As the “Louisa Baillie” careened in cold, rough seas not far from India, the decisive drama of fragile life and certain death played out aboard the ill-equipped sailing ship. Ferrying the introductory batch of surviving indentured labourers who fought for months to return from British Guiana’s sugar estates to their far-flung families and homeland as promised and contracted, the chartered vessel started its May 1, 1843 journey with at least 188 potential returnees but by mid-September it still had not arrived at the destination.
The passenger numbers rapidly dwindled as the voyage proved perilously prolonged, supplies ran short, the weather deteriorated into freezing conditions, and the mystery deepened over sudden serious sickness. Such harrowing scenes would be repeated countless times over the coming historic decades of new recruitment and continual immigration of hundreds of thousands more people, displaced and dispatched to work in British colonies scattered across the world
Hired by the estate owners, the American-born military doctor, Dr. Thomas Moore recorded the ship’s tale in his journal, parts of which he published in the 1852 “Selections from my Medical Notebooks.” In related papers contributed to leading medical magazines following the trip, and digitized by Google, he recounted the start of unusual fatalities: “On the 28th of June, 1843, when we crossed the equator in west longitude 23° 45’ seven weeks sail by the day from Georgetown, Demerara, the native head-man ran to the cabin to inform me that one of the stoutest coolies on board had been seized with violent cramps in the stomach, with cramps in the limbs, with frequent vomiting, and with purging of slime and blood.”
“He was writhing in pain. In the course of the day he had been observed to be slightly ill and had been heard to complain of gnawing pains in the stomach; but the circumstances were not reported until the frequency of the purging alarmed those who were represented to be his relations.” Moore added, “His features were distorted. The pulse was small, quick, and wiry. He complained of urgent thirst, increased rather than slaked by drinking water; and also, of a dry and parched feeling at the roof and back part of the mouth. Constriction of the throat, and tightness across the chest in the direction of the diaphragm, were prominent symptoms.”
The individual, who soon died, was not named in the practitioner’s files. As the cases of “dysentery” climbed, the doctor initially attributed the outbreak to diet and climate changes, “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.” A mystified Moore observed that in spite of “every precaution” the complaints increased. “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.”
On rounding the Cape of Storms, euphemistically renamed the Cape of Good Hope, the “Louisa Baillie” staggered from the South Atlantic to the Indian Ocean, lashed by bad weather, for the final leg of the difficult voyage. The death toll mounted as temperatures plummeted and the barely clad “coolies” who were not issued any warm clothing, suffered severely. “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,” Moore said.
In the ship’s register, he made meticulous notes and vividly summarised the sequence. “In the evening, or on the following morning…a few hours after having eaten a meal of rice and dholl, those who suffered from its effects were carried to the cabin door, complaining of violent pains and cramps in the stomach and bowels” and “constant vomiting” with feeling constriction in the “oesophagus and across the chest.”
“The symptoms of acute fever set in immediately” and they “suffered from headaches” plus “urgent thirst, loss of appetite, prostration of strength. The pulse varied from 120 to 140 beats a minute…They complained of a foul, nauseous, bitter taste in the mouth. The conjunctiva of the eyes was bloodshot.”
He wrote, “Perplexed as to the real cause of the disease so rife on board, I was descending the middle hatchway ladder to pay the morning visit to the patients in the hospital part of the ship, when I was stopped by two or three coolies carrying plates loaded with cold rice, and a quantity of rancid ghee. In reply to my questions, by what means they had obtained this cold rice, it was stated that this food had been cooked one or two days previously. When cooked, the rice and ghee mixed together had been laid aside as a reserve store, to eat in the middle of the night or early in the morning, before the daily rations were served out.”
“As soon as this food was thrown overboard by my orders, I examined the copper plates upon which it had been kept, and found the surface coated over with a green incrustation – evidently one of the salts of copper. Thus, to neglect, and to slovenliness in not cleaning their copper and brass utensils, and to the intermixture of the salts of copper with their food, was distinctly traced the immediate cause of the disease,” Moore concluded.
Theorising that in some cases the quantity of “poison” mixed with the food must have exceeded that swallowed by other patients, he noted copper muriate “is as poisonous in its effects as verdigris.” He added, “If not seen on the surface, we seldom failed to detect, under the rims of their ‘lotahs’ and ‘thalies’ (metal utensils), this incrustation of verdigris, in quantity sufficient to be scraped off with the edge of a penknife.” On testing, they “were proved to be the sulphates and muriates of copper. These salts of copper intermixing with their rice, fish, ghee, and pea soup (dholl), produced, in the greater number of cases, a train of symptoms almost similar.”
As common at the time, he administered a frightening series of pseudoscientific and experimental treatments including of the popular emetic “ipecac” syrup or “ipecacuanha,” a traditional Amerindian remedy manufactured from the dried root of the so-named South and Central American plant. The most “efficacious” dosage reached “twenty grains of ipecacuanha, with one grain of tartar emetic; after which the patient was ordered to drink barley water, and ‘conjee’ or rice water in large quantities.” Six to eight hours later, “twelve or fifteen ounces of blood were taken away by venesection – the quantity of blood was regulated by the strength of the patient and the state of his pulse.”
“In the evening another emetic, of ipecacuanha alone, was given, and when practicable the patient was put in a tub of warm salt water. On the following day, if an impression had not been made on the acuteness of the symptoms, twelve ounces of blood were abstracted from the epigastric and intra-umbilical regions by means of cupping. Flannels wrung out of boiling water were applied for several hours to the surface of the abdomen; and calomel (mercurous chloride, a white powder formerly used as a purgative) was given to clear away the contents of the bowels; after which castor-oil, with laudanum, proved more valuable than other purgatives of a drastic nature in relieving the tenesmus and griping pains in the abdomen.”
Moore revealed “small mustard cataplasms or blisters were (then) applied. The cuts in the skin were carefully protected. Opium in powder by itself, or opium in powder combined with ipecacuanha and blue pill, afforded relief. The diet in each case was restricted to arrow-root, of which there was an abundance on board. Rice, dholl, ghee, salt fish, articles of daily food, were prohibited; and when the debilitated state of the patient called for additional support, port wine, mixed with arrow-root, was given.”
Criticising the “stoutest” Indian who died, Moore felt “the strictest vigilance on our part was thus eluded by this man – He forfeited his life by disobeying orders. To prevent a recurrence of similar cases, plates, bowls, and wooden platters, as many as could be collected in the ship, were substituted for these copper and brass dishes.”
ID marvels some of Dr. Moore’s patients convalesced. He slammed the “coolies” for unclean utensils, even though “fresh water cannot be supplied by the ships” for washing and when “salt water is reluctantly used: it does not clean the plate according to the ideas of a native” and “instead of brightening the surface, the more it is scrubbed in with sand and ashes, the duller the copper becomes.”