Monday, August 18, 2014

Batavia, disease, death and drink

In  Train reading – the remarkable stories of Emily Hahn and C R Boxer, I mentioned that I was reading Emily Hahn’s Raffles of Singapore. The section of the book that I am reading now deals with life in Java in the period before and during Raffles’ period as Deputy-Governor.

Sometimes in reading, it’s best to suspend moral judgement, to read as a story. Emily Hahn writes well. She is also somewhat partisan, seeing the world through her subject’s eyes. This does not mean that she is blind, simply that she finds her subject to be a generally a good things set in the context of the time. 

As an historian, I do not know enough to judge the accuracy of her analysis. I do know that she brings the period alive. However, I can also imagine a modern Australian reader reading the book as history might have strong reactions to some of the descriptions. That same reader would not respond in the same way if they were reading the book as a novel, or if the descriptions of life were presented fictionally. He or she might not like the society so presented, but would simply take it as a given.

Of one hundred and fifty soldiers who arrived in Batavia (now Jakarta) on the ship Morgenstern in 1770, only fifteen were alive four months later. In June 1775, C P Thurberg dined in Batavia on the eve of his departure for Japan. There were fifteen present including Thurburg. Upon his return at the the start of 1777, he found eleven had died. In 1792, Von Wollzagen found that all his friends had died within a period of sixteen months. Dysentery, typhus, typhoid and malaria were the main killers. Raffles’ own wife died of disease while he was in Java.

What drew the Dutch settlers, soldiers and officials to a world in which most must die? Money was obviously one key driver, a desire for adventure another, but then there was a sense of duty that combined with the possibility of preferment. Ah, duty. Without that, those empires would never have been established.

We also need to remember that understanding of disease was very limited. The British ships that came to Batavia to replenish supplies did so knowing that there was a risk of disease, that many of their crews might die. Had they understood the causes they might not have come, or at least would take precautions to reduce risk.

And how did people cope in a world where the risk of death was high, almost a certainty? They did so by creating a rules and status based society that at least provided an apparent sense of order, of certainty. And they drank. Boy, did they drink! Alcohol fuelled the rules and rituals of a stratified society, providing a short term outlet. Dropping stupefied into bed at night may not be have been good for one’s health, although alcohol was actually seen as a protective against disease, but it certainly made life a little more bearable.   


Anonymous said...

Well Jim, I wasn't going to provide a comment on this very interesting post - except you mentioned it in your following one. When you say how did people cope in a world where the risk of death was high, almost a certainty? it reminded me that you and I also live a life where death is 'almost a certainty'.

You meant premature death - but then, at that time, I understand one might reasonably expect a life of about 35 years, so at least these adventurers were grasping what they could of a short existence - no? What was the alternative? A fairly short and boring life spent avoiding the near certainty of death; this would lead anyone to the drink :)


Jim Belshaw said...

Life expectancy is a somewhat slippery concept, kvd,
because it is an average.

If you measure it from birth, the average European life expectancy in the early 1800s was, I think, between 30 and 40. But if you survived to ten, then your life expectancy jumped sharply. Fatal accidents were much more common, so that took a big slab out.

I think that the risk of death at any point was higher than today as was acceptance of that risk, but many lived to a ripe old age. So I think that I'm still entitled to a little surprise.