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Tuberculosis in Cook’s Ships

 

Captain Robert FitzRoy, in command of HMS Beagle when Charles Darwin was a passenger, was a great admirer of Captain Cook.

 

In his account of the voyage,1 FitzRoy wrote on 15 November, 1835,
Early this morning we saw Otaheiti.  No person now doubts that Tahiti is the native word, and therefore the most correct to be used; but as our immortal countryman, Cook, wrote Otaheiti, and it is difficult to hear or see the word without thinking of him, I shall beg to be allowed the same privilege. 

 

The following day,
I was fully occupied in making observations upon the spot where once stood Cook’s observatory, a classical, and to us, important place.  Upon the situation of this celebrated point, Venus, depend most of the geographical positions of islands in the South Sea; and its locality upon our globe has been deemed well known.

 

On 21 November, he went to see Ua, an old man, who remembered Toote (Cook), yet was still strong and active.
He told me that in those days he was a little boy.  There were many more people then in Otaheiti; ten to one, as compared with the present numbers: but sickness had destroyed a great many, he thought.  The island was not so healthy as in former times; and they had caught diseases, in those days unknown.  Asking who brought this or that disease, he imputed the worst to the ships which came after Cook’s first visit, and left men upon the island until their return the following year.

 

Curvature of the spine, or a hunchback, never appeared until after Cook’s visits; and as he had a hunchbacked man in his ship, they attribute that deformity to him.

 

Are there more references to hunchbacks among Cook’s companies?  Tuberculosis (TB) infecting a vertebra in the neck (Pott’s disease of the cervical spine) was the commonest cause of hunchback.  Now very rare in the western world, hunchback was probably common enough in Cook’s time to pass without comment as affected individuals could continue to live and be around for years.  Even when I was young there were at least two hunch-backs in our town.  Living conditions in Cook’s ships were ideal for the spread of TB, and infectious individuals could show no obvious signs of disease for years. 

 

Cook was surrounded by shipmates who died from TB: John Simcoe in HMS Pembroke; Forby Sutherland, the first British person to be buried in Australia; Charles Clerke, said to have contracted tuberculosis in a debtor’s prison, but possibly already infected when he went in; and James King.  

 

Even allowing for artistic licence, the contrast between Cook’s appearance in the Dance and later portraits, and his irascibility and intermittent lack of drive during the Third Voyage, suggest to me that he himself could have been burdened by a slowly progressing debilitating disease such as TB. 

 

There is no getting away from the facts that Cook’s visits to the Pacific contributed to the spread of European diseases, such as TB and syphilis, with devastating effect, and this is not denied by such a hero-worshipper as FitzRoy.

 

Robin Stenhouse

References

1.FitzRoy, Robert.  Narrative of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle.  Folio Society.  1977. 


Originally published in Cook's Log, page 23, volume 40, number 3 (2017).

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