- Pearce, Robert L., AM RFD OM(Fr) CStJ FRCS FRACS Colonel RAAMC (Rtd), Associate Professor
- History - general
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- September 2009 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Its Influence on Battle Outcomes In Nelson’s Day
We tend to believe that the long distance voyages in the days of sail were riddled with death and disease, notably scurvy, because the sailing time was extended and because the sailors missed the benefits of land-based recreation and balanced diets. This was true to some extent, especially before people like James Cook showed that careful planning, navigation and attention to some basic essentials such as diet, sanitation and hygiene could not only keep sailors healthy but would save lives.
There is a lot of relevant history leading up to the period of exploration which gradually unraveled some of the medical mysteries of deficiency diseases and it might be possible to return to that later. Meanwhile there were certainly expeditions during Nelson’s time which came to grief because ships’ crews were decimated by disease; or they were so severely weakened that they required assistance to limp into port. Such an embarrassing experience occurred in 1802 when the French ship Geographe under Nicolas Baudin reached Port Jackson.
Baudin barely made it into Port Jackson and spent the next five months recuperating and replenishing supplies – a situation at the time that begged the questions as to what did the French knew about scurvy and what preventive measures did they practice to avoid the disease. The crews of the Geographe and the Naturaliste were also severely attacked by dysentery when they landed in Timor. The sad consequence for many of the French captains was that they too suffered and a significant number did not return home after months or years at sea.
Though Baudin’s medical officers were much less aware of the causes, prevention and treatment of scurvy than their British counterparts, they nevertheless showed impressive clinical skills and keen interest in medical research. On their return to France two of them published doctoral theses on scurvy and a third published a thesis on dysentery. Francois Peron, a naturalist and a medical graduate from Paris, who belatedly published the journal from this voyage, also wrote on medical aspects of the expedition.
Thirty or forty years later when passengers paid to emigrate to Australia from England the death rates on hundreds of successful voyages were considerably lower than for the shorter trans-Atlantic crossings to America. And the logical reason for this is shown by the reports extant from surgeon superintendents on each ship who kept meticulous records. Their recommendations regarding diet, exercise, hygiene and sanitation were adhered to because the surgeon’s word on these matters was accepted as law. There are many types of illness that can affect the efficiency of a crew just to sail a ship let alone go into battle against an aggressive, determined enemy. Well before Nelson’s time sea voyages had become a matter of endurance, long drawn-out expeditions of uncertain or unpredictable outcome. The early explorers had no idea what to expect and generally were unprepared for the uncertainties of resupply of essentials like water and fresh fruit.
Trade and Colonisation
Not until regular trade routes were established to India or the West Indies did they find reliable sources of food and water at regular ports of call. As ships and navigation improved, the sea-going nations encouraged their sailors to go further into the unknown, to explore and to investigate potential trade routes, but for centuries the distance and time at sea were always their enemies.
It seems that trade and colonisation were the two factors that created intense competition between the various sea-faring nations, the one following the other as a necessary protection for their valuable business investments. As one thing led to another one might expect the protection of such national enterprises which included trade in spices, sugar, gold, ivory and slaves to lead to fierce competition and even conflict between nations. On some occasions it led to war.
Some of these nations were already at war across Europe, including Russia and even North America, so that at various times during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries it is understandable that their navies were constantly recognizing new allies and confronting new adversaries.
At the time of both the American war of independence against Britain (1776) and the French Revolution (1789) the resources of all countries involved were stretched, even before the extra burden imposed by the Imperialist campaigns of Napoleon. In the ten year period from 1774 the Royal Navy increased in size from 103 ships with 17,000 men to 430 warships with more than 107,000 men.