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My Research



Disease at Sea: Migrant Bodies, Ships and the Ocean in the voyage to Australia, 1830 – 1870.


My thesis is a maritime history of disease and migration.

Each chapter questions what emigrants and convicts on sailing voyages to Australia thought about disease. The thesis argues that migrants, their surgeons, and the Australian colonists who received them at the other end understood the voyage as a test of whether emigrants and convicts were fit to colonize new lands. Disease was important as it proved whether people had passed or failed this test. According to contemporaries the fragile consumptive, the exhausted demoralized convict or the weakling, wasted pauper had little useful purpose in the colonization of Australia. To make this argument, the thesis insists on the way that convicts, emigrants and surgeons understood disease as the product of a physical and mental interaction between the human body, the space of the ship, and the maritime environments through which they sailed.



Gustav Dore, The Rime of the Ancient MarinerChapter 1. Cholera: Getting Under Weigh

    In this first chapter I explore the case of convict and emigrant ships that returned to Britain within days of leaving with with outbreaks of cholera on board. I explore the way that these ships provide a new focus to histories of cholera as epidemic, and the association of cholera with migrants and its relationship to reform.

    Chapter 2. Fevers

    This chapter suggests that in the nineteenth century the sailing ship was an 'unreformed' place, and a 'feverish' place too. In contrast to the developments of abstract sanitised spaces and public health reforms in Britain, the ship continued to represent an overcrowded, permeable, breathing being. Its salted timbers oozed bad air, and passengers and surgeons evoked scenes analogous to the Black Hole of Calcutta, or the Assizes of 1750 in explaining the generation of disease.

    Chapter 3. Disease in the Tropics

    In this, the first of two chapters dedicated to disease and place, I explore the interaction of travellers with the tropics. I explore how the imagination of the tropics, and the sailors' maritime culture as a liminal place fed into ideas about disease, and how the heat of the tropics exacerbated the existing strains of the voyage to become a place intimately associated with disease.

    Chapter 4. Scurvy In The Southern Oceans

    The historiography of scurvy invariably credits James Lind and Thomas Trotter with the 'cure' of scurvy. In this chapter I ask what surgeons thought about scurvy and why did the 1840s witness collective experimentation on convict bodies in continued attempts to prevent and cure scurvy? This chapter also engages with the debate about the need for healthy convicts in the project of Australian colonisation.

    Chapter 5. Constitutions at Sea: Voyaging for Health?

    Physicians vigorously promoted the voyage for health to rich invalids. In this chapter I compare the literature aimed at those who travelled for their health, with the experiences of those who travelled despite their health. In this chapter I explore the different meanings of 'disease' in rich and poor, and argue that the voyage was a test for those who could not stand the rigours of settler life.

    Chapter 6. Quarantine: From Emigrant to Immigrant

    This chapter concludes the thesis by demonstrating how the ‘healthy’ arrival in the colony was not simply a temporal geographical line from A to B which failed or succeeded through the imposition of sanitation to combat specific disease entities. The label of ‘disease’ in quarantine was mediated by the passengers, the reports of the medical boards and the comments of the colonists in their newspapers. Understanding how and why disease occurred at sea involved a complex layering of judgments about individual moral character and physical fitness, their past lives, and the way that people and their bodies interacted with the ship, tropical climate and the maritime environment.