‘His many duties and anxieties’: Supervision and discipline at sea

  • Robin Haines


The role of a surgeon superintendent was mainly disciplinary: his control of the emigrants paramount.1 Most found that kind, or firm guidance was sufficient to maintain order. Vessels that arrived in a dirty or disordered state were considered a manifestation of the surgeon’s failure to meet the standards set by the colonial and imperial authorities. This was usually caused by a breakdown in his authority owing to lack of experience, incompetence, laziness, personality clashes with the captain, crew or emigrants or, less often, drunkenness.2 Needlessly authoritarian, unkind, or incompetent surgeons were reported on arrival by emigrants, who well understood that while they were constrained by various regulations on board, they were free to complain about any aspect of the journey. And many did so. Surgeons deemed by colonial authorities to have been incompetent, inefficient, or lacking in kindness and sympathy towards their charges, sailed no more on government-chartered ships. However, the letters and diaries of emigrants suggest that most wholeheartedly believed that the regulations were policed for their own benefit, and many competed for the privilege of becoming one of the ship’s sanitary or mess constables.


Typhoid Fever Novice Surgeon Ship Owner Immigration Agent Colonial Authority 
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  1. 2.
    For an account of drunkenness and incompetence on a voyage to Queensland, see H. Woolcock, ‘Medical supervision on nineteenth century emigrant ships: The voyage of the ‘Clifton’, 1861–1862’, in John Pearn (ed.), Pioneer Medicine in Australia, Amphion Press, Brisbane, 1988.Google Scholar
  2. 5.
    Francis M. Harricks, letter to British Medical Journal, May 1877, 574.Google Scholar
  3. 24.
    Gooden and Moore, Fifty Years’ History of Kensington and Norwood, Adelaide, 1903, 159.Google Scholar

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© Robin Haines 2005

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  • Robin Haines

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