Health and Disease on the Dutch High Seas: An Analysis of Medical Supplies from Batavia, Vergulde Draak and Zeewijk



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During the 17th and 18th centuries the Dutch East India Company or Vereenigde Oost Indische Compagnie (henceforth the VOC or the Company) maintained its presence as a power of trade in Asia by establishing footholds and even monopolizing spice markets through its active and successful network of maritime transportation. Unlike its predecessors in the Indies, the VOC was not interested in colonization so much as pure economic gain. It was understood from the inception of the Company in 1602 that making a profit was dependent upon the safe arrival and return of cargo laden ships, the chances of which could be greatly increased by the presence of ship surgeons who worked to keep the crew healthy enough to function. Thus it became Company policy to employ ship surgeons on every outbound and homeward vessel and by the end of its two hundred year presence in Asia close to ten thousand surgeons had served aboard ships heading to the Indies.

During the 1970s the Maritime Archaeology Department of the Western Australia Museum conducted full-scale excavations of three VOC ships off the coast of Western Australia. The artifact collections of Batavia (1629), Vergulde Draak (1656) and Zeewijk (1727) yielded archaeological evidence for the presence of surgeons practicing aboard these ships. Ship surgeons were a unique class of medical practitioner whose profession was significantly different at sea than it was on land. These men acted as barber, surgeon, and apothecary to crews commonly exceeding two hundred individuals. They faced diseases that had never before been encountered and commonly found themselves treating the casualties of maritime war in addition to treating the daily dietary imbalances and ailments of a standard early modern life.

This thesis will explore the education, career, and status of ship surgeons employed in the VOC and provide an in-depth analysis of the artifacts recovered from Batavia, Vergulde Draak and Zeewijk that are associated with the surgeon?s daily practices. As the ships in question date to the rise and height of Company power in Asia, they provide an excellent snapshot of the surgeon?s profession at the busiest and most dangerous periods in VOC shipping.