Ocean Hermit – sailing, solitude and stories

My plans to retrace Captain Cook's unfinished voyage have been postponed a year while I work on the next Marine Diesel Basics book and get my new boat SV Oceandrifter ready for sea.

November 5th, 1770 – the first to die in Batavia

Batavia, capital of dutch East Indies, in late 18th century

Batavia, capital of dutch East Indies, in late 18th century

When HMS Endeavour sailed into Batavia (near present-day Jakarta on Java Island, Indonesia) the ship was barely seaworthy and quite incapable of sailing halfway around the world back to England. The major damage had been inflicted when the ship struck the reef off north-eastern Australia; now temporary repairs needed to be upgraded significantly if the ship and men were to survive passage of the Indian and Atlantic Oceans.

By contrast, the ship’s crew were in excellent condition – Cook noted in his Journal that there was not one man on the sick list, and only three people (Lietuenant Hicks, Mr. Green and the Polynesian Tupia) with minor complaints from the long months at sea.  This was primarily the result of Cook’s devotion to the welfare of his crew, the weekly spring-cleaning and above all the enforcement of a strict addition of sauerkraut and other green vegetables to the diet.

Unfortunately, all this was about to change. As the condition of the ship improved in the dry dock, so the condition of the men deteriorated. The two were related – work on the repair of the ship progressed slowly but steadily. But the longer the repairs took, the more people were exposed to the mosquito-ridden swamps, and malaria, and to the insanitary water supply, carrying dysentery. The vectors of disease transmission were not understood at the time and few effective precautions were taken for protection.

Sir Joseph Banks and his party of civilians, along with Tupia, moved to a house away from the swamp. This was no doubt more congenial than the ship after months at sea, but it did not save Tupia.

 

Detail of Surgeon Munkhouse from a portrait of him in the National Library of Australia

Detail of Surgeon Munkhouse from a portrait of him in the National Library of Australia

Surgeon William Brougham Munkhouse (sometimes mistakenly spelt Monkhouse) was the first man to die in Batavia, on Monday, November 5th 1771. Cook wrote in his Journal:

“Wednesday, 7th. Employ’d getting ready to heave down in the P.M. We had the misfortune to lose Mr. Monkhouse, the Surgeon, who died at Batavia of a Fever after a short illness, of which disease, and others, several of our people are daily taken ill, which will make his loss be the more severely felt; he was succeeded by Mr. Perry, his mate, who is equally as well skilled in his profession.”

William Munkhouse had served on HMS Niger in Labrador and Newfoundland, on the east coast of present-day Canada) in the same years (1763-67) as Cook was also sailing and working in these challenging and dangerous waters.  Cook was busy surveying the Strait of Belle Isle, between Labrador and

September weather in Chateau Bay, Labrador, survey by James Cook in 1763. Photo by Dennison Berwick 2014.

September weather in Chateau Bay, Labrador, survey by James Cook in 1763. Photo taken by author in 2014.

Newfoundland) as well as stretches of the northern coast of Newfoundland.  It was his skills in commanding his own ship and the quality of his surveys, as well as a paper on a lunar eclipse published by the Royal Society, that prepared the way for his command of the voyage to Tahiti and the southern Pacific.

Munkhouse is credited with saving the life, in Croque on the north-east coast of Newfoundland, of Sir Joseph Banks when he was wracked with fever and not expected to survive.  Clearly, he was an able surgeon, in the days when the knowledge and methods were rudimentary at best.

Part of the equipment of a naval surgeon in the 18th century

Part of the equipment of a naval surgeon in the 18th century

More than 40 crew were taken sick in Batavia and seven men died, including Mr. Green, the astronomer sent by the Royal Society to observe the transit of Venus in Tahiti.

Of the pestilential nature of Batavia, Cook wrote in his Journal:

 

“Batavia is certainly a place that Europeans need not covet to go to; but if necessity obliges them, they will do well to make their stay as short as possible, otherwise they will soon feel the effects of the unwholesome air of Batavia, which I firmly believe is the Death of more Europeans than any other place upon the Globe of the same extent. Such, at least, is my opinion of it, which is founded on facts. We came in here with as healthy a Ship’s Company as need go to Sea, and after a stay of not quite 3 months left it in condition of a Hospital Ship, besides the loss of 7 men; and yet all the Dutch Captains I had an opportunity to converse with said that we had been very lucky, and wondered that we had not lost half our people in that time.”

Worse was to come; an additional 23 men died in the 34 days out from Batavia, including Jonathan Munkhouse, the surgeon’s younger brother who’d signed on as a midshipman. News of the death of his two sons must have hit their father, George Munkhouse, hard.  He rewrote his will just 4 weeks after receiving the news and himself died a few weeks after that. Their mother, Grace, lived until 1778.

View of the Town Hall of Batavia in 1770, by Johannes Rach.

View of the Town Hall of Batavia in 1770, by Johannes Rach.

It’s a tragic irony, and one that did affect Cook, that, having not lost a single man to sickness in three years of ocean voyaging and coastal surveying, a total of 30 men died as a result of a single visit to a so-called “civilised” harbour.

 

 

sources:

Captain Cook Society:  http://bit.ly/2eKUuNO

National Library of Australia: http://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-136215729/view

Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HMS_Endeavour

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This entry was posted on November 6, 2016 by in Captain Cook, Sailing, Voyages.
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