Sailing the British Empire : The Voyages of The Clarence, 1858-73

The Worst of the Worst

    The sexual assault conducted by both the surgeons and other works on board is well documented. While surgeons were supposed to be protecting the emigrants, they often times were the ones doing the most harm. Often times a surgeon would go down between the decks and drag a female passenger into his cabin, proceeding to rape her. One specific case of this was that of Dr. William Holman, the surgeon on board The Ailsa in 1875. Holman was known for his many acts of sexual abuse and rape. Despite there being numerous testimonies against him, Holman was only suspended for half the journey and then reinstated to his position. Immoral in his conduct, Holman may also have been a less-than-competent doctor: aboard The Merchantman in 1857, 31% of his emigrants did not make it to the end of the voyage.
    Holman was only one of many “bad” surgeons. Edwin de Silva of the Henry Moore had a 23.4% mortality rate and participated in a sexual relationship with one of the female passengers on board. Dr. C Hatchell of the Bucephalus detailed many of his misconducts and inability to treat those on board in his journal entries. He so described a dead passenger: “Worms were actually crawling amid filth in in their clothes,” clearly illustrating his inability to keep the ship clean and to project this duty onto the emigrants. J. Seaman of Thomas Hamlyn was so drunk that he was unable to help a pregnant passenger. Dr. J.R. Brown was asked to leave his position after reportedly getting drunk and proceeding to pull the clothing off of female passengers.
    Not all surgeons were “bad,” however. Dr. Shaw of the Syria used a canoe to fetch help after the ship had crashed into a reef. The majority of Indians were saved thanks to his heroic acts. Others made a great effort to do the best they could given their resources: Samuel Crane of the Telegraph battled cholera on board with “great energy, intelligence, and the most minute attention.” Therefore, it was possible to combat disease on board. At the same time, however, ships’ surgeons were often constrained by the limits of contemporary medical knowledge or remedies.


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Shepherd, Verene. Maharani's Misery: Narratives of a Passage from India to the Caribbean. Kingston, Jamaica: U of the West Indies, 2002. Print.

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