When the British arrived in India, they struggled to survive in the cruel heat of the subcontinent. Soldiers and civilians alike suffered. It is not from war that the soldier has suffered the most. It was the constantly changing climate, and the diseases to which the quarters where they were stationed from time to time, that exposed them. It was believed that in the 1840s the British soldier who then served in Bengal for a year faced as much risk of death as in three battles such as Waterloo.
British troops in India suffered heavy losses in India due to pandemics until the 1840s due to unsanitary conditions and unsanitary food. Stations like Ludhiana, Kurnaul, Lahore and Masulipatanam had to be evacuated from time to time due to outbreaks of various diseases.
In 1845, as a result of this excess mortality, the majority of the forces were at Poona and Kirkee. Poona was the army headquarters for a considerable part of the year. It was situated in the relatively salubrious plateau of the Deccan, and had some pretensions of a satisfactory sanitary condition. But that could not be the permanent solution. Poona also reported a considerable death rate. Diseases like enteric fever, dysentery and cholera would take a heavy toll. Summers would bring infections from spoiled meat. The rainy season was feared because of the onslaught of various insects.
British leaders in the 1850s perceived that the country needed to become more tolerable and livable for those who ventured there. It was also beginning to be realized that health in India should be promoted by the same means and with the same considerations which were accepted to be those relating to health matters in Britain, always bearing in mind the climatic peculiarities.
The almost total extermination of scurvy, dysentery and intermittent fever in London in the 18th and 19th centuries was considered one of the most striking achievements of British sanitary progress. In the seventeenth century, annual deaths from dysentery and intestinal complaints fluctuated in London from one to two thousand. In 1840, the annual average did not exceed twenty to fifty. The British wanted to emulate this success in the colonies. The East India Company decided to take matters into its own hands and pledged to “raise the health rate of the soldier in India from that of the baker and composer to the level of the middle-class civilian!”
Sir James Ranald Martin, the British military surgeon in India who worked for the East India Company and helped to raise awareness of the effects of deforestation and to establish links between human and environmental health had suggested that a manual sanitary, containing in a clear and concise manner the “great truths and principles of hygiene and sanitary art, should be published by the authority and become the guide of soldiers and doctors”.
Such a manual was compiled by Sir William James Moore who headed the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. He was also Honorary Physician to the Queen and Viceroy of India. Moore spent a few years in India, consulted doctors and military leaders, visited several military stations, and published a manual. The first edition appeared in 1848, a copy of which has been archived at the National Archives of India in New Delhi. The manual was revised every year until 1852 when it was sent to all military stations in India.
Moore viewed sanitation as an art based on sound science and sense. Though attention to sanitary regulations had proved productive of marvelous results, and notwithstanding these results were shown to have certain consequences of such care, he lamented the fact that sanitation and hygiene were not among the projects that had been easily welcomed by mankind. He hoped that with his manual these essential arts, which are still struggling to mature, would gain some respect.
The remarkable manual deals with sanitation on the hills and on the plains. It describes in detail the various aspects of building ideal barracks and hospitals. There is a chapter on the purification and storage of drinking water. The manual sets guidelines for preventing and treating diseases like cholera and scurvy. A chapter is devoted to the condition of the wife, widow and children of the Anglo-Indian soldier. The manual also discusses at length a soldier’s diet.
It should be noted that Moore performed most of his experiments at the Poona stations. His observations and deductions mentioned in the manual were entirely based on these experiences. His suggestions based on his discoveries at Poona were later imitated throughout India and other British colonies. Other textbooks published in the 19th and 20th centuries used Moore’s findings to come up with their own set of instructions. For example, Lord Herbert issued the “Code of Regulations for the Medical Officers of the Army” in 1859 which noted in detail the guidelines for providing weekly rations to troops in the colonies. The weekly ration quota figures noted in this manual are taken directly from the Poona Station books.
In a lecture on military hygiene, delivered at the United Service Institution, Poona in September, 1861, Dr. J Fraser declared that the Sepoy army of India, and particularly at Poona, was the healthiest in the world and the only military force where the mortality was no greater than that of the population from which it was drawn. This has been attributed to the separate huts the men lived in and their movement from “dirty and overcrowded village dwellings” to cantonments that were spacious and, compared to their former way of life, under effective sanitary control. In the lecture, Fraser did not forget to thank Moore for his commendable work in compiling the sanitation manual that had helped soldiers, Indians and Anglo-Indians, maintain their health. What he failed to mention in the lecture were the measures concerning the diet of the soldiers which were suggested by Moore and undertaken by the officers at Poona Station.
More on that next week.
Chinmay Damle is a scientific researcher and cooking enthusiast. He writes here about the food culture of Pune. He can be contacted at [email protected]