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Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Pirate surgeons and their books

The books that pirates wrote

Back in more swashbuckling days, a young medical man who had just walked out of Surgeons' Hall with his certificate in his hand could find all the adventure he could possibly want. If he approached the right person—or was captured by the right person—he could be the surgeon of a Caribbean buccaneer, and earn a salary of 250 pieces of eight, plus a share of any booty. Not only was he on the way to a fortune, but a surgeon on a pirate was awarded a great deal of respect, being considered the second most valuable man on board, the first being the navigator, or “sea artist.”

One such enterprising medical soul was Lionel Wafer, who first went to sea in 1677 as surgeon’s mate in the Great Anne of London, Captain Zachary Brown, on a voyage to Java. He enjoyed it so much that within a month of returning home in the Bombay, he was off to sea again. However, it seems that it didn't go nearly as well as the last cruise, because Mr. Wafer left the ship in Jamaica to set up in private practice—which was fortunate, because when the Bombay touched at Mexico, the captain was taken prisoner and sold as a slave to a baker.

Despite this narrow escape, Dr. Wafer found that running a private surgery was not exciting enough for him. He sold up and returned to sea-surgery, voyaging first with the buccaneer Bartholomew Sharp, and then going around the world with William Dampier. He finally returned to London in 1690, to write a little book about his adventures, which was readily published in 1699, the printer and the public being not at all shocked at the prospect of reading the confidences of a pirate.

Back then, medical careers did not suffer permanent damage from association with crews of rough and dissolute plunderers. After all, international trade agreements are a comparatively modern development, and armed aggression aimed at both the defense and seizing of cargoes was regarded as the essence of commerce until very recent times. Edward Coxere, a Kentish sailor who first went to sea about the time that Charles I lost his head, and voyaged on merchant vessels throughout the Cromwell era and on into the restoration of the Stuart monarchy, made his living as a seaman in a most interesting century, and had appropriately interesting experiences. He fought for all sides, serving the Spaniards against the French, the Hollanders against the English, and the English against the Hollanders, not because he lacked any sense of patriotism, but because he had no choice. Then, when his ship was captured by the Turks, he served against the English, French, Dutch, and Spaniards — in short, as he said, against “all Christendom” — simply because he perceived that his duty was to serve his master and save his ship and cargo from seizure, no matter which flag he was sailing under at the time. A merchant sailor had to know his gunnery, even if all he had to defend was a load of dried cod.

Considering the hazardous conditions in which pirates lived, working out of places that were hotbeds of malaria, dysentery, and various fevers, it seems as if they were either remarkably healthy by the standards of the time, or else that their surgeons did a remarkably good job. That the famous pirate Henry Morgan managed to gather a force of 1,500 men capable of hacking a trail through jungles and marshes to cross the Isthmus of Panama, is a testimony to the skill of his surgeon, John Esquemeling, even if Esquemeling did write an extremely disloyal book about his employer afterwards. Not only did Morgan’s crew survive conditions that defeated the French canal-builder De Lesseps two centuries later, but they managed to seize and loot the City of Panama at the end of the nightmare crossing — quite a testament to their physical condition, considering that they had been reduced to cooking and eating bits of leather on the way.

Years afterward, Morgan was interviewed by the eminent doctor and naturalist, Sir Hans Sloane, who was collecting specimens for the Chelsea Physic Garden at the time. This was a place where exotic plants from all around the world were cultivated for the use of medicine and science, one of the crops being the cotton seeds that were the foundation of the industry in the Southern United States. Later — in 1722 — Sir Hans presented the garden to the Apothecaries’ Company, on condition that they maintained it for “the manifestation of the glory, power, and wisdom of God, in the works of creation,” presumably with Sir Henry Morgan’s donated plants still forming part of the collection.

It was not unknown for swashbuckling surgeons to finish up in command of ships. One such was “the Quicksilver Doctor,” Thomas Dover, who for many years was in private practice in Bristol, but then, at the strange age of 48, suddenly decided that life had got tedious, and went to sea with the famous privateer captain, Woodes Rogers. First, Dover rescued Robinson Crusoe (a.k.a. Alexander Selkirk) from his self-imposed exile on the island of Juan Fernandez. Then, in 1709, in command of a captured Spanish ship, he sacked the port of Guayaquil, sailing off with a fortune in loot. When plague struck his ship, Dover cured 172 men by bleeding them from both arms until they fainted.

After that, much enriched by the money his adventure had earned him — comprising a salary of 423 pounds sterling, one hundred pounds “storm money,” twenty-four pounds “plunder money,” and a share of the booty that totaled 2,755 pounds — he set up in private practice in London. He was a great believer in mercury as a medicine (the origin of his nickname), and also invented Dover’s powder, a mixture of opium and a Brazilian root called ipecacuanha that was prescribed for colds, coughs, insomnia, rheumatism, pleurisy, and dysentery, well into the twentieth century, until it was supplanted by antibiotics. Dover set forth his theories in a book called The Ancient Physician’s Legacy to his Country, which became a steady bestseller, and so it probably goes without saying that by the time he expired at the age of eighty-two, Captain/Doctor Thomas Dover was a very rich old fellow.

1 comment:

linda collison said...

As always, you inspire me in my research and writing! I appreciate all your writings about sugery and medicine at sea.