Wednesday, February 23, 2011

History: The Unseen Tenant

Venereal disease has probably been with human beings since the dawn of time. It is known that monkeys and apes can be troubled by forms of the disease. In fact it has been postulated that a form of syphilis has been infecting New World monkeys for centuries. Its not surprising then that the big two – syphilis and gonorrhea – were, as Dean King so aptly puts it in A Sea of Words, “… almost an occupational hazard for sailors” and particularly so on any prize-taking vessel.

The old “sailors in port with money to spend” story is very close to the truth. The more tied to each voyage that money to spend was the greater the truth. In other words, buccaneers, pirates and privateers were particularly prone to hitting the streets of any given port and drinking, gambling and wenching until the gold was gone. While drinking would hurt you, and gambling would empty your pockets that much faster, wenching could actually kill you.

Prostitution was ubiquitous to port towns, from bawdy London whose stews have been spoken of here before to the less famous ports of the West and East Indies, sex was for sale, just name your price. James Yonge wrote of it in his journal of seafaring experiences published in the early 18th century. He speaks of small bawdy houses in Tortuga and Barbados and of going to “mount Whoredom” in Lisbon, Portugal:

… a street up a hill and when you go through it they call Englishmen and pull up their coats in the door of the street.

They, of course, being the ladies within. Yonge, who was a surgeon, goes on to note that 35 percent of his fellows came back to their ship “clapt”. As witnessed in both nautical fact and fiction, things were largely the same in naval vessels of the era where prize-taking was its own incentive.

The problem was the “clap” in question. Both men and women would develop sores with syphilis, making it fairly obvious to even the most raw of doctors what was going on. Gonorrhea, rather frighteningly, rarely manifested itself until things had gone horribly wrong. Professional ladies treated symptoms with homemade ointments, some containing alarming ingredients like deadly nightshade and earth from a new grave, and douched with alum or sulphate of zinc. Generally speaking, the sailor had access to (slightly) better care.

The accepted treatment for both diseases was heavy metals in general and mercury in particular. The use of the metal in oral purges like calomel was long standing by the time Yonge wrote of his mates’ distress. The other options were ointments made with mercurial chloride applied to the sores several times a day. The idea was that all that purging, via vomit, urination and defecation, would eliminate the contagion from the sufferer’s body. A physician knew he was on the right track when the patient complained of a metallic taste in his mouth and began to salivate uncontrollably.

For gonorrhea, men would be given urethral injections of mercury based irrigations. As noted above, women did not show much in the way of symptoms so it would not be until pelvic inflammatory disease either made them sterile or killed them that anyone would know about their infection. This, of course, made it possible for one woman to infect a number of men and the old tales of killer ladies come rushing to mind.

Did these treatments help the sailor and/or his lady overcome the unfortunate aftermath of love? Though most historians, even those with a medical background, will admit that they probably alleviated symptoms and therefore, at least in the case of syphilis, prevented transmission to some degree, the clear answer is no. Until the introduction of penicillin in the 1940s there really was no cure for venereal disease.

In the modern age, of course, there are plenty of STDs that cannot be cured but only contained. In our long walk to modernity, it seems, we have come back around to where we were. But it may be that one of our old foes is trying to keep up with us – even to become a little like us – to make their stay as our unwelcome tenant more agreeable for them and troublesome for us. Read this article about a study on gonorrhea from Northwestern University that notes the little bacteria has managed to pick up some human DNA. If that doesn’t make you use the available precautions your ancestors didn’t have easy access to, nothing will.

Header: Officer and Prostitute at Backgammon from


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! And welcome back. I hope you are feeling better today...

Sailors and STD's... That's a somewhat depressing and scary (that link at the end... yikes!) post, but it obviously was a reality for many sailors throughout history.

And yet, even today when we know how to prevent (or at least minimize the risk of) many if not almost all of these diseases, they are still rampant in much of the world and remain a significant problem even in the most advanced countries. Proving that the more things change, the more they stay the same, I guess.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! Exactly and given that bacteria and viruses evolve at a much faster rate than we do, they're not going away any time soon.