Rough Medicine: Surgeons at Sea in the Age of Sail

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9780415924528: Rough Medicine: Surgeons at Sea in the Age of Sail
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Using diaries, journals, and correspondences, Druett recounts the daily grind surgeons on nineteenth-century whaling ships faced: the rudimentary tools they used, the treatments they had at their disposal, the sorts of people they encountered in their travels, and the dangers they faced under the harsh conditions of life at sea.

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About the Author:

Joan Druettis the author ofShe Captains: Heroines and Hellions of the Sea(2000) andHen Frigates: Wives of Merchant Captains Under Sail(1998). She lives in Wellington, New Zealand.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

"This is a dangerous island," John Coulter admitted when the Stratford dropped anchor as Hivaoa [in the Marquesan Islands]. However, having gained the sponsorship of one of the chieftains, "Toomova," by the simple expedient of rubbing noses, he shouldered his gun and a bag of ammunition, stepped into a canoe, and landed on shore. For four days, all went swimmingly. The scenery proved as delightful as the hospitality. Then, however, he discovered something that gave him pause -- "and extensive defence, or breast-work, recently repaired, with a warrior lurking here and there behind it." Could his hosts be at war with another tribe?

Coulter cautiously looked around, and saw Toomova watching him with a very broad grin. "Very good man you," said he, "pointing significantly" at Coulter's double-barreled gun. The surgeon promptly informed him that he had nothing to do with any local conflict, but then was silly enough to rise to the challenge when asked to show off his marksmanship. No matter how many pearl shells they put up as targets, John Coulter unerringly blew them to pieces. Accordingly, he should not have felt surprised when two days later the chieftain who had been left as hostage on the Stratford walked into the hut with a guileless smile, and the news that the ship had sailed off and left him.

Naturally, Coulter's hosts "were quite pleased with the idea that I might be with them always," and promptly invited him to a council of war. It was group that:

Presented a strangely wild and romantic appearance ... The fine athletic forms, the rich head-dresses, the entire body being tatooed over; no covering but the "mara," or rool of native cloth about the loins; the guns, spears, or clubs of each chief lying either beside or before him; the great body of warriors hovering at a distance around, the fluttering of the feathers in the head-dress, the waving of the leafy veil overhead, all gave an impressive effect to the scene.

Coulter was given a headdress of his own as evidence of his new high status and invited to give an opinion. After due thought he suggested that there should be a military parade and inspection of arms so that he could assess their resources. This was considered an excellent notion -- with the proviso that he would take on the dress of a chief. The doctor did not want to do this at all, but they took his clothes away, so he had no choice but to array himself in an assortment of bark-cloth wraps and human hair adornments. This metamorphosis was hailed with great delight, expressed in yells, drumming, and a war dance. So far, so good. The problem was that the omens proclaimed that he should be tattooed all over as well.

Understandably, Dr. Coulter felt very strong reservations indeed -- but, as with the clothes, he had no choice: "therefore I made up my mind to accede to the wishes of the chiefs and people with as good a grace as possible, and to bear any pain inflicted by the operation as manfully as I could." His only proviso was that his face should remain unmarked -- a very wise move. Dr. Frederick Bennett described the "harlequin-like appearance" of the Marquesan men, three broad bands of black being tattooed across the forehead, eyes, and mouth. A circle of untouched skin was left around each eye, lending a "peculiarly glaring and almost terrific effect" to the visage.

At the news that Coulter had agreed to be decorated in their traditional fashion, the tribe became more excited than ever; guns were fired in the air and "conchs sounded in all directions." And, forthwith, the "operation" started. There were two "tatoo-men" with two assistants who bore the instruments, which were pieces of flat bone in all different sizes, each with a cane handle and serrated at one edge for incising hte skin and inserting the pigment. After stabbing patterns into the skin with these comblike tools, wads of fine bark cloth were used to wipe off the blood, "in order to see if the impression is perfect," and then the dye was beaten in with the rapid hitting of a stick on the slanted handle of the tattooing tool. The process was just as uncomfortable as it sounds. "The constant hammering at the skin, or into it, with considerable violence, irritates the whole frame, and the constant wiping off the blood with the tappa [bark cloth] is worse. However, as the ! work proceeds, the flesh swells up, which gradually benumbs the part."

Harrowingly, Dr. Coulter was very conscious of possible complications, everything he had ever learned about tumors, abscesses, ulcers, and erysipelas progressing through his mind. Nonetheless, he took it like a soldier, for four hours the first day and three hours the second. Then he was rubbed all over with coconut oil and, after another ceremonial round of musket firing and conch-blowing, he was propped up in the cool shade of a tree to recover. Unsurprisingly, he felt "a little faintish," but managed to be polite to the stream of people who came along with congratulatory presents. A few days later, "the swelling all went down, the outer skin peeled off," and he was as good as new, if somewhat unrecognizable.

Inevitably, however, there came the day when the "war-conchs" blew, and he had to gird himself for battle.

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