At first glance, the mottled paper cover of the old, obscure book looks like polished granite with its uneven patches of dark brown against bright cream. From the collection of the Medical Library of Michigan University in the United States, it seems an unlikely source for fresh information on the fate of the first indentured labourers to attempt the hazardous and hard passage from British Guiana (BG) back to India.

Digitized by online giant Google, the well-preserved 1850 copy of the London Medical Gazette features “Brief notes on the disease, Indian Village Cholera and its Treatment” by the American-born doctor Thomas Moore, then of the Gwalior Contingent, in the central and strategic Indian state of Madhya Pradesh.

Buried in that report and others published in the prestigious “Lancet” medical journal held in state libraries like the German ‘Staatsbibliothek,’ are detailed references to the over three-months-long unforgettable and horrific trip the young Moore undertook as a paid ship’s physician, seven years earlier. Despite “being amply provided with medicines, carefully selected,” the 23-year-old practitioner would be haunted by the miserable and mysterious deaths that stalked his unsuspecting passengers as they risked all crossing the “kala pani” or dreaded “black waters” a second time, collectively carrying at least $18 000 carefully scrimped during their bound service in BG from 1838.  

Transferred from the Military Hospital in Dublin, Ireland, Moore was appointed in 1843 “to take charge of the Coolies during the voyage” of the “Louisa Baillie” chartered by the wealthy absentee proprietors of five BG sugar estates. Months after the contracts of the anxious recruits expired, the boat finally arrived at Berbice on March 28 that year to collect 111 individuals from Plantations Highbury and Waterloo but did not reach the Demerara river until April 16. She set sail for Calcutta on May 1, with a group of 77 more excited souls including a few women and children from Bellevue, Wales and Vriedstein. The brig, “Water Witch,” a two-masted square-rigged vessel, engaged exclusively for 44 returning hands of the Anna Regina estate, docked in BG early in April, and left on May 7, almost five years to the day after the twin shipments of East Indians arrived in the colony on the “Hesperus” and “Whitby”.

Moore revealed, “The coolies who had been located on the sugar estates in Berbice and Demerara were embarked in the ship ‘Louisa Baillie’ for the port of Calcutta, without being provided with a supply of warm clothing for the passage. Avarice on their part, and parsimony on the part of the agents of the estates from which they were shipped, left the coolies in a state bordering on nudity, to undergo all the vicissitudes of the weather, from a calm to a hurricane.”

“The Executive Government of British Guiana did not interfere, as the colonial Treasury could not be saddled with such an expensive item as the supply of clothing to Indian labourers, imported into the colony few years before at the risk and for the benefit of private speculators,” he said. “Thus matters stood. Such is the gist of a subject which afterwards formed part of an inquiry by a parliamentary committee, in connection with the emigration of Indian coolies into the British West Indian colonies.”

He recalled, “With the exception of bowel complaints…sickness on board was slight, and the deaths from sickness, few in number, until we reached the Cape of Good Hope,” near the famous rocky headland on the Atlantic coast of the Cape Peninsula, South Africa.

Moore continued, “The supply of water on board was running short. On the 25th of July, 1843, we sighted the Cape of Good Hope. On the 26th we entered False Bay” on the eastern side. “In beating up the bay, we narrowly escaped closing our voyage to Calcutta on the Anvil Rocks. They are invisible, sunken rocks, – terror to mariners. A ripple, and then a breaker, warned us of our close approach to danger. The Anvil Rocks were close under our lee bow.”

“In the evening we cast anchor opposite Simon’s Town,” on the shores of False Bay and named after an early Governor. Moore noted, “On the 2nd of August, with a fresh supply of water in the ship’s hold, but without extra clothing on the backs of the coolies, we weighed anchor, hoisted the soils, and beat out of False Bay in the night, against a strong south-easterly wind. With her head steering towards the southward, the Louisa Baillie, freighted with her living cargo of coolies, proceeded on her voyage to Calcutta. It is necessary to be particular as to dates.” However, “With each degree of southing made, from the 2nd of August to the 27th of the same month, the intensity of the cold increased. During this time hail-storms were frequent; the weather was freezing cold; the decks were covered with sleet: whilst the vessel kept scudding before the wind under a close reefed main-topsail.”

He observed, “The sufferings of the coolies were severe in proportion. But the structures attacked and brought under the influence of disease were not the mucous membranes…they were the fibro-serous membranes of the joints, and of the cavities of the abdomen, the chest, and the head.” The death toll mounted, as two further cases “terminated fatally” in the course of 15 hours. “Nor did any obvious change take place in the structures attacked until we crossed the line, in longitude 88° East, on the 12th of September, 1843.”

“There is no difficulty in assigning the reasons for the sufferings of the coolies from the intensity of the cold. They needed warm clothing,” the medical practitioner concluded. “The question remains to be solved, in like manner, why the mucous membranes should be selected for attack, and be subject to specific morbid changes, when the surrounding atmosphere is surcharged with noxious pestilential vapours. It must be confessed that in this respect our knowledge is limited.”

In another article, he had described “the form of disease which prevailed amongst the Indian labourers returning from British Guiana to Calcutta” as “acute inflammation of the mucous membranes of the stomach and alimentary canal” which “in its symptoms, course, and termination, presented many of the characteristic features of acute idiopathic dysentery.”

 “The cause of the outbreak of this particular form of disease at the commencement of the voyage, was attributed by me to change of diet, to change of climate, and to the noxious qualities of the Creek water, the vegetable and animal properties of which were at this time undergoing the process of putrefaction,” Moore acknowledged.

Perplexed, he wrote, “Although every precaution was taken to counteract the ill effects supposed to have originated in these causes, yet the complaint seemed to increase rather than to diminish. For several successive days, numerous cases, suffering from the same type of disease, were brought, aft for my inspection, by the head men (‘sirdars’) of these Indian labourers.”

Speculating about the sources of cholera being numerous, he argued that, “Numbers of the medical profession, who have interested themselves in ascertaining the actual condition of the poverty-stricken…by strolling through Indian villages; and viewing, for their immediate information, the heaps of nuisances which meet the eye at every corner, can be at no loss to account for the prevalence of disease, and for the mortality which follows in the wake of disease…”

Moore stressed, “such they (doctors) fail not to do,” in “so far as heaps of manure; so far as cesspools, half filled with stagnant water, and half filled with rotten vegetable, garbage; so far as huts, closely crowded together, ill-ventilated, built on swampy soil; so far as the wretched condition of the mass of the people, removed but one degree from actual starvation; so far as the carrion, half devoured by the village scavengers, swines and pariah dogs, kites, and vultures, contribute to the production and propagation of disease, in Indian towns and villages, through the medium of a foul, infected, pestiferous, and poisoned atmosphere…”

A 2012 piece in the “Lancet” disclosed that cholera is endemic in more than 50 countries, with seven epidemics dating from 1817 spreading from Asia to much of the world, as in Haiti recently. The 7th pandemic began in 1961 and affects 3–5 million people each year, killing 120,000. Descriptions of a disease thought to be cholera are found in Sanskrit dating to the 5th century B.C, but it was only around the 1850s the London physician John Snow proposed that cholera was a communicable disease spread by contaminated drinking water. The Italian anatomist, Filippo Pacini became posthumously famous for independently isolating the cholera bacterium “Vibrio cholerae” in 1854 when he first observed the comma-shaped forms under a microscope.

 ID delves into the mysteries of the “Louisa Baillie” and Dr. Moore’s view that “the cleansing of the Augean stables, a work of Herculean labour, would dwindle into insignificance, compared with the cleansing of  Indian villages in a single district.”

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