Tropical diseases

For much of the nineteenth century, disease caused far more fatalities in the British Army than enemy action, and it hit very hard in the West Indies. Diseases that were not known in Europe were poorly understood by medical science.

Scurvy and dysentery had been long known to sailors, and the need for fresh and clean food was understood, but the fevers that raged in the islands had as yet no effective treatment. It was not until the end of the century that it was established that malaria and yellow fever were transmitted by mosquitoes. Quinine, then called Jesuit’s bark, had been used by South American natives for centuries. It was known to Western medicine by this time, but the former Inspector of Hospitals in the West Indies Sir Andrew Halliday (see Further Reading) found it ineffective. However, when several officers including English and many soldiers were laid low with fever in British Guiana in 1837 (letters 64, 69 and 74), Dr Carl Warburg was practising there, and it is possible that the medical officer of the 69th Dr Whyte successfully prescribed the recently developed Dr Warburg’s fever drops, of which quinine was the principal ingredient.

‘I felt that a cold was hanging about me. I tried to shake it off & joined a large dinner party, but…[I]…was glad to get home. It was last saturday fortnight. From that time until within the last two days I have been far from well with a sharp touch of Colony fever & ague. However, I thank God, with care & Dr Whyte’s medicine, I am all right again and picking up fast, but it certainly does weaken a man most rapidly. It is a treacherous climate, Demerara.’ (letter 74)

‘Last Saturday fortnight’ was the day following his previous letter. Perhaps he played down the severity of his attack in his letter home, for a month later he was writing ‘without Dr Whyte & his good wife I know not what I should have done.’  This was the only occasion when our Colonel had a serious illness in the islands, and five weeks after letter 74, he was on the way back to Barbados, where the climate was considered much healthier. Whyte himself had suffered an attack (letter 41) and letter 81 tells how English had a word in the General’s ear to get him and his young family transferred to St Kitts.

There is a description in letter 93 of fever striking the crew of a ship at sea: ‘A day or two after dispatching my last letter, the Harpy returned from Sierra Leone. I went on board to call on Lt Clement comdg on her departure. When alongside, the off who came to receive me looked so melancholy that I suspected something was wrong. So soon as on the quarter deck I asked for Clement. The answer was “dead, Sir, the Dr dead, another off also and 18 or 20 men & every man in the ship had been suffering with yellow fever”. I do not know when I felt so shocked. They had only 15 hands, officers, boys & all, to bring the Brig in, and all looked like as risen from the dead, & poor Owen I regret sincerely.’

Other outbreaks of fever are reported in letters 111 and 113.

Sir Andrew Halliday’s Letter to the…Secretary at War, written in 1839, argued for better medical care for the garrisons in the West Indies: ‘out of every thousand white troops there are eighty-seven constantly ineffective from sickness in the windward and leeward command’; ‘many of the unknown, and most of the obvious and tangible causes of these diseases which are the principal source of mortality, may and can be removed by means fully within our power’. He accused the authorities of ‘careless indifference as to the common comforts and conveniences of the soldier…and…total disregard of all measures of prevention, even when pointed out by the intelligent medical officer’. Florence Nightingale couldn’t arrive too soon.