crew had to sail down the globe's latitudes and then across its longitudes in journeys that typically took months. They were all voyagers, in sickness and in health. Katherine Foxhall's study looks at just that: in what ways were the long Australian voyages specific sites and times in which people became sick, were treated, and survived—perhaps healthier than they had ever been—or died. What illnesses did people bring with them on board, and what happened over the successive climates on the way to the South Sea? How and why did ships' surgeons become an important part of any ship's company? What medical histories were thus created? How, and with what effect, did medical and maritime cultures intersect?
Many historians of the nineteenth century are aware of the sudden rush of expertise on human bodies in enclosed spaces, in close quarters: gaol fever and ship fever were the same. Of course many of the ships bound for Australia were prison ships, transporting convicts. The whole idea of transportation was that convicts—slave-like, but not slaves—would be fit to labor at the other end. Emigrants and colonists travelled rather more at their own risk. Nonetheless everyone was enclosed, and so ships, as Foxhall explains carefully, were spaces that required the very latest management of contagion, of miasmas, of epidemic disease, at a time when understanding of these—especially of "fevers"—was in great flux.
There is an elegance about Foxhall's book that is derived from its structure. With great aplomb, she has decided to organize and present her material as the journey itself. We begin at point of departure in the United Kingdom; we end at point of arrival in Australia. This means the bulk of the book is at sea. But we are quite safe in her sure and learned hands. Indeed this reader was entranced on the journey, particularly when we travelled through the tropical Atlantic.
I am a Pacific-oriented historian, and the tropics, to me, signal the Pacific tropics in the first instance. But of course the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn circle the whole earth and the so the torrid zone traverses other oceans too. I learned a good deal, then, reading a mid-way chapter, "Geographies of the Tropical Atlantic," in which not just people aboard ships, but ships themselves, succumbed to a changing climate and to ill winds. Foxhall shows how concerned voyagers were that sails turned yellow, signalling the decline of the health of the ship, itself a kind of organism; how the doldrums were not just a place in which the ship might be becalmed, but simultaneously a place where morbid winds might blow from West Africa. In a triumph of historical analysis, Foxhall concludes this chapter with a section on "crossing the line," the revelry that accompanied the equatorial traverse. She looks again at the much-studied initiations from a medical point of view: Neptune's "doctor" often featured, initiated sailors were "treated," and the ship's surgeon himself sometimes became a figure of fun. At the same time, the actual ship's surgeon watched, concerned that the dunkings themselves would introduce a new wave of illness...