SAMWELL, David




Author Tags: 1700-1800, Physician Author

“Being in a ship is being in jail with the chance of being drowned. A man in jail has more room, better food and commonly better company.” —SAMUEL JOHNSON, 1759

As the first European physician in British Columbia, Welshman David Samwell understood that one of the worst perils of a seafaring life was venereal disease. Having served as a surgeon’s mate on Captain Cook’s third voyage, first on the Resolution and then on the Discovery, Samwell, a parson’s son, included a reference to venereal diseases in the lengthy title of his memoir.

Samwell had observed and recorded the devastating effects of venereal disease brought to Hawaii by Cook’s men. “They had a Clap, their Penis was much swell’d, & inflamed,” concurred Lieutenant James King in dismay, when Cook’s men returned to winter in Hawaii ten months after making their first visit. While Captain Cook was a firm disciplinarian who favoured many of the ideals of Quakerism, it remained an ongoing battle to curtail or limit sexual relations between his crewmen and indigenous women of Tahiti, Hawaii and Vancouver Island.

As Cook himself commented in Hawaii, watching “hogs and women” coming offshore in canoes, “it was not possible to keep the latter out of the Ship and no women I ever met with were more ready to bestow their favours.” In the preceding month Samwell recorded the nature of relations between Cook’s crewmen and Hawaiian women. “When any one of us sees a handsome Girl in a Canoe that he has a mind to, upon waving his Hand to her she immediately jumps overboard & swims to the Ship, where we receive her in our arms like another Venus just rising from the Waves; both Men & Women come on board the ships in great Numbers and during the whole time of trafficking with them it is nothing but one Scene of Noise & Confusion on board the Ships & all round them.”

A substantive investigation of the sex trade at Nootka Sound has been undertaken by Eliot Fox-Povey in the Summer 2003 edition of British Columbia Historical News. “The organized sale of sex to Europeans seems to have come about through adaptation not imposition...,” he claims. “When Europeans proposed a trade in sex with women, slavery provided Nuu-chah-nulth elites with a class of sex workers who were outside of Nuu-chah-nulth social rules of sexual modesty, and whose work would only re-affirm existing wealth relationships.”

Samwell and Charles Clerke of the Discovery both recorded that sailors first scrubbed many of the women brought onto the ships prior to having sex. Samwell also observed of trading relations overall, “In general in their dealings with us they acted in a fair part tho’ they made no scruple of stealing when the opportunity offered; but upon being detected they would immediately return whatever they had taken and laugh in our faces, as they considered it as a piece of Dexterity that did them credit rather than dishonor.”

Samwell’s journal was published after Captain Cook’s journal became a runaway bestseller. “His great Qualities,” Samwell wrote, “I admired beyond anything I can express—I gloried in him—and my Heart bleeds to this Day whenever I think of his Fate.” Samwell’s account of Captain Cook’s murder is usually considered one of the more reliable of the several that were rendered. It was excerpted and widely circulated. The English author Andrew Kippis used it in his Biographia Britannica as well as his biography The Life of Captain James Cook (1788).

Back in Britain, Samwell wrote poetry and supported Welsh causes. He later grew nostalgic for his extraordinary adventures with Cook and once wrote, “It is an article of Faith with every one of us that there never was such a collection of fine Lads take us for all in all, got together as there was in the Resolution & Discovery.” As a physician he treated British prisoners-of-war in Paris in 1798. That same year he returned to London where he died of drink and laudanum.

Although Samwell had limited success treating venereal disease, he took justifiable pride in helping Cook keep his crew free of scurvy. “We did not loose one Man by Sickness—a Circumstance unparallel’d in ye History of Navigation.”

BOOKS:

A Narrative of the Death of Captain James Cook to which are Added Some Particulars, Concerning his Life and Character, and Observations Respecting the Introduction of the Venereal Disease into the Sandwich Islands (London: Scots Magazine, 1786). 48 pp.

[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2003] "1700-1800" "Science" "Medicine" "Welsh"