Poison Arrows and Abnormal Pathology

Daniel Simpson, who presented at our ‘Abnormality and the Abnormal in the Nineteenth Century’ conference, tells us about an instance of abnormal pathology on the Royal Navy’s HMS Pearl in 1875.

Eight days after he was struck in the head and chest by a volley of poisonous arrows on the Santa Cruz Islands, of the South Pacific, Commodore James Graham Goodenough died an agonising death. He had endured more than a week of swellings, sweating and spasms, before finally succumbing on the afternoon of the 20th August, 1875, in the process leaving the Royal Navy’s Australia Station without its Commander-in-Chief. Six others onboard HMS Pearl, including three ordinary sailors, the ships’ captain, its cook, and a sub-lieutenant, had been struck by arrows on the same day, two of whom also died, while four recovered. This left the Pearl’s surgeon, Adam Brunton Messer, at something of a loss; the arrows seemed certainly to have been deadly, and yet they had produced markedly variable symptoms in his patients – two seemed not to have been afflicted at all, aside from their puncture wounds, one had made a complete recovery but remained ‘nervous and hysterical’, while Goodenough, who retained his calm and composed manner throughout, had made an initial recovery before taking a dramatic turn for the worse.
Messer’s report of the incident, ‘An Enquiry Into the Reputed Poisonous Nature of the Arrows of the South Sea Islanders’, offers a unique insight into colonial medicine and imperial encounter between British and indigenous peoples in the South Seas of the late nineteenth-century. In this short post, however, I am concerned more with the fate of the ‘nervous and hysterical’ sublieutenant, known only as ‘H.H.’, who had suffered ‘a mere scratch of skin’ on his left shoulder. I want to suggest that the study of ‘abnormality’, so effectively championed by CNCS at Durham during its recent (2015) conference, might be applied not only to the metropolitan context of nineteenth-century Britain, but also to its contemporaneous and intimately-related maritime endeavours abroad. There is much in Messer’s report to suggest that the medically-imbued category of the ‘abnormal’, which he earnestly applied, might offer findings not otherwise attainable through conventional analytical frameworks concerning the strange, exotic and dialectical indigenous ‘Other’.

There was, in Messer’s estimation, something more than coincidence at play in the fact that the unusual weapons of the mysterious inhabitants of the Santa Cruz Islands had caused such perplexing injuries to the Pearl’s crew. The ‘uneducated’ sailors in his charge were firmly convinced that the islanders had poisoned their arrows by ‘inserting them in the kidney fat or other parts of a dead, decomposing human body’, and it was hard, even after exhaustive investigation, to convince them otherwise, and still more difficult to prove that the arrows were poisonous at all. Similar fantasies concerning the exotic and deadly weapons of uncontacted people in far-flung places were well-established back at home, where Arthur Conan-Doyle’s famous Sherlock Holmes story, The Sign of Four, was soon to be published. For Messer, however, this presented a real problem; one officer among his crew had been left so incapacitated by fear upon receiving ‘a slight prick in the finger’ while handling some arrows which had been brought onboard that he was ‘actually considered insane’ by those who witnessed him pacing his cabin, loudly proclaiming that he would ‘shortly die’ (he soon recovered).

The implication, as such, was that a preexisting state of hysteria among the Pearl’s crew had somehow contrived to render their injures far worse than they would otherwise have been. To make matters more complicated, those patients who really had died, including Goodenough, were those who had otherwise remained relatively calm. The explanation, Messer argued, was that his patients were in reality suffering from one of two varieties of tetanus. The aetiology of the disease, for which there was no vaccine, was not yet understood; tetanus was thought, like the arrows and their makers, to be another symptom of the peculiar environment of the South Seas. Messer’s report therefore suggested that ‘hysterical tetanus’, in addition to ‘traumatic tetanus’ might be responsible for the maladies of some of those wounded by the ostensibly poisonous arrows; fear and dread were a predisposing condition of an abnormal mental pathology which itself produced tetanus-like symptoms in patients such as ‘H.H.’. Thus, wrote Messer, ‘if this needless dread of the poison were abolished, we should thereby remove one of the chief factors in inducing tetanus to follow these wounds’.

Perhaps most interestingly, Messer concluded by applying a similar category of explanation to the behaviour of the indigenous makers of the arrows themselves. Here, we observe how his theories concerning mental abnormality were intended also to serve a colonial narrative of educational ‘improvement’, which collapsed racial and cultural divisions. It was beyond doubt that the inhabitants of the Santa Cruz Islands attempted various methods to make their arrows poisonous, and that they firmly believed them to be so; their lack of education, argued Messer, was therefore comparable to that of the sailors onboard the Pearl, as they were similarly deluded. Their general health, as such, might be improved by addressing their ‘ignorance and superstition’, as well as their ‘want of moral courage to resist disease’. As with Messer’s own stricken patients, they held their arrows in ‘such fear and dread, that the nervous system becomes liable to certain diseases on the slightest provocation’, resulting in the ‘hysterical tetanus’ which he had before proposed.

It was, in essence, the idea of abnormality itself that Messer was therefore attempting to address, and to fix, in his report. By advocating education he sought to render the arrows less sinister, the inhabitants of the Santa Cruz Islands less strange, and the mental and physical condition of his patients less alarming; poison arrows, abnormal pathology and the early history of tetanus were all intimately associated with Britain’s colonial mission.

Daniel is a second year collaborative doctoral award student with the British Museum and Royal Holloway, University of London. His thesis is in history and is called ‘The Royal Navy and Colonial Collecting in Australia, c.1800-1855’. His article,  ‘Chartist Failure and Methodist Madness in Nineteenth Century Cornwall: A Reanalysis’ is forthcoming in Cornish Studies, vol.22.


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