Promoting Natural & Cultural History
This essay aims to look closer at ill health and traditions around the end of life in the context of clothing and various textiles – studied via travel journals and correspondence by Carl Linnaeus’ seventeen Apostles. Young men making natural history journeys to more than 50 countries over the period 1745 to 1799. The method by which the most suitable candidates were selected for these adventurous tasks was of crucial importance, due to that the travellers’ practical and theoretical knowledge had to be weighed against experience, enthusiasm and suitability. Despite careful preparations nearly half of them sadly died, either during the voyage or soon after as a consequence. However, it was not only from a personal perspective they made notes about poor health or severe illness and the importance of textiles; other observations regarded the demise of travel companions, about a local individual’s death, funerals, mourning or ceremonial commemorations in visited countries.
Several of these naturalists were trained physicians within their education, whilst a few worked onboard East India Company ships as surgeons where poor health and at times frequent deaths were a reality throughout the long sea voyages. Illnesses mentioned in correspondence, physician journals and diaries alike were consumption, falling sickness, the shivers, German measles, dysentery, gangrene, scurvy etc. Various sorts of linen, cotton and woollen cloths could assist in the healing for the patients. Even so, many times illnesses were contracted where no cures were known. To mention two of Carl Linnaeus’ (1707-1778) former students who died at a young age; Fredrik Hasselquist (1722-1752), doctor of medicine, died at the age of 30, in a village close to Smyrna (today Izmir) of consumption [tuberculosis], a very common disease as he had been infected with already before leaving Sweden. Whilst, Pehr Löfling (1729-1756) a few years later died in a mission in Guyana, Venezuela, of a ‘fever’ at the age of 27. Exactly what sort of fever is unknown, but the most common ailment in hot climates were either malaria, yellow fever or dysentery.
The ship’s physician or barber surgeon was an extremely important person onboard the ships bound for East India, the voyage usually lasting one and a half to two years but this one as studied from Carl Fredrik Adler’s (1720-1761) medical journal took more than three years. Alongside the sail makers and the carpenters, the doctor onboard was regarded as part of the category of especially essential and useful individuals. To aid him in his task, he had his medicine chest containing medicines, instruments and other crucial items for examinations and treatments. The crew, supported by orders from the higher ranking officers, could also do a great deal themselves to keep illnesses at bay. Cleanliness was regarded as of primary importance, and for that reason the ship should be properly swabbed inside out every day. Airing the bedding, attacking vermin at an early stage to stop it from spreading to the entire crew and keeping clothes free from humidity could also contribute to keeping those onboard in better health. For Adler, as a physician onboard such a Swedish East India Company ship, clean fabrics were vitally important, his notes revealing how cleanliness benefited the sick, how damp and dirt ought to be kept to a minimum, and how necessary access to fresh water onboard was for washing. Although the methods of a ship’s physician in the mid-1700s failed on many points, seen through modern eyes, studies of Adler’s patient records show that his knowledge of the value of cleanliness was of great benefit to the patients. This was his second voyage of four – lasting from 1753 to 1756 – on the last one he died on the outward leg in 1761 off the coast of Java, or even earlier during the passage by unknown illness.
The apostle Pehr Osbeck (1723-1805) who also travelled on a Swedish East India Company ship, but as a ship’s chaplain-cum-naturalist had the fortune to return back in reasonable good health and reached old age of 82. But during his time in the Canton area [today Guangzhou] he noticed local traditions linked to clothing, funerals and commemoration in September and October 1751.
The Linnaeus’ apostle Carl Peter Thunberg (1743-1728), travelled about two decades later with a Dutch East India Company ship towards the Cape. To prevent ill health from spreading, the crew were expected to stay on deck as often as possible; chests and hammocks to be aired, and everybody to keep both themselves and their clothes clean. One big problem, as Thunberg saw it, was that many were poorly equipped with clothes, something that made their recovery harder. Nevertheless, another perspective arose when someone passed away, as Thunberg mentioned in his journal on 26 March in 1772: ‘When the surgeon has made his report of the death of any person, the mate of the watch immediately orders his chest to be brought upon deck, and distributes his clothes among those who have occasion for them.’ Furthermore when, after nearly three months at sea, the captain finally began to hand out more necessary garments, the journal notes two days later: ‘The Company sends out stockings likewise and clothes made of coarse and thin cloth, which are delivered out upon credit to such as choose to avail themselves of this privilege; this distribution is made at the captain’s pleasure, to those whom he favours, and not always where it is wanted.’ There were in other words men who still lacked sufficient clothing, but two days later they too received their rations. ‘Clothes were now, for the second time, distributed among such of the soldiers as had hitherto been half-naked.’ It has to be mentioned that the distribution was done neither out of charity nor consideration; those garments were to be paid back through work during the voyage. Thunberg was undoubtedly relieved to be leaving the ship at the Cape, having established that 115 men had died during the stop-over at Texel and the sea voyage to the Cape. It was also noted, however, that there were Dutch ships where the mortality was even greater.
The contemporary apostle Anders Sparrman (1748-1720), whom also stayed in the Cape area for natural history observations, additionally had the opportunity to be an assistant botanist on James Cook’s (1728-1779) second voyage. On 14 September in 1773 – while sailing in the waters of in the Society Islands – his journal included notes about the importance of bark clothes, for the local inhabitants’ funeral and mourning traditions as he saw it from his European perspective:
The final travelling apostle, Adam Afzelius (1750-1837), made his long voyage as a naturalist to Sierra Leone almost twenty years after Linnaeus’ lifetime, that is to say in the mid-1790s. His detailed journal also includes some observations on mourning ceremonies and in what way textile materials were part of the local tradition. For instance on 22 March in 1796 Afzelius had met the leader from a minor town whose wife had recently died in childbirth. She was wrapped in mats and rags before the body was lowered into a deep hole which was covered with earth. Mats of this type were plaited from bamboo or other large-leaved plants which grew in abundance. Regarding mourning of some close relative’s demise in the area, Afzelius was keen to study the differences in dress between the various population groups in the previous year on 22 April 1795 he wrote from Sherbró. ‘When they are in mourning, then even the girls put on a blue cloth, contrary to what they do on Bullamshore, where you will see old women in mourning stripped naked only with something round their waist, a white cap on their head and the face and legs painted white’.
The naturalist Pehr Kalm (1716-1779) on the other hand had stayed for some months in London during the year 1748, prior to his North American travels in the colonies of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Delaware and the south eastern parts of what is today Canada. On 13 May he even mentioned that he had happened to see George II in his carriage close to the Parliament building. However, a note in his journal related to death and linen fabric was written on the crossing over the Atlantic Ocean on 11 September: ‘At 4.15 o’cl. one of the passengers called Wheeler died, a sailmaker who had been sickly throughout the voyage; and at 8 o’cl. following that he was buried in the customary manner of mariners by reading some prayers and then throwing the body, sewn into a hammock with a bag of coal by the feet, overboard into the sea.’ Whilst Kalm himself seems on the whole to have been contented with his existence and did not suffer any other serious illness than seasickness, mosquito bites and toothache. He lived for nearly thirty years after his return home in the summer of 1751 and therefore had the possibility to revise the results of his research and publish large parts of his journal.