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

The Most Powerful Man On Board

            The surgeon was, if not the most, one of the most important individuals on board any ship carrying indentured laborers. The position was one that was taken very seriously; after all they were responsible for delivering the passengers alive. As a result, a very specialized individual would take up the job. Surgeons were commonly either Indians or Eurasians who had been trained in the Calcutta medical school. These individuals more often went on voyages to places like Mauritius and Malaya (these were usually shorter). Sometimes the surgeons were taken from the Indian civil medical service, others were former naval doctors. Other times surgeons who had worked on ships en route to Australia would transfer to the “coolie trade.”
            A surgeon was only invited back if a certain amount of people arrived alive, therefore these individuals were considered very capable and professional. However, because they were responsible for the health and discipline of the passengers, as well as the upkeep of the actual ship (ensuring that the migrants were keeping their quarters clean), they held much power. As you will read later on, often times this power was unfortunately abused, resulting in acts of misconduct.

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