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The Maritime Museum Port Adelaide has recently opened a fascinating new exhibition - Rough Medicine: Life & Death in the Age of Sail. It explores the role of illness, injury, poor diet and disease for our intrepid early settlers travelling to Australia.
Travelling to Australia during the first hundred years of European settlement was no easy task. The only way to get here was by taking a long and arduous sea voyage - sailing to Australia from England typically took three or four months.
Sniff This - Experience Sailing to Australia From England
Not only was the voyage long, but conditions aboard a sailing ship were far from comfortable. Passengers who travelled in "steerage" stayed on the lowest deck, below the water line. Conditions were cramped, ventilation was poor and lighting was inadequate especially if the use of candles and oil lanterns was forbidden.
When ships encountered a heavy storm, conditions below deck must have been truly terrifying. Sea sickness and disease was rife, and the danger of accidents were always present, especially with cargo and heavy water barrels being thrown around causing many deaths at sea.
A Bone Syringe Used to Treat Seamen on a Sailing Ship Travelling to Australia
With such high risks of accident or disease, a visit to the ship's surgeon would have been common. But that did not mean that things would necessarily get better. Medical knowledge was steadily improving during the nineteenth century, but ships often carried leeches to cure illness. It was thought then that bleeding with leeches balanced the "humors"to make people well. Don't miss seeing the leeches at the Rough Medicine Exhibition!
There were some far worse prospects for sailors with gonorrhoea, as a bone syringe was used to provide urethral injections of mercury. Anyone with a contagious disease would be detained on arrival in Adelaide at the Torrens Island Quarantine Station, which for some was their final destination.
Surgical Tools - Rough Medicine Practiced on a Sailing Ship
Anyone needing surgery faced a shocking experience without anaesthetic until it became available in the second half of the nineteenth century. Rough Medicine: Life & Death in the Age of Sail displays an assortment of instruments once used by ships' surgeons - amputation knives, bone saws, and forceps were enough to send a chill down my spine.
Deaths at sea were not uncommon, up to twenty percent of children did not survive sailing to Australia from England. For burial at sea the body was sewn into a piece of canvas or a sheet, with the last stitch being passed through the nose of the body to ensure that they were really dead. The corpse was then tipped over the side of the ship.
Scurvy Treatment - Poor Diet Was a Matter of Life and Death
The poor diet available on a sailing ship travelling to Australia was also a problem. There were no fresh fruit or vegetables available for long periods, and meat was either salted or pickled to preserve it. In the late eighteenth century it was found that juice from oranges, lemons and lime prevented scurvy, and rations were then given to passengers and sailors.
Rough Medicine: Life & Death in the Age of Sail gives a slightly scary insight into the challenges facing our early settlers sailing to Australia from England. I particularly liked the interactive features including the "sniff this" bottles, and Adelaide kids will love them too.
Smallpox Sufferers Stayed at the Torrens Island Quarantine Station
This amazing exhibition will be at the Maritime Museum Port Adelaide until Sunday November 30, when it sets sail for other museums in Australia. You can read more details about the Rough Medicine exhibition here.