Saturday, January 11, 2003
S L I C E  O F  H I S T O R Y

Climate of Bombay gave a ‘sickly time’ to Englishmen
Pramod Sangar

MEDICINE is a field born out of the instinct of self-preservation. Various ailments, injury and pain must have been the contributory factors for the growth and the development of medical science in India as anywhere else. But the allopathic treatment introduced during the British rule in the second quarter of the 19th century was highly appreciated by the people in general and remained the basis of the present medical system in India. Consequently, medical colleges and hospitals were established all over India during the British rule. We have witnessed remarkable progress in the field of medical science in the post-Independence era as some of dreadful diseases like tuberculosis, cholera, typhoid, malaria, smallpox, plague, etc, are not only properly diagnosed but successfully treated with proper medication. Remedies have been discovered in modern times.

The government has been taking vigorous measures, from time to time, to combat and eradicate the ‘dreadful diseases’ of yesteryear — the campaign for polio eradication is a pointer in this direction. If we analyse the progress of India during the 19th century it will appear that there was hardly any aspect of life and society which was not deeply affected by the West. The 19th century, according to Prof R.C. Majumdar, "was a great dividing line and these hundred years changed the face of India far more than did the preceding thousand years."


But the picture drawn by European travellers regarding the medical scenario in the 17th century was certainly not that sanguine since the Europeans, particularly the English, died in large numbers due to the inadequacy of medical facilities available to them. Of all the diseases which affected the health of the Englishmen in India, fever either during typhoid or in malaria was by far the most deadly. Many Englishmen died young due to these diseases.

Alexander Hamilton has given a pathetic description of a hospital at Calcutta. There is, he says, "a pretty, good hospital where many go to undergo the penance of physical treatment, but few come out to give an account of the operations". We may judge the condition of Calcutta early in the 18th century from his statement that in one year, out of 1200 Englishmen, 450 were buried as there were 450 burials registered in the Clark’s book of mortality. The Englishmen lived in style, ate a variety of rich food and drank the best wines. But their excessive eating and drinking landed them in serious trouble as many of them died in their prime youth.

Dr John Fryer, a great writer and surgeon, visited Surat, Bombay and other places with English settlements, wrote in unequivocal terms about the various ailments suffered by the British as climatic hazards also added to their woes.

There was considerable sickness and mortality among the Englishmen in Bombay during 1670-71. In July, 1670, Gray wrote, "It’s now a sickly time for fluxes and favours." A number of Englishmen fell ill and the doctors had no medicines to give them. Aungier, the president of the East India Company, after his arrival in India ordered the construction of a hospital.

In January, 1671, Coates and Captain Burges fell sick in Bombay. The former died after a long and complicated disease. In October, 1671, Dr Powell and Dr Boice were deputed to treat the 45 soldiers lying ill. The doctors were unable to diagnose the mysterious disease and their sheer incompetence and inability to treat the sick surfaced.

In 1675, in view of the large-scale sickness among the Englishmen, on the request of Aungier two principal surgeons, Dr John Fryer and Dr John Bird, were appointed as more than 50 Englishmen died due to post-monsoon sickness. During 1676, the council members suffered severely from illness as Petit and Giffard fell victim to flux and died afterwards.

Cholera was another terrible disease which took a heavy toll of human lives as 400 out of 500 Englishmen perished and were buried in 1677. Even Sir John child refused to join as Deputy Councillor out of sheer terror of the climate in India. Besides the horrible climatic conditions, another cause that contributed to the disease and mortality, as explained by Gerald Aungier, was the ill-governance, maladministration, debauchery and wicked intemperance of the Englishmen even as they lay on their death bed. Gifford tried to check the evil of drunkenness through various measures but failed.

The climate of Bombay, according to the traders, was so unhealthy as to give rise to proverbs like "In Bombay, a man’s life does not exceed two monsoons."

In the end, it can be said that apart from the unsuitable climate of places like Bombay, Calcutta and Madras, the Englishmen were equally to blame for their miserable health due to excessive drinking and other vices.