Life at sea from 17th to 19th century under spotlight at WA Maritime Museum


Burial at sea: The Illustrated London News, November 1880. Courtesy, State Library of Victoria
Burial at sea: The Illustrated London News, November 1880. Courtesy, State Library of Victoria

IT could be horrible being sick in the centuries before modern medicine, more so when people were struck down while isolated on a ship for months at a time.

This history of illness on sea voyages from the 17th to the 19th century is being explored in a new exhibition at the WA Maritime Museum.

WA Museum chief executive Alec Coles said it was a fascinating history.

“Sickness could render a voyage anything from uncomfortable to horrific, or even fatal,” he said.

“Disease spread rapidly in cramped quarters, drinking water was often polluted, food perished and new climates brought new ailments from heatstroke to malaria with few escaping a visit to the ship’s surgeon.

“An eye-watering array of surgical instruments features in this absorbing and sometimes confronting exhibition.

“Ship surgeons carried an array of instruments including saws to amputate limbs, a cork-screw like trephine to remove sections of skull, tooth keys to break off teeth at their roots and it was recommended that every ship carried a jar of at least 50 leeches to bleed patients and rebalance the ‘humours’.”

Rough Medicine: Life and Death in the Age of Sail is at the Maritime Museum until August 28.