Disease, Death and Disposal of Remains

     The terrible truth that every sailor in the Royal Navy knew was that, as horrible as death in battle might be, death from disease was far more likely.  As Dudley Pope wrote in his Life in Nelson’s Navy, “In the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, which lasted with a short break for twenty-two years, the Royal Navy lost 1,875 killed in the six major and four minor battles fought by its fleets and four by its squadrons, compared with the more than 72,000 who died from disease or accident on board and another 13,600 who died in ships lost by accident or weather” (Annapolis:  Naval Institute Press, 1981; pg. 131).  The mortal remains of the victims of disease and accident were disposed of at sea.


      Armagh had since leaving Portsmouth lost more men to the outbreaks of, first while on its westbound transatlantic crossing, ship-fever and, in port in Jamaica, yellow-fever, than it had to French cannon.  In addition to outbreaks of continued and intermittent fevers, crewmen had been lost to duty from orthopaedic injuries resulting from falls, and from dysentery, Devonshire cholic, superficial ulcers, lumbago, and hernia.  This last was a particular risk for sailors aloft, the peculiar angle at which sail was hauled in while standing on the footrope and leaning over the yard putting unnatural stress on the abdominal muscles.  Among veteran sailors, each fifth or sixth man had had a rupture; the Royal Navy provided free trusses. 

     The surgeon’s mates aboard Armagh could reasonably expect that in the remainder of the cruise, men would sicken or die from the other ills common on men-o’-war: consumption, catarrhs, rheumatism, lumbago, sciatica, lockjaw, yaws, agues, paeripneumony, pleurisy, and the gravel.  Scurvy was effectively prevented by daily enforced consumption of either lime juice or sour krout, depending on the preference of a ship’s captain and the stocks on hand at the provisioners immediately before the ship cast off.  Epidemics of smallpox had effectively been prevented by inoculation of all naval personnel, though small outbreaks could occur when unvaccinated merchant sailors were impressed and infected other impressed men lacking the acquired immunity.  Sailors were historically prone to getting the great pox and the gleet, but even for the most traditional man-o’-war’s-men there was the difficulty of managing to contract a venereal disease, given the infrequency of liberty in port.


 Burial at Sea

      If a man-o’-war’s man became seriously ill, he would be segregated from the rest of the crew in Sick Bay; but little could be done for him.  A ship of the line, a three-decker, carried a surgeon; frigates did not rate surgeons, but had two or three surgeon’s mates.  Before the invention of antibiotics, and absent an understanding of antisepsis, basic sanitation, and germ theory, there was little that could be done other than to provide a man with rest and an improved diet in the hopes that he recover.  If not, the remains were disposed of at sea after a brief ceremony.


      “Decks cleaned, sir!” reported the Bosun to the First Lieutenant, after having both received the reports of the bosun’s mates and personally inspected both the spar-deck and the gun-deck.

     “Very well, Bosun,” responded Didcot.  “Pipe all hands to witness Burial of the Dead.  And dispatch a messenger to the surgeon’s mates and then to the Captain’s cabin.”

     The Bosun relayed the order to the boy who served as quarter-deck runner, then stepped to the unmarked yet universally acknowledged border of the quarter-deck, and raised to his mouth a silver-plated whistle, worn as a badge of office and on solemn occasions used instead of his own oxen voice to announce orders.  He sounded three piercing notes, then called, “Ahoy!  All hands to witness Burial of the Dead!”  The bosun’s mates relayed the order and with sharp glances and slight gestures formed the men on deck and those who scrambled up from below into formations along the rails. 

     Assisted by the sailmaker and his mates, the surgeon’s mates—who cared for the sick and dying, but who served no surgeon, an officer’s billet filled only on the two- and three-decker ships of the line of battle—brought on deck five bulky canvas packages. These bundles were the five men who had been found the morning before to have died of the ship-fever, the gaol-fever, whatever fever it was that had swept through the ship after it left Portsmouth, a fever that now seemed to have waned, after depleting the crew and motivating Armagh’s Captain to hope to encounter a neutral merchantman from which he could replenish his losses.  The fever’s latest five victims—last five, it was devoutly hoped—were now sewn into their hammocks with an eighteen-pound shot between their shins to ensure that they sank immediately, and the last stitch taken through the cartilage of the nose before being knotted, to increase the chances that the whole bundle would hold together for a seemly interval.


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