Those who died were generally children. In the 1860s and 1870s, one in five of the infants below the age of one died on the voyage. Births on the voyage seldom outnumbered deaths.
Children were particularly vulnerable to infectious diseases such as scarlet fever, diphtheria, whooping cough and measles, and the shipboard diet lacked supplies of preserved milk and was overloaded with starchy foods. The surgeon of a ship on which 18 children died in 1874 declared more preserved milk and foods containing protein, such as eggs, cheese and beef tea, should be carried on ships with large numbers of children.
Poor ventilation in steerage was often blamed for the deaths of children. But when infectious diseases came on board, passengers died even on well-ventilated ships. Careless medical inspections of embarking passengers were often blamed for outbreaks of disease.
In 1873, passengers boarded the Scimitar and Mongol in Plymouth from disease-ridden barracks. The Scimitar became a ‘floating pest-house’, where measles and scarlet fever carried off 26 people.
The conditions in which emigrants boarded were also blamed for outbreaks of disease. When the Woodlark sailed in 1874, emigrants were kept huddling on deck in a dense fog, their bedding and luggage strewn about, before being allowed to go below. Twenty died on the voyage.
Hospitals and surgeons
Cramped hospitals below deck were often blamed for deaths at sea. However the Merope in 1872 had its hospital on deck, which ensured that patients in critical condition received the comfort, ventilation and quiet they needed. Incompetent surgeons failed to prevent the spread of disease. Positions as surgeons on immigrant ships to New Zealand were poorly paid, and securing a passage back to England was uncertain. Inexperienced men were sometimes appointed. Some surgeons were over-fond of drink, and a number admitted to taking opium for their own medical conditions.
Keeping the spirits up
The ‘medical comforts’ on board included sherry, spirits and stout for the sick. One surgeon complained that his supply included 240 bottles of gin for which he ‘had no use whatever, except as inducements for men to clean out the apartments’. 1 Another reported he had been abused for refusing to supply brandy for supposed diarrhoea, commenting that there were a remarkable number of stomach aches in the evening which could be cured by gin.
Besides looking after the health of the immigrants, surgeons had to keep order below decks. To help them, they appointed matrons, who looked after the moral welfare of the single women, and constables, who maintained discipline among the single men, helped distribute rations, and organised the male steerage passengers for shipboard duties.
Surgeons were also expected to appoint schoolmasters to teach the children. Attempts to conduct lessons met with limited success, usually because no suitable place for a classroom could be found, especially during the long haul through the Southern Ocean.