“(…) For those in peril on the sea”: The Important Role of Surgeons on Convict Transports

Sailing in the eighteenth and nineteenth century was indeed dangerous. Without the sophisticated equipment we have today and out of reach of rescue services, those sailing the high seas did well to commend their bodies and souls to God. The long trip from England to Australia was fraught with difficulties, from storms, doldrums and leaky hulls to serious illnesses on board. It was the surgeons on the convict transports who were often the unsung heroes of hazardous passages to the Antipodes. While their role has not been ignored, it is only through reading their journals that complete maritime narratives emerge. In this paper I want to discuss the work of surgeons on female transports, the importance of their power at sea and on land, their care of their charges and how medical improvisation very often saved a patient’s life. I have chosen female transports rather than male because of the added difficulties the women brought to the weeks at sea: pregnancy among others. The subject is very complex but I hope to be able to offer a general overview of the outstanding role played by these men in the project of expanding the British Empire into the Antipodes.

Image | The ship ‘Mountstuart Elphinstone’ offshore by William Adolphus Knell (1840)

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Posted by IAFOR