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Captain Cook in Google Earth: Fevers and Fluxes

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His Majesty’s Bark Endeavour arrived in Batavia, Java, on 10th October, 1771. At this point in the voyage, more than 3 years after setting sail from Plymouth, the ship was in a very poor state and in need of a major refit. John Satterly, the ship’s carpenter provided Lieutenant Cook with a description of her defects, the majority of the damage being inflicted when Endeavour ran aground on a reef off Australia:

The ship very leaky (as she makes from 12 to 6 inches water per hour) occasioned by her main Kiel being wounded in many places and the Scarfe of her Stem being very open. The false Kiel gone beyond the Midships from Forward and perhaps further, as I had no opportunity of seeing for the water when hauled ashore for repair. Wounded on her Starboard side under the Main Chains, where I imagine is the greatest leaks (but could not come at it for the water).

By contrast, the men in were in good condition. The diet of his crew was constantly on Cook’s mind and he made every effort to procure fresh produce whenever possible. His journal entry for 15Oct1771 reads:

Monday, 15th. Fresh Sea and land breezes and fair weather. I had forgot to mention that upon our arrival here I had not one man upon the sick list; Lieut. Hicks, Mr. Green, and Tupia were the only people that had any complaints occasioned by a long continuance at Sea.

This was a great success considering the hardships, both physical and psychological, the men had endured. However, a mere 3 weeks after returning to ‘civilisation’ from the privations that attended their voyage of discovery the picture was very different. On Wednesday, 07Oct1771 Cook wrote:

Wednesday, 7th. Employ’d getting ready to heave down in the P.M. We had the misfortune to lose Mr. Monkhouse, the Surgeon, who died at Batavia of a Fever after a short illness, of which disease, and others, several of our people are daily taken ill, which will make his loss be the more severely felt; he was succeeded by Mr. Perry, his mate, who is equally as well skilled in his profession.

And another 3 weeks after this:

Wednesday, 26th. The number of Sick on board at this time amounts to 40 or upwards, and the rest of the Ship’s Company are in a weakly condition, having been every one sick except the Sailmaker, and old Man about 70 or 80 years of age. But notwithstanding this general sickness, we lost but 7 men in the whole: the Surgeon, 3 Seamen, Mr. Green’s servant, and Tupia and his servant, both of which fell a sacrifice to this unwholesome climate before they had reached the object of their wishes.

You have to feel for these men; they had rounded Cape Horn against wind and tide; they had taken their ship across the Pacific to Tahiti to observe the transit of Venus, then turned south to face more violent storms in search of a suspected southern continent; they had circumnavigated both North Island and South Island of New Zealand again with heavy swells and storm force winds; they sailed the whole of the east coast of Australia, sounding with a lead most of the way; they survived the grounding of the ship on the Great Barrier Reef when only their efforts at pump and windlass saved them; they proved there was a passage between Australia and New Guinea; and with a ship that was battered and worm-eaten they had limped to Batavia.

These giants of adventure were laid low by the microscopic organisms of dysentery: viruses, bacteria, protozoans, and parasites of various types. Too little was known of the mechanisms of dysentery and the preventive measures against it and they paid the price. The illness had no respect for rank; Mr. Monkhouse, the ship’s surgeon, Charles Green, the astronomer from the Royal Society, and Sydney Parkinson, natural history painter in the retinue of Joseph Banks, all eventually succumbed to the ‘flux’; and the disease ran through all other ranks including: the boatswain, the carpenter, the sailmaker, and a whole swathe of marines and seamen.

Cook completed his description of Batavia with the following text:

Batavia is certainly a place that Europeans need not covet to go to; but if necessity obliges them, they will do well to make their stay as short as possible, otherwise they will soon feel the effects of the unwholesome air of Batavia, which I firmly believe is the Death of more Europeans than any other place upon the Globe of the same extent. Such, at least, is my opinion of it, which is founded on facts. We came in here with as healthy a Ship’s Company as need go to Sea, and after a stay of not quite 3 months left it in condition of a Hospital Ship, besides the loss of 7 men; and yet all the Dutch Captains I had an opportunity to converse with said that we had been very lucky, and wondered that we had not lost half our people in that time.

What happened next is portrayed in a Google Earth presentation which plots Endeavour’s track after leaving Batavia. She was bound for England by way of the Cape of Good Hope. Not long after passing through the Straits of Sunda and while heading out into the Indian Ocean towards the trade winds, the men began to die. In the next 34 days there were 23 deaths. How very disheartening that must have been for the man who had kept scurvy at bay for 3 years and more.

Clearly, a bracing sea cruise is not the cure for dysentery. Cook felt that matters improved once they reached the trade winds, but the two screenshots above show the trail of death right across the Indian Ocean until Endeavour was to the south of Madagascar. Cook recorded the last deaths as follows:

Wednesday, 27th (February, 1771). Ditto Gales and Cloudy. In the A.M. died of the Flux Henry Jeffs, Emanuel Parreyra, and Peter Morgan, Seamen, the last came sick on board at Batavia, of which he never recover’d, and the other 2 had long been past all hopes of recovery, so that the death of these 3 men in one day did not in the least alarm us. On the contrary, we are in hopes that they will be the last that will fall a sacrifice to this fatal disorder, for such as are now ill of it are in a fair way of recovering.

To view the presentation described above, go to http://www.hazelhurst.net/Cook/ and select ‘Batavia to Cape of Good Hope’ in the menu system; then click on ‘Fevers and Fluxes’.

Copyright © Colin Hazlehurst, 2012

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