sea sickness

Scene: Seasickness Sea sickness attitudes off the Lizard, by George French Angus, 1843. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia, PIC R6452 BOX A15

Few of the passengers aboard the ships bound for South Australia in 1836 were seasoned sailors. Seasickness was a hazard of sea voyages, even for sailors, and was particularly common in the early part of the passage in the rough English Channel, while sailing through the Bay of Biscay, and during stormy weather. As the voyage progessed, most passengers found their ‘sea legs’. But some were particularly susceptible. Pregnant women often suffered more than others, probably because the movement of the vessel accentuated the normal squeamishness often experienced in early pregnancy. We know from these sources that seasickness affected some of the women travelling on these ships quite badly.  Prolonged seasickness can be debilitating and lead to exhaustion – particularly dangerous for women in the late stages of pregnancy. Those who could be helped on deck may have found some relief in the fresh air, but in rough weather this was impossible. There were no sure remedies for those whose bodies did not become accustomed to the movement of the vessel, although some travellers said they were relieved by calomel – a popular medicine in use in the 1830s.  Calomel was used as a cathartic and purgative, but was also extremely hazardous, because it was a mercury compound. We know that one of the passengers who took it on the voyage in 1836 was pregnant at the time, which raises questions about the effect it might have had on her unborn child.  Although the side effects of taking large doses of calomel were known at the time, the more insidious, long-term effects of mercury poisoning were not known until later. However it does not require much imagination to think about the effects of continual sickness on everyone confined in cramped, poorly ventilated quarters below decks.

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