Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

Mending the Sick and Wounded: The Development of Naval Hospitals in the West Indies, 1740-1800

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

Mending the Sick and Wounded: The Development of Naval Hospitals in the West Indies, 1740-1800

Article excerpt

Disease, occupational hazards, and war-wounded created a serious drain on the Royal Navy's manpower during the long eighteenth century. The British Admiralty knew first-hand the benefits of sustaining healthy crews, since those men were far more valuable than a fleet bourgeoning with sickly men operating at half-strength. This was particularly important on remote stations such as the East and West Indies stations where manpower was always a major concern. (1) When it proved necessary to send men halfway around the world in defence of British colonial interests, it became essential to contract with individuals to provide food, medication, and accommodations on shore for seamen. This arrangement, termed the "sick quarters system," proved problematic for the navy's Sick and Hurt Board, the branch of the Admiralty charged with maintaining the health and welfare of seamen. As early as mid-century, this system began to fall out of favour with the navy while a growing inclination for hospitals emerged. It can be argued that this growing partiality to hospitals was spurred by wartime, particularly in cases of colonial defence and expansion.

An examination into the Royal Navy's initial approach to depositing sick seamen ashore in the early eighteenth century will illuminate the motivations for establishing purpose-built naval hospitals at home and abroad. While there was no systematic hospital development, the navy targeted areas with the largest concentration of seamen. Focus was placed on notoriously unhealthy regions, such as the West Indies. Once operational, hospitals in the West Indies, for example the facility at Antigua and the larger structure at Jamaica, proved efficacious in the treatment of ailing sailors and marines. Contrary to several scholarly accounts of the Royal Navy in the eighteenth century, the majority of men returned to active service; to this end, a significant amount of statistical data is included, evincing the advancements in seamen's health which is, to some degree, attributed to the navy's shift toward purpose-built hospitals. (2)

At the beginning of the eighteenth century it was the navy's custom to send its sick seamen ashore in order to temporarily place them in rented rooms and houses in an attempt to convalesce. These rooms were leased at the cheapest possible price, and only on short term contracts. Once the number of sick men decreased, the contracts terminated with the navy, no longer incurring a charge. The sick quarters system, while financially advantageous, was replete with deficiencies. Rented lodgings were typically spread throughout port towns and the rooms were often located in public houses, or situated near establishments where alcohol was easily acquired. Tales of inadequate facilities, underprovided supplies, sub-standard victual-ling, poor nursing practices, overcrowding, neglect and poor discipline permitted the patients to desert, routinely consume alcohol, or kept them in such an unhealthy state that they were incapable of returning to active service. (3) Moreover, naval surgeons complained of the difficulty in attending the sick since they were scattered among multiple lodgings; thus sailors did not always receive treatment.

Notwithstanding the difficulties, there were particular incentives for the Royal Navy to insist on the sick quarters system, predominantly financial in nature. First, when the need to hire accommodations in a particular port arose, the navy merely paid for use of the lodging without suffering a tremendous outlay of money. Essentially it only had to pay for the time men were lodged, and once the accommodation was no longer required, the navy ceased paying. (4) The price of lodging also included food, thereby providing the navy additional financial flexibility.

At times of war, when the British fleet was scattered across the globe, the system worked effectively enough to justify maintaining it, although the Admiralty and the Sick and Hurt Board recognized conditions were deplorable. …

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