Daniel Mendoza and The Modern Art of Boxing

mendoza-by-gillray

Daniel Mendoza by James Gillray

“It is undoubtedly a fact, that some men of turbulent and vindictive dispositions have made a bad use of their pugilistic powers, and have thereby become obnoxious and disgraceful members of society; but these instances occur not frequently, and when they do they must be acknowledged to result from the abuse, and not from the right use of the art. The robust and athletic should never forget that excellent observation of Shakespeare: ‘It is good to have a giant’s strength, but merciless to use it like a giant.’” -Daniel Mendoza, Memoirs (1816)

The first thing you learn in boxing is that if you don’t guard yourself with your hands up, you’re going to get hit in the face. It seems like common sense, so you might surprised to learn that this was not always done. Before English boxing’s heyday in the latter half of the eighteenth century, prizefights were still popular among the lower classes who tended to fight by taking turns hitting one another until someone won. Boxing as we know it today–a sport of skill and stamina as much about blocking and dodging as hitting–comes from the technique developed by Jewish-English prizefighter, Daniel Mendoza.

By the time Mendoza was born in 1764, Jews had only been allowed to settle in England for about a hundred years after officially being readmitted by Cromwell in 1656. Communities of Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews were forming primarily in London’s East End, and although they were generally accepted in London, they were still met with a degree of suspicion and antisemitism.

Georgian London attracted diverse people from around the world, but it was by no means a haven of tolerance. Jews in particular were viewed as small and weak, a stereotype Mendoza spectacularly disproved. During his career, he formed his own boxing academy and taught students there as well as giving private lessons for the wealthy, and wrote a boxing manual, The Modern Art of Boxing (1788), that is still read today.

Memoirs

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Daniel Mendoza by Henry Kinsbury, 1789

In 1816, Mendoza published Memoirs of The Life of Daniel Mendoza, an intelligent and witty autobiography still available today and surprisingly accessible to modern readers. In Memoirs, he recounts notable events in his life and career for dozens of subscribers credited in the first several pages.

Mendoza displayed proficiency at boxing from the age of fifteen, when he was apprenticed to a glass cutter. His master was kind, but the man’s son abused Mendoza’s Jewish heritage on numerous occasions until he gave the boy the thrashing of his life, before voluntarily leaving his position. Unwilling to burden his parents, he moved through a succession of odd jobs through his teens and early twenties, working for a greengrocer, a tea merchant, and a tobacconist, before inadvertently accepting a job escorting smuggled goods from the coast into the City. Once he discovered what they expected him to do, he quit this job and worked for some time as a biscuit maker, “baking Passover cakes” and so forth until fighting became a full-time job.

Although Mendoza was arguably one of the most naturally talented athletes in history, he never meant to make boxing his career. Still, the fights kept finding him. The “scientific” method of boxing he invented was very effective and drew huge crowds to see his fights and self-defense demonstrations. Unlike other boxers at the time, Mendoza fought with his knees bent and his arms guarding his face in a stance we would still recognize today. This stance allowed him to block and quickly dodge in a way his opponents could not. His natural ability coupled with this method proved a formidable combination: by 1788, he had won twenty-seven fights in a row. The same year, his long time rivalry with his one-time mentor Richard Humphreys, “The Gentleman Boxer,” came to a head in four fights and a series of letters published in The World.

Mendoza vs. Humphreys

In a match against Richard Humphreys in 1788, Mendoza suffered an injury that temporarily left him unable to walk and significantly slowed his career. Humphreys was declared the victor by default, but his victory was a hollow one as he had not beaten Mendoza as a result of skill.

richard-humphreys

Richard Humphreys by John Hoppner

While Mendoza was recovering from his injuries, he became aware of rumors he had handled himself poorly during the fight and that his injuries were exaggerated or even false. He felt compelled to write to The World to clarify his side of the events (no misconduct on either side) and that his injuries were very real and had been sustained by unfortunate accident (he fell out of the ring onto his head and injured his pelvis) rather than from the fight itself. He further suggested that if Humphreys would like to reschedule the fight, he would be more than willing to oblige. Humphreys took exception to this and responded with a letter of his own.

Mendoza accepted Humphreys’ challenge with his characteristic patience (and perhaps just a touch of well-earned superiority) and what follows in his Memoirs amounts to two chapters of Georgian smack-talk, faithfully recorded word for word as they worked out the details of their next fight.

Some highlights:

“Notwithstanding my declaration, previous to the battle between me and Mr. Mendoza, that whether I was beaten, or I beat him, I would never fight again, yet as in his address to the Publick, through the medium of your paper, he has insinuated that in his late contest with me at Oldham; his being beaten was the mere effect of accident, I do now declare that I am ready to meet him, at any time not exceeding three months from the present date.” -Humphreys

“As the world is decidedly of opinion that Mr. Humphreys is superior in the art of boxing, the third proposition I make is, the man who first closes shall be the loser. The time of fighting is impossible to mention, since the injury I have received in my loins may continue its effects to a distant period, but the moment I am relieved from that complaint, and declared capable by the gentleman who now attends me, I shall cheerfully step forward and appoint the day.” –Mendoza

“I cannot help remarking that neither Mr. Mendoza nor his friends seemed decided where they should fix this unlucky disaster. At first, it was his ancle; and there were people who could have sworn they saw three of the bones come out. The disorder moved gradually to his hips, from whence, lest it should be mistaken for a rheumatic complaint, it is settled, with more excruciating pain on his loins; where I am aware it may abide as long as he finds it convenient.” -Humphreys

“Mr. Humphreys is afraid, he dares not meet me as a boxer; he retires with the fullest conviction of his want of scientific knowledge; and though he has the advantages of strength and age, though a teacher of the art, he meanly shrinks from publick trial of that skill, on which his bread depends,” -Mendoza

“Mr. Mendoza says I am afraid of him; the only favour I have to beg is, that he or any of his friends will be kind enough to tell me so personally, and spare me the trouble of seeking them.” -Humphreys

After months of going back and forth, Mendoza and Humphreys finally met for not one, but three rematches beginning in May of 1788. It is worth noting that boxing matches often went on much longer than they do today, some of them lasting two hours or more through dozens of rounds.

Beyond superior technique, Mendoza’s major strengths were patience and stamina. Both the first two fights with Humphreys ended anticlimactically when Humphreys suddenly fainted, unable to keep pace with Mendoza. Although Mendoza was coming back from an injury, he was in the best shape of his life: he taught boxing at his academy and in private lessons as well as touring the country giving self-defense demonstrations to massive crowds.

The third and final fight with Humphreys lasted an incredible seventy-two rounds before Humphreys quit from exhaustion. He didn’t challenge Mendoza again.

Humphreys learned his lesson, but the public wouldn’t let him forget it. A song was written to commemorate their fight at Stilton in Huntingdonshire, which Mendoza helpfully includes in his memoirs. The song was one of many on the subject, but Mendoza reports this one in particular was “sung with great applause at several convivial meetings.”

For all this was basically a drinking song, it can be read as a neat summary of the public’s changing view of Mendoza wrapped up into a few verses from suspicion and antisemitism through to surprise and eventually praise. They are on Humphreys’ side (Richard has become “Dicky” here), but when he starts looking at the “curst little Jew from Duke’s place” like Goliath looking at David, we understand “Our Dicky” is in for a surprise…

SONG,
On the Battle Fought Between
HUMPHREYS and MENDOZA
At
Stilton in Huntingdonshire

O my Dicky, my Dicky, and O my Dicky my dear,
Such a wonderful Dicky is not found far or near;
For Dicky was up, up, up, and Dicky was down, down, down
And Dicky was backwards and forwards, and Dicky was round, round, round
O my Dicky, my Dicky, and O my Dicky my dear!

My Dicky was all the delight of half the genteels in the town;
Their tables were scarcely compleat, unless my Dicky sat down;
So very polite, so genteel, such a soft complaisant modest face,
What a damnable shame to be spoil’d by a curst little Jew from Duke’s Place!
O my Dicky, my Dicky, and O my Dicky my dear!

My Dicky he went to the school, that was kept by this Danny Mendoza,
And swore if the Jew would not fight, he would ring his Mosaical nose, Sir,
His friends exclaimed, go it, my Dicky, my terrible! Give him a derry;
You’ve only to sport your position, and quickly the Levite will sherry.
O my Dicky, my Dicky, and O my Dicky my dear!

Elate with false pride and conceit, superciliously prone to his ruin,
He haughtily stalk’d on the spot, which was turk’d for his utter undoing;
While the Jew’s humble bow seem’d to please, my Dicky’s eyes flash’d vivid fire;
He contemptuously viewed his opponent, as David was viewed by Goliath.
O my Dicky, my Dicky, and O my Dicky my dear!

Now Fortune, the whimsical goddess, resolving to open men’s eyes;
To draw from their senses the screen, and excite just contempt and surprise,
Produced to their view, this great hero, who promis’d Mendoza to beat,
When he proved but a boasting imposter, his promises all a mere cheat.
O my Dicky, my Dicky, and O my Dicky my dear!

For Dicky, he stopt with his head,
Was hit through his guard ev’ry round, Sir
Was fonder of falling than fighting,
And therefore gave out on the ground, Sir.

Poor Dicky. Somehow, we can’t quite feel bad for him.

Mendoza’s boxing career continued through the end of the eighteenth century, at which point he dedicated himself to teaching and touring. In his efforts to find other sources of income, he eventually became landlord of The Admiral Nelson pub in Whitechapel. He won and lost a fortune, and passed away in 1836 at the age of 72.

Legacy

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Mendoza. Did I mention he was gorgeous? I feel like that was implied…

Daniel Mendoza’s contribution to boxing cannot be overstated. During his lifetime, he became a major public figure. He won the patronage of the Prince of Wales in 1787 and became the first Jew to speak to George III. He was known throughout Britain on sight, thanks in no small part to the engravings of him sold to fans as well as his frequent appearances in Gillray cartoons (top). He was so well known, songs were written about his victories, and he was even mentioned by name in many of the plays of the day, including The Duenna and Road to Ruin. At least as significant as his contribution to boxing, he paved the way for acceptance of the Jewish community in Britain by challenging prejudices and winning respect, one fight at a time.

Though he’s not as famous today as he once was, proof of his influence can be seen every day. The next time you turn on the TV to watch some boxing or MMA, imagine how boring the matches would be if the boxers just stood there and took turns hitting each other.

Jessica Cale

If you’re interested in learning more about Mendoza’s fighting stance, English Martial Arts has a terrific video on it you can watch here.

Further Reading:

Egan, Pierce. Boxiana, or Sketches Of Ancient and Modern Pugilism (1812)

Gould, Mark. Boxing Pioneer Remembered At Last. The Guardian, September 2nd, 2008.

International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. Daniel Mendoza.

Jews in Sports. Daniel Mendoza.

Mendoza, Daniel. The Modern Art of Boxing (1788)

Mendoza, Daniel. Memoirs of The Life of Daniel Mendoza (1816)

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Civil War Hospitals Were Enough to Make You Sick

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A nurse and the wounded outside a hospital in Fredericksburg

When people find out that I wrote the non-fiction companion to Mercy Street, the PBS series set in a Union hospital during the American Civil War, they almost always ask me whether the show gets the historical details right. Particularly whether the medicine is accurate. I tell them that the series does a great job with historical accuracy with one exception: the television version of Mansion House Hospital isn’t dirty enough.

Today we think of hospitals as bastions of sanitation. But in the mid-19th century hospitals were dangerous, dirty, smelly places that many people rightly regarded as death traps. Add in the chaos of war and you had breeding grounds for contagious diseases, including smallpox, measles, pneumonia, influenza, tuberculosis, typhoid and yellow fever.

At the beginning of the war, the Union Army had a few hospitals attached to forts in the west, but none along the eastern seaboard. In order to cope with the crisis of illness and injury that began before the first battle was fought, the Army’s Medical Bureau requisitioned buildings for use as general hospitals throughout Washington DC and surrounding towns, primarily hotels and schools. Many of them were run down and most suffered from inadequate ventilation and poorly designed toilet facilities, which aggravated the problems of disease.

The largest of the Washington hospitals was the Union Hotel, where Louisa May Alcott served as a nurse for a little over a month. The hospital opened on May 25, 1861, and was soon infamous for its poor condition and worse smells. A report on its condition, made shortly after the first Battle of Bull Run in July 1861, stated that

…the building is old, out of repair, and cut up into a number of small rooms, with windows too small and few in number to afford good ventilation. Its halls and passages are narrow, tortuous and abrupt…There are no provisions for bathing, the water-closets and sinks are insufficient and defective and there is no dead-house [a room or structure where dead bodies could be stored before burial or transportation—a grim necessity in a Civil War hospital.] The wards are many of them overcrowded and destitute of arrangements for artificial ventilation. The cellars…are damp and undrained and much of the wood is actively decaying. (1)

Alcott was more blunt. In a letter home, she complained “a more perfect, pestilence-box than this house I never saw,–cold, damp, dirty, full of vile odors from wounds, kitchens, wash-rooms, and stables.”

Nurses, supported by convalescent soldiers, occasional chambermaids, and an army of laundresses, fought to keep hospitals clean in the face of a seemingly endless stream of mud, blood, and diarrhea—a common element of Civil War military life seldom mentioned in letters and memoirs of the period. (An average of 78 percent of the Union Army suffered from what they called the “Tennessee quick-step” at some point each year.) It was a monumental task, even by standards of cleanliness that required patients’ undergarments to be changed once a week and saw nothing wrong with reusing lightly soiled bandages.

Keeping a supply of clean shirts, clean underwear, clean sheets, and clean bandages required a heroic effort—especially when a given patient might require three clean bandages and a fresh shirt daily, all of which would need to be thrown away because they were so stained with blood and pus. The newly constructed general hospital at Portsmouth Grove, Rhode Island, reported boasted a new-fangled steam washing machine that could wash and mangle four thousand pieces of laundry a day. It was an innovation that hospitals improvised from hotels and schools could only dream of with envy. Most hospitals had to make do with wooden washtubs, soap-sized kettle for heating water, and elbow grease. Washable clothing, bed linens, bandages and rags were washed in hot water using soft soap and a scrub board, boiled to kill lice and insects, rinsed several times in hot water, allowed to cool, and then rinsed again in cool water. Water had to be carried by hand from water sources that varied in degree of inconvenience. Once acquired, water was heated in large kettles on wood- or coal-burning stoves and carried from kitchen to washtub. It was not unusual for a general hospital laundry to process two or three thousand pieces of laundry in one day.

Even the best efforts to keep hospitals clean did not deal with the root causes of contagion. A bacterial theory of disease was some decades in the future. The prevailing medical theory of the period focused on clean air rather than clean water because doctors believed that diseases were spread through the poisoned atmosphere of “miasmas.” Doctors interested in hospital sanitation were concerned with eradicating foul smells. New hospitals were built with an eye toward providing fresh air. Hospital designers would have been well advised to focus on handling human waste instead.

The sanitary arrangements in Civil War hospitals made it easy for diseases linked to contaminated water, like typhoid and dysentery, to spread. Many latrines and indoor water closets had to be flushed by hand, carried by hand from a water source some distance away. As a result, they were not flushed out as frequently as required to keep them sanitary. Worse, in some hospitals, latrines were located too close to the kitchens. Even when there was an adequate distance between the two, flies carried bacteria on their feet as they flew between latrines, kitchens and patients’ dinner trays.

It’s no wonder that disease was responsible for two-thirds of all Civil War deaths.

(1) Quoted in Hannah Ropes. Civil War Nurse: The Diary and Letters of Hannah Ropes, ed. John R. Brumgardt. (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1980) p. 40.

(2) Quoted in Ropes, p. 40

Further Reading

Humphreys, Margaret. Marrow of Tragedy: The Health Crisis of the American Civil War. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. 2013

Rutkow, Ira. M. Bleeding Blue and Gray: Civil War Surgery and the Evolution of American Medicine. New York: Random House. 2005.

Schultz, Jane E. Women at the Front: Hospital Workers in Civil War America. Chapel Hill and toler_heroinesofmercystreetLondon: University of North Carolina Press. 2004.

Pamela D. Toler is a freelance writer with a PhD in history and a large bump of curiosity. She is the author of Heroines of Mercy Street: The Real Nurses of the Civil War and is currently writing a global history of women warriors, with the imaginative working title of Women Warriors. She blogs about history, writing, and writing about history at History in the Margins.

Love and Hate in the 19th Century: Say It With Flowers

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Language of Flowers. Aphonse Mucha, 1900.

Although floriography existed in the ancient world and throughout the Renaissance, it hit its height of popularity in the nineteenth century. Mary Wartley Montagu is credited with bringing it to England in the early eighteenth century from her travels to the Ottoman Empire, where the court was fascinated with tulips. Tulipomania had come and gone a hundred years before, but European interest in botany was just beginning, contributing in no small part to the success of guides to the language of flowers.

Several such guides were available throughout the nineteenth century, many of them embellished with illustrations or even poetry. Hundreds of editions were sold around the world, and the craze influenced popular culture, with floriography appearing in books by Austen and the Brontes. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood used it extensively in many of their paintings, using the symbolism of the flowers to communicate themes to their audience in a language they would understand.

In a society as relatively repressed as Victorian Britain, floriography must have presented tantalizing possibility. One could say anything without saying anything at all. Rather involved love affairs could take place almost entirely with flowers. Whole conversations could be had in a single bouquet. It had the added benefit that it would have been a hobby for the genteel; it required a certain degree of literacy, knowledge of botany, and means with which to obtain the plants necessary to communicate one’s message. While one might pass daisies (“I share your sentiment”) every day, African Marigolds (“vulgar minds”) or Helmet Flowers (“knight-errantry”) might present a greater challenge.

Interestingly enough, for every plant with a positive meaning, there is at least one more with a severely negative one. Reading Kate Greenaway’s The Language of Flowers (1884), it is reassuring that those courted by people they didn’t fancy could put them off without being outwardly rude, from Red Balsam (“touch me not”) to the rather frightening Wild Tansy (“I declare war against you”).

Whether you’re researching a book, decoding a painting, or just looking for a Valentine’s idea for your loved one (or worst enemy), floriography is good fun. Here are some lists of my favorites. Scroll to the bottom for links to some nineteenth century guides you can read in full online or download for your e-reader. Have fun!

A Beginner’s Guide to the Language of Flowers

“When nature laughs out in all the triumph of Spring, it may be said, without a metaphor, that, in her thousand varieties of flowers, we see the sweetest of her smiles; that, through them, we comprehend the exultation of her joys; and that, by them, she wafts her songs of thanksgiving to the heaven above her, which repays her tribute of gratitude with looks of love. Yes, flowers have their language. Theirs is an oratory that speaks in perfumed silence, and there is tenderness, and passion, and even light-heartedness of mirth, in the variegated beauty of their vocabularly.” – Frederic Schoberl, 1834.

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Positive

Almond (flowering) Hope
Ambrosia Love returned
Arbor Vitae* Unchanging Friendship. Live for me.
Cloves Dignity
Clover, four-leaved Be mine
Coreopsis Arkansa Love at first sight
Coriander Hidden worth
Corn Riches
Daffodil Regard
Daisy, Garden I share your sentiments
Forget Me Not Forget Me Not
Ivy Fidelity. Marriage.
Lemon blossoms Fidelity
Mallow, Syrian Consumed by love
Oak Tree Hospitality
Oak Leaves Bravery
Pine-apple You are perfect
Potato Benevolence
Ranunculus You are radiant with charms
Snowdrop Hope
Strawberry Tree Esteem and Love
Tulip, Red Declaration of love
Tulip, Variegated Beautiful eyes
Tulip, Yellow Hopeless love
Venice Sumach Intellectual excellence
Walnut Intellect. Strategem.
Water Lily Purity of heart
1870s_vinegar_valentine_snake_proposal_declined

A “Vinegar Valentine” from the 1870s

Negative

Achillea Millefolia War
Aconite (Wolfsbane) Misanthropy
Adonis, Flos Painful recollections
Agnus Castus Coldness. Indifference.
Almond (common) Stupidity. Indiscretion.
Amaranth (cockscomb) Foppery
Apple, Thorn Deceitful charms
Asphodel My regrets follow you to the grave.
Bachelor’s Buttons Celibacy
Balsam, Red Touch me not
Barberry Sourness of temper
Basil Hatred
Bay leaf I change but in death.
Bay (Rose) Rhododendron Danger. Beware.
Belladonna Silence
Belvedere I declare against you
Bilberry Treachery
Birdsfoot Trefoil Revenge
Blue-flowered Green Valerian Rupture
Burdock Touch me not.
Butterfly Weed Let me go.
Carnation, Striped Refusal
Carnation, Yellow Disdain
Chequered Fritillary Persecution
China or Indian Pink Aversion
Citron Ill-natured beauty
Clotbur Rudeness. Pertinacity.
Coltsfood Justice shall be done
Columbine Folly
Convulvulus, Major Extinguished hopes
Creeping Cereus Horror
Crowfoot Ingratitude
Cypress Death. Mourning.
Dragonwort Horror
Enchanter’s Nightshade Witchcraft. Sorcery.
Flytrap Deceit
Fool’s Parsley Silliness
Frog Ophrys Disgust
Fuller’s Teasel Misanthropy
Fumitory Spleen
Garden Anemone Forsaken
Hand Flower Tree Warning
Hellebore Scandal
Hemlock You will be my death
Hydrangea Heartlessness
Japan Rose Beauty is your only attraction
Leaves (dead) Melancholy
Lavender Distrust
Lily, Yellow Falsehood
Licorice, Wild I declare against you
Lobelia Malevolence
Mandrake Horror
Milfoil War
Mosses Ennui
Mourning Bride Unfortunate attachment
Moving Plant Agitation
Mushroom Suspicion
Nettle, Burning Slander
Pennyroyal Flee away
Raspberry Remorse
Rose, York and Lancaster War
Rue Disdain
Saint John’s Wort Animosity
Spiked Willow Herb Pretension
Tamarisk Crime
Tansy (Wild) I declare war against you
Thistle, Scotch Retaliation
Trefoil Revenge
White Rose (dried) Death preferable to loss of innocence
Whortleberry Treason
Wormwood Absence
My love in her garden. Victorian Valentine card

Victorian Valentine by Kate Greenaway

Sexy

African Marigold Vulgar minds
Darnel (ray grass) Vice
Dittany of Crete, White Passion
Dragon Plant Snare
Everlasting Pea Lasting Pleasure
Fleur-de-Lis Flame. I burn.
Geranium, Lemon Unexpected meeting
Geranium, Nutmeg Expected meeting
Grass Submission
Jasmine, Spanish Sensuality
Linden or Lime Trees Conjugal Love
Orange Flowers Bridal festivities
Peach Blossom I am your captive
Quince Temptation
Rose, Carolina Love is dangerous
Rose, Dog Pleasure and pain
Tuberose Dangerous pleasures
Vine Intoxication

 

mechanical_valentine_06

Weird

Aloe Grief. Religious superstition
Cereus (Creeping) Modest genius
Christmas Rose Relieve my anxiety.
Cistus, Gum I shall die to-morrow
Colchicum, of Meadow Saffron My best days are past.
Dandelion Rustic Oracle
Helmet Flower (Monkshood) Knight-errantry
Houseleek Domestic industry
Indian Cress Warlike trophy
Lady’s Slipper Win me and wear me
Lint I feel my obligations
Oats The witching soul of music
Passion Flower Religious superstition
Persimon Bury me amid Nature’s beauties
Poppy, White. Sleep. My bane. My antidote.
Prickly Pear Satire
Violet, Yellow Rural happiness

Jessica Cale

Further Reading

Greenaway, Kate. The Language of Flowers (1884)

Schoberl, Frederic. The Language of Flowers; With Illustrative Poetry (1834)

Tyas, Robert. The Sentiment of Flowers; or, Language of Flora (1836)

*Arbor Vitae was also slang for penis at this time.

 

“A Second St Domingo”: Sickness during the Walcheren Expedition of 1809

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Terrain of the Walcheren campaign, from France Militaire: histoire des Armees Francaises de terre de mer de 1792 a 1833…by A. Hugo, 1837.

In 1809, the British government sent an amphibious force of 40,000 men and 600 naval vessels to the Scheldt to destroy the French fleet and dockyards at Antwerp and Flushing. It was Britain’s biggest expeditionary undertaking since the beginning of the wars with France in 1793, part of the War of the Fifth Coalition and a diversion to assist the Austrians against Napoleon in central Europe.

The expedition, under the military command of John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham, was a complete failure. The Austrian allies were defeated before the expedition left; although the British captured the island of Walcheren, they advanced too slowly across the neighbouring island of South Beveland, allowing the French to reinforce Antwerp. The expedition was finally withdrawn after a catastrophic outbreak of ‘Walcheren fever’, a combination of several diseases, including malaria.

The impact of this sickness can best be gauged through dry statistics. Of the 39,219 rank and file sent to Walcheren, 11,296 of them were on the sick lists by February 1810. By this time 3,960 were dead. A further 106 had died in battle, but those numbers were swallowed up in the sheer scale of the tragedy.

‘Walcheren fever’ struck the troops suddenly and savagely. One source, the anonymous Letters from Flushing, recorded fatalities from sickness as early as 12 August 1809, but on 8 August the British Chief of Staff reported ‘We have as yet no sick,’ and on 11 August the commander-in-chief Lord Chatham thought ‘the Troops upon ye whole continue healthy.’[1]

By 20 August, however, things had changed. The official Proceedings of the Army recorded on 22 August: ‘Sickness began to show itself among the Troops in South Beveland. On the 20th the number of Sick was 1564, and within the two following days it increased very considerably.’ The next day, the 23rd, the Proceedings recorded ‘Sickness increased very much within the last 24 hours.’ By the 24th the sickness had spread to Walcheren.[2]

At first the officers were not too worried. One of the aides-de-camp to Sir Eyre Coote (Chatham’s second-in-command) recorded in his diary on 24 August: ‘5000 French Troops are said to have fallen a victim to the climate last year, but I consider this as a very exaggerated statement, and at any rate, the constitutions of our men & their habits of life, are much better adapted to this moist atmosphere.’[3]

But by the 27th there were 3467 sick. The following day the officer compiling the official returns could not restrain his concern: ‘The sickness increased to an alarming Proportion, some of the General, and many other Officers were seized with fever, and the Number of Men on the Sick List was nearly 4000.’[4]

23_walcheren_sick

The evacuation of South Beveland, August 1809

The sickness was described by Lieutenant William Keep of the 81st:

The disease comes on with a cold shivering, so great that the patient feels no benefit from the clothes piled upon him in bed, but continues to shiver still, as if enclosed in ice, the teeth chattering and cheeks blanched. This lasts some time and is followed by the opposite extremes of heat, so that the pulse rises to 100 in a small space. The face is then flushed and eyes dilated, but with little thirst. It subsides and then is succeeded by another paroxysm, and so on until the patient’s strength is quite reduced and he sinks into the arms of death.[5]

The British army had been sent to Walcheren with medical supplies for only 30,000 men. It was caught completely off-guard by the scale of the sickness. Things were not helped by the fact that the British had bombarded one of Walcheren’s largest merchant towns, Vlissingen (Flushing), in mid-August, which restricted the accommodation available to the British troops. By 30 August there were nearly 900 sick in Flushing alone, ‘all of them laying [sic] on the bare boards without Paillasses & many without Blankets.’ Two days later Coote’s aide concluded in despair: ‘This island is a mere Hospital and an Inspector of Hospitals will shortly be a more useful officer than the General Commanding.’[6]

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Flushing Harbour. Photograph by Jacqueline Reiter

All these circumstances contributed to an atmosphere of near-panic. Nobody knew who would be next, and no rank was exempt. ‘A considerable degree of apprehension of Climate and Disease has prevail’d too generally, and there has been much anxiety shewn to get away from this Island as if it had been a second St Domingo,’ the Chief of Staff reported disapprovingly, but by this time several generals (including General Mackenzie-Fraser, who later died) were dropping like flies.[7] By mid-September the Adjutant-General of the army was sending in daily (rather than weekly) sick reports, and Chatham decided to start sending the sick home ahead of official orders from the War Office.

According to one account, one doctor ‘and his assistant [had] nearly five hundred patients prostrate at the same moment … the whole concern was completely floored’. [8] By 23 September the army had almost completely run out of bark (now quinine, used to treat malaria) and the medical corps were of course also losing staff to sickness. Sir Eyre Coote (who took over from Chatham, who was recalled) reported to the Secretary of State for War: ‘I can assure Your Lordship, without any Fear of Exaggeration … that the Situation of the Troops in this Island is deplorable … The Sick are so crowded, as to lay Two in one Bed in several Places, and have no Circulation of Air.’ In Flushing, by contrast, many of these places had rather too much air circulation, owing to ‘the damaged State of the Roofs, never repaired since the Siege.’[9]

Totally overburdened, the medical corps became desperate in their attempts to stem the disease. They had no idea what was causing it: they knew it wasn’t contagious, but thought it was due to ‘local or endemic Causes, viz. the Miasmata or Exhalations from the Soil.’ They did, however, notice that the sailors on board the British ships remained healthy, with the exception of the ones who had gone ashore to help with the siege of Flushing (naturally, as mosquitoes do not breed around salt water). One proposed treatment therefore was to pack the British sick into ships and sail them around the islands, in the hope that the sea air and a change of scene would restore them to health. Unsurprisingly, this did not work.[10]

The impact of Walcheren fever on the British army was significant and long-lasting. The soldiers who had served on the campaign continued to relapse periodically for years after. In March 1812 Lord Wellington, in the midst of fighting in the Spanish Peninsula, lamented the fact that his troops had been ‘so much shaken by Walcheren.’ [11] The careers of the commander-in-chief of the Army, Lord Chatham, and the naval commander, Sir Richard Strachan, were destroyed by the disaster.

The British government that had planned the expedition under the Duke of Portland fell, and its successor nearly foundered during the ensuing parliamentary inquiry into the debacle. Two government ministers, Lord Castlereagh and George Canning, ended up fighting a duel. None of this, of course, was especially comforting to the four thousand men who had died from ‘Walcheren fever’.

References
[1] Letters from Flushing … by an Officer of the Eighty-First Regiment (London, 1809), p. 120; Sir Robert Brownrigg to Colonel Gordon, 8 August 1809, BL Add MSS 49505, f. 9; Chatham to Castlereagh, 11 August 1809, PRONI D3030/3220; John Webb to the Surgeon General, 27 August 1809, A Collection of Papers relating to the Expedition to the Scheldt (London, 1809), pp. 588-90.
[2] The National Archives WO 190, 22-4 August 1809.
[3] University of Michigan Coote MSS, Box 29/3, Diary of the Walcheren Expedition, 24 August 1809.
[4] The National Archives WO 190, 27-8 August 1809.
[5] Quoted by Martin Howard, Walcheren 1809, Barnsley, 2011, p. 161.
[6] University of Michigan Coote MSS, Box 29/3, Diary of the Walcheren Expedition, 30 August, 1 September 1809.
[7] Sir Robert Brownrigg to Colonel Gordon, 8 September 1809, BL Add MSS 49505 f. 69.
[8] Rifleman Harris, quoted by Howard, Walcheren 1809, p. 172.
[9] Sir Eyre Coote to Castlereagh, 17 September 1809, A Collection of Papers, pp. 137-40.
[10] Memorandum dated 25 September 1809, A Collection of Papers, pp. 623-5; Sir Eyre Coote to Lord Liverpool, 23 October 1809, A Collection of Papers, pp.177-8.
[11] Howard, Walcheren 1809. p. 215.

Further reading
Gordon Bond, The Grand Expedition (Athens, GA, 1971)
Martin R. Howard, Walcheren 1809 (Barnsley, 2011)
John Lynch, ‘The Lessons of Walcheren Fever, 1809’, Military Medicine 174(3) 2009, pp. 315-19
T.H. McGuffie, ‘The Walcheren Expedition and the Walcheren Fever’, English Historical Review jacquelinereiter_bookcover62(243) 1947, pp. 191-202

Jacqueline Reiter has a PhD in late 18th century political history from the University of Cambridge. A professional librarian, she lives in Cambridge with her husband and two children. She blogs at www.thelatelord.com and you can follow her on Facebook or Twitter. Her first book, The Late Lord: the life of John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham, was published by Pen & Sword Books in January 2017.