Ship surgeon’s log

Extract from the medical and surgical journal of the convict ship Isabella, 4 July to 24 December 1823, by Mr William Rae, Surgeon (ADM 101/36/3)


Observations, To the Commissioners for Victualling, His Majestys Navy.

In the preceding abstract I have noted the total number of cases which have occurred during the voyage, and, in my journal I have related the particulars of such as appeared to me worthy of notice; and from which my general mode of treatment may be infered – considering the crew I had to labour amongst and that both disease and mutiny were at one time opposed to me, I trust it will be found that I have not been unsuccessful in combating either and that our ultimate loss has been much less than circumstances at an early period of the voyage led me to suppose –
When the prisoners embarked at Cork from the Surprise Hulk many of them laboured under catarrhal complaints which were attributed to the severity of the season and the very indifferent state of clothing in which I observed many of them to be in – one man, indeed, had only a blanket  to cover his nakedness, and another a ragged shirt and trousers with only one limb to them – no shoes or stockings – the most of them, however appeared healthy in other respects, and I hoped that by better clothing, care & gentle means those complaints would soon disappear – In this conjecture I was so far correct but there seemed such a degree of langour, dejection of spirits and reserve that nothing could induce either spirit or life among them -so apparent indeed was this lowness that soon after the abatement of the sea sickness I found it necessary to issue wine even at that early stage of the voyage – on reaching the Latitude of 30 [degrees] North where the atmosphere became more warm and moist – fever began to manifest itself amongst them and the two cases which I have detailed will, I hope sufficiently point out the nature of it – some of the prisoners then informed me that they had been confined with lues fever before they joined the hulk and one of them (James Donelly) was again ill and on his first application to me his mouth was covered with apthen [ulcers] – as to the remote cause of this fever, therefore, the infection must either have been latent in their systems awaiting a more favorable…


…state of atmosphere or temperature to evince itself – or it must have been attached to the half worn musty clothing with which many of them were supplied on leaving the Hulk, As to the predisposing causes among others, we may aprize debility from former illness, catarrhal complaints – sea sickness – also langour and depression of spirits induced by a system of terror – Robbery – plunder that a Gang of them carried on whilst on board the Surprize and further from a knowledge which many of them had that the same Gang were now hatching a plot for the murder and destruction of everyone on board who would not enter into their views in seizing the ship & any one discovering the same was threatened with instant death – this was the cause of so much reserve and dejection nor could any kind treatment either from the Captain of the ship or myself (both … for distruction) infuse either joy or cheerfulness among them – this was also the cause of their hitherto good and passive behaviour.


1. The Isabella was a 579 ton convict ship, built on the Thames in 1818. She made several journeys to the southern hemisphere including in 1823 when set sail from Cork, Ireland with 201 male convicts arriving with 195 at Sydney on 16 December 1823.
2. Named differently as the Surprise or Suprize
3. The Surprise was a prison hulk in Cork, Ireland in the 1820s and 1830s. A report written by an English Inspector of Prisons, Captain W J Williams wrote that conditions on the Surprise in the 1830s “The hulks at Kingstown and Cork are…arranged upon the very worst form of prison discipline…the upper deck is part fitted as a hospital…; the lower deck as a sleeping room: the plan strikes one as precisely that which would be adopted for securing and lodging wild beasts; … they pass the day, lounging in idleness or basking in the sunshine: … at close of day they are mustered…into their sleeping room: but no one dares to venture into the prison”
4. Lues: an old name for syphilis, a sexually transmitted disease
5. Langour: lack of physical or mental energy; listless or lethargic
6. Catarrhal:  inflammation of mucous membranes, especially of the nose and throat

The English Prison Hulks, William Branch Johnson, (1970) p. 158


Return to 19th century prison ships