Thursday, May 8, 2014

Dear Diary: A Walk In The Woods

Before continuing with my reading of George William Lillies’ 1840s journal of a Royal Navy surgeon in the West Africa Squadron, I want to modify slightly comments I made about GWL’s racism in my first post on the subject.

There is no question he expresses abhorrent ideas about Africans, ideas that seem antithetical to the goals of the naval mission in which he was involved. But the fact that the official British government policy of the time was to eradicate the slave trade does not mean Britons in general or naval officers in particular were free of racism, or even that official government policy was. British policy towards Africa and India and much of the rest of its empire was based on the fundamentally racist view that white people and white civilization – and specifically British civilization – were innately superior to others. So it’s hardly surprising that GWL held racist views. Most of his contemporaries did too.

It’s also worth pointing out that he was very young, just 21, and that the most obnoxious comments about Africans occur early in the journal. I want to believe that, like at least some fair-minded, educated Britons of the period, he came to view Africans differently as he got to know them, and as the shock of the unfamiliar wore off. There is some evidence for this. On November 10, 1846, he visits a native school in a town in present-day Cameroon, and after hearing the children sing and answer questions, remarks, “they seemed to be very intelligent and really the sight was very gratifying.” Patronizing? Of course, but a marked improvement on his earlier comparison of Africans to orangutans.

1827 map showing the regions in which HMS Styx was patrolling in 1846
Last time out, I also quoted a modern expert on the lot of West Africa Squadron personnel, in particular the high risk of disease and violent encounters they faced. As a surgeon with an apparently wide brief to treat not just British personnel but also allies and even private citizens he came in contact with, GWL had a first-hand understanding of those risks. In one of the longest passages early in the journal, he describes an ill-fated jungle walk by some HMS Styx officers to a nearby town – and his  fears about contracting malaria or Coast Fever as a result. Fear of disease is a theme that runs through the journal.

The walking party lands on a beach, hires a local guide and tramps through the jungle for hours, finally arriving at a down-at-heels town where little or no refreshment can be found. Disgusted, they start back almost immediately, with a different guide this time who takes them on a “short cut” that turns out to be even more treacherous and exhausting than the route out. The whole episode has a whiff of comedy about it: arrogant white men led on a wild goose chase by uncomprehending natives. One suspects that even GWL, grumpy as he is about it, could see the comic side. At one point he describes the final stages of the journey:

“John Wise now began to growl most pitiously sometimes swearing at the guide sometimes coaxing him in order to find out how far we were exactly from our destination - Every now and then expressions such as "Damn it all my poor shins"   "Oh there I am once more on my latter end"   "My shoes are full of mud and water" would escape from him and on looking round you would see poor John sprawling on his back amid the mud and briars.”

But GWL also realizes that the men have put themselves at serious risk of contracting malaria – even if his medical reasoning on the subject sounds questionable from the vantage point of 2014:

“If the air was tainted with miasmata surely we must have imbibed them as our condition both as regarded body and mind was just such as morbid effluvia would be likely to act on -  We passed through much swamp where all the material were present to constitute malaria both vegetable matter and no doubt animal (for where luxuriant vegitation [sic] exists there in nine cases out of ten you will find thousands of live Insects or their exsivir [eggs, larvae?]) with water were present there, the sun had acted powerfully during the day - we were in the Jungle some time after sunset - we were for most of the time under trees which are known to attract the poison - still not one of the party felt at all the worst for it - All they complained of was lassitude - in fact what they would have felt if they had taken a twenty mile walk in England - If malaria produces such dire effects as have been attributed to it's influence we may consider ourselves most fortunate at escaping so easily.”

Still, in the days following, during what he calls his "probation," GWL keeps a careful eye out for symptoms in himself and his shipmates. He protests at one point, “I never feared disease yet and never shall,” – but it’s clear he does. He then goes on to express a seemingly strange perspective for a doctor and man of science, even in 1846: “My views on the subject are these - I know man's life is in the hands of the Almighty Creator - if it please him to afflict man with disease no human art or power in my opinion can avert or remedy the evil.”

Fanciful, possibly satiric,19th century print illustrating the miasma theory of disease

Medical scientists from the 17th century until the 19th believed many diseases, including cholera and malaria, were caused by breathing bad air from decomposing organic matter such as swamps. The word malaria is derived from the Italian, mala aria, bad air. They were wrong, of course. Malaria is borne by infected mosquitoes, cholera by contaminated water. Given his mention of insects, it's not clear if GWL understands this or not. Use of the word miasma (hence GWL's "miasmata," presumably the particles of miasma) entered the language in the mid-17th century, according to the Oxford Dictionaries online. It's derived from the Greek miainein, meaning  defilement or pollution.

In the days following the jungle trek, GWL treats a passenger on a Genoese (Italian) ship, who eventually succumbs to the fever, then the captain of an American ship, one of whose men has already died of malaria. He later describes many other such episodes.

Next time: chasing slavers.

In the meantime, if you want to delve into the journal yourself, I've saved it as an ePub e-book in DropBox, here. Follow the link and you should be able to download it to your computer or mobile. If you just want a PDF of the journal, it's here.


  1. Another interesting entry, Pa! All this infectious disease talk reminds me of a really interesting book (can't remember if you read it or possibly even recommended it to me) called "The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic" about cholera in Victorian London and the guy who finally solved the puzzle of how it was transmitted.
    Also, really cool illustration! xx

  2. I do remember you talking about that book, but never read it. Do you remember when they put the miasma theory to rest?

  3. My guess was late 19th century (and this is confirmed by wikipedia).