“Seasoning to the Climate”: Health, Climate and Medicine

In 1803, Mary wrote to Hester about the prickly heat and boils that affected most newcomers to India. She herself had been fortunate “in not having had any fever or any disorder whatever, by way of seasoning to the Climate.”[1]

The idea of “seasoning” to either a new environment was common in European thought between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. As Suman Seth notes, those who moved to unfamiliar environments were expected to undergo a “seasoning sickness”, which would help their bodies adapt to the new conditions.[2] Mark Harrison argues that until around the 1810s, there was widespread optimism about the possibility of Europeans adapting to India’s climate through a combination of seasoning, seeking out healthy environments, and following a temperate lifestyle.[3] As Mary continued in her letter, “here are some instances of persons who have come here with very good constitutions & have taken good care of themselves who have lived here to an old age without a days illness.”

Elizabeth was clearly regarded as having a weaker constitution than Mary, although early letters also expressed optimism about her health. Mary wrote to her mother in 1801 that “Betsy has since she embarke[d] at Portsmouth had better health than I have known her to have for years before”[4] When threats to Elizabeth’s health are alluded to, they are often portrayed as a response to climatic conditions or environment. For example, Elizabeth refers to an illness that she suffered from before leaving England as the reason of having attempted “two winters without country air”.[5] Elizabeth, like her mother, was apparently worst affected by cold and damp in both England and in India.[6]

The idea of susceptibility to certain types of diseases, climates, and environments was linked to the humoural profiles traditionally assigned to individuals that also determined to some extent their characters and appearance. The influence of these ideas is evident in the way Elizabeth and Mary describe the disorders that troubled the family. For example, Henry Gwillim – who was “sometimes full strong in anger”[7] was troubled with bilious disorders and by the heat,[8] while Elizabeth’s own susceptibility to damp was connected to her nervous temperament.[9]

The four humours, qualities, elements, and temperaments illustrated in an early twentieth century text. Wellcome Trust images, Wellcome Library no. 566786i (https://wellcomecollection.org/works/bp9dyvt9)

Ideas about the influence of the environment on health date back to the Hippocratic Airs, Waters, and Places, a work which enjoyed a resurgence of interest in early modern medical thought. While “medical topography” fully emerged as a concept only in the 1820s, there was much discussion during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries about which parts of India and which types of Indian environments were beneficial for European constitutions. The Gwillim household moved several times during their stay in Madras, prompted by their attempts to identify the healthiest environments for a particular time of year. Their move to San Thomé was prompted by the perceived need to move to higher ground close to the sea to escape both heat and damp. During the wet monsoon months in February and March, they moved to higher ground, first in St Thomas’ Mount and later to Pammal. This identification of higher elevations as healthier would become important in the development of hill stations later in the nineteenth century.[10]  

Mr Webb’s cotton farm at Pammal, where the Gwillim family stayed and where Elizabeth died in 1807

Rarely do we get a sense from the letters of the Indian environment as completely foreign. Elizabeth describes the ailments she suffered from in India as “the same but stronger” as those that had affected her in a cold, damp summer in Wales.[11] Nonetheless, as the nineteenth century progressed, the earlier optimism about the possibility of adapting to climates gave way to a sense that the Indian environment was always more or less incompatible with the European constitution. This new pessimism coincided with hardening racial boundaries and a sense that European and Indian bodies were fundamentally different from one another. Along with this sense of difference came a new determination among expatriates to replicate British habits of food and dress in India despite the differences in climate. Another passage from the letters that uses the idea of “seasoning” in a different context, hints at these coming changes. Elizabeth writes: “Medical people begin to find that Europeans do not require to have their dishes seasoned so highly as they used to have them – The spice being to the natives what our wine is to us, it is not necessary to take both.”[12]

A few passages in the letters refer to medicines or to medical advice received by members of the household. It is interesting to note the habit of informally “prescribing” medicines to family and friends that is evident from the letters. In contrast, when doctors’ advice is mentioned, it often relates to changes of location or habits. For example, Elizabeth was originally advised to wake up early and ride out for exercise but then, finding this made her catch cold, to stay in bed and drink coffee.[13]

While brief, the passages relating to medicines give a good sense of the range of treatments available in the nineteenth century. Several are “simples,” medicines consisting of a single (usually herbal) ingredient. For example, to treat his bilious illness, Henry Gwillim took some rhubarb, but apparently without success. Rhubarb came from China where it was regarded as a powerful medicine. In medieval and early modern European medicine, rhubarb was seen more as a general purgative, especially useful for evacuating bilious humours. The part that was used in medicine was the rhizome or rootstalk. During the nineteenth century, rhubarb was still considered an important enough medical substance in Europe that China believed that threatening embargos on rhubarb would be an effective means of advancing its diplomatic ends in relations with both Russia and Britain.[14] Only in the twentieth century was rhubarb’s medicinal role replaced by the use of its juicy stalks as a pie filling.

While rhubarb today seems like an innocuous substance, we would regard some of the other remedies mentioned in the correspondence as narcotic or simply poisonous. Elizabeth writes “The Ethiops mineral I began to take when Ned was in town did me great good.”[15] Ethiops mineral was used as a general tonic, as well as being given to children for deworming.[16] The name usually referred to mercuric sulphide, made from a combination of mercury and molten sulphur. Despite the awareness of their side-effects, mercury-based medicines were very commonly used in internal medicine from the early modern period (when they were popularised as a treatment for syphilis) up until during the twentieth century.

A nineteenth century medicine chest, possibly for domestic use, containing both rhubarb and opium. Mahogany medicine chest, England, 1801-1900. Credit: Science Museum, LondonAttribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Another common ingredient was opium, another remedy which Elizabeth refers to taking as a remedy for difficulty sleeping in the intense heat. Here, she writes “The Poppy syrup is as fine as possible & I had some in the middle of one night & Mr: Gwillim boasts much of having prescribed it for me.”[17] Syrup of poppies was another commonly used domestic medicine in the nineteenth century, although warnings were issued about the apparently common practice of using it to put babies to sleep.[18] Opium, though a native European plant, was becoming central to the East India Company’s exports from India. From the eighteenth century, the Company had seized control of the opium-producing parts of Bihar and Bengal and from 1799, it monopolized opium production, requiring all producers to sell their opium to the government at a fixed price.[19] Like other EIC policies of this period, this had extremely detrimental effects on rural livelihoods.

Elizabeth also prescribed medicines for other members of the family, writing to her mother on one occasion:

         I have given to a young Gentleman who returns to England for his health a pint bottle of Caya Putty Oil an infallible remedy for spasms & cold pains to be used outwardly or in bad cases a few drops in water inwardly – Tho’ I hope you will not often want it yet I trust that you will receive it safe, It was a present to me from a friend who brought it from the Eastward.[20]

Whitelaw Ainslie identified the “oil Kyäpootie” as Melaleuca Leucadendron and writes that it comes from the Moluccas and especially from Banda, where it is used by the Malays internally to treat epilepsy and palsy. He described it as as yet little known to Indian physicians, but in growing use among European medical men for external application to rheumatism.[21] It was perhaps Elizabeth’s friend Ann Anderson Young, who spent time in Southeast Asia who procured the oil for her. The oil Elizabeth describes is related to tea tree oil, which is normally derived from an Australian species of Melaleuca.

An interesting passage in Elizabeth’s correspondence gives a brief account of Indian medicine as she observed it practiced among the household servants. The servants who are described seem to have been Shaivites (followers of Shiva) from lower castes. Elizabeth begins by noting a belief that the manner of a person’s death is written on his skull and can be observed on the fragments collected after cremation and observing that therefore, the purpose of medicine is to relieve pain rather than to cure.[22] She writes that disease is attributed to the evil eye or to “pisaches,”[23] a name applied to demons who were the spirits of the dead and, perhaps for this reason, became associated with Shiva. She describes a lead amulet, prepared using incantations, that was worn by her maid at the pit of her stomach as a cure for colic and the use of dogs’ blood mixed with a red earth as a cure prescribed to a male servant for fits. Finally, she describes a form of exorcism carried out at the temple of “Manar-swaamy (a God whom the Bramins disown)”. Manar Swamy is described by Francis Buchannan as a local god in Coimbatore[24] and an interesting image of “Rajah Manar Swami” as an archer was made in c. 1801-5 by a local artist in Madurai.[25] However, Manar Swami also seems to have become identified with Shiva (who is the deity worshipped in the Manar Swami temple in Chennai).

Like many of her contemporaries, Elizabeth’s account of Indian herbal medicine hovers between respect and a growing sense of western medical superiority. She writes that “there is a knowledge of plants even amongst the lowest of the people that shews a great attention to the productions of nature” but adds that “they have formed no notion of how the qualities of vegetables act on the human body”.[26] She also notes that the concepts of hot and cold that Indian physicians attached to both herbs and diseases did not match similar concepts held within English (Galenic) medicine. She compares Indian medical teachings that attach astrological and magical meaning to plants with Nicholas Culpeper’s seventeenth century work, which she regarded as old-fashioned. She also blames a lack of skill for diseases that are easily cured among Europeans being fatal to Indians. More admiration is evident in her description of how broken limbs are healed by covering them with clay, which is slowly baked and once hard, holds the limb in place until it heals. However, Elizabeth expressed doubt whether this method would suit the European constitution, which tended to be “subject to inflammation”. In fact, a similar method was adopted in European medicine, with the use of plaster of Paris to make plaster casts becoming widespread after around 1850.    

While Elizabeth’s comments on Indian medicine were brief, several of the circle of botanists and EIC surgeons that she was part of in Madras made more serious studies, often prompted by the reliance of the EIC hospitals and army medics on local drugs. Johann Peter Rottler, Elizabeth’s botanical mentor was one of a series of missionaries based in the Danish colony of Tranquebar who studied Tamil and had an interest in medicinal plants. Rottler’s own Tamil dictionary[27] contains some information about medicinal plants and Rottler also helped Whitelaw Ainslie compile his Materia Medica of Hindoostan.[28] The EIC surgeon James Anderson (father of Ann Anderson Young) was also interested in local remedies. He reported favourably on the practice of smoking Datura ferox as a cure for asthma, a practice which was adopted in a modified form in England.[29] Mary joined Andrew Berry, Anderson’s nephew and fellow botanist, in the investigations of another medicinal plant, the so-called ‘Columbo root’, a medicine long known in Europe, but whose origins had been deliberately obscured by the Portuguese who traded it from Mozambique. Berry had succeeded in growing the plant and invited Mary to paint it.[30] Berry later published an account of the root in Asiatick Researches, with an accompanying image, either by Mary or by an Indian artist.  

Image from Andrew Berry, “An Account of the Male Plant which furnished the Medicine Known as Columbo or Colomba root,” Asiatick researches, or, Transactions of the Society … v.10 (1811).

In 1806, Elizabeth reported having a “long indisposition” which had left her weak and she referred again to suffering from “cold and spasms.”[31] In December 1807, she died of unknown causes in Pammal.  In the early nineteenth century, such early and sudden deaths remained commonplace, in both Britain and in India. Over the course of the nineteenth century influenced by local Muslim architecture, Europeans in India began to erect increasingly grandiose memorials, making what David Arnold has called the “deathscape” another projection of colonial power.[32] Elizabeth’s own memorial, in St Mary’s Church was more modest, recording her simply as the dear wife of Henry Gwillim.

Elizabeth Gwillim’s grave at St Mary’s Church. Image courtesy of S. Subramanya

[1] Letter_024_MS_02-1803 (Mss.Eur.C.240/2, ff. 104r-106v), Mary Symonds to Hester James, February 7 1803, p. 6/ f. 106v.

[2] Suman Seth. Difference and Disease: Medicine, Race and the Eighteenth-Century British Empire (Cambridge University Press, 2018), introduction.

[3] Mark Harrison, “Differences of Degree: Representations of India in British Medical Topography, 1820-c.1870,” Medical history. Supplement 2000(20): 51-69; Climates and Constitutions (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2002).

[4] Letter_002_MS_10-1801: Mary Symonds to Esther Symonds, 14 October 1801 (Mss.Eur.C.240/1, ff. 4r-11v), p. 1/ f. 4r.

[5] Elizabeth to Hetty, February 7, 1802

[6] Mary to Hester, Madras, February 11, 1802

[7] Letter-032-EG-08-1803 (Mss.Eur.C.240/2, ff. 134r-139v) Elizabeth Gwillim to Hester James, August 14/15, 1803.

[8] Elizabeth to Hetty, February 12, 1802, p. 2, “Mr. Gwillim has had a billious [sic] illness in his sickness on board ship he brought up a great deal of bile”.

[9] Letter-050-EG-10-1804, Elizabeth Gwillim to Hester ” Symonds James, October 16, 1804, pp. 2-3.

[10] On hill stations, see Vikram Bhatt, Resorts of the Raj: Hill Stations of India (Middletown, NJ: Grantha Corp., 1998).

[11] Letter-050-EG-10-1804, Elizabeth Gwillim to Hester ” Symonds James, October 16, 1804, pp. 2-3.

[12] Letter_004_EG_10-1801: Elizabeth Gwillim to Esther Symonds, 17 October 1801 (Mss.Eur.C.240/1, ff. 14r-18v), p. 3.

[13] Letter_008_MS_02-1802: Mary Symonds to Hester James, Madras, February 11, 1802 (Mss.Eur.C.240/1, ff. 39r-46v).

[14] Chang Che-Chia, “Origins of a Misunderstanding: the Qianlong Emperor’s Embargo on Rhubarb Exports to Russia, the Scenario and Its Consequences.” Asian Medicine 1 no 2 (2005): 335-354; Erika Monahan, “Locating Rhubarb: Early Modernity’s Relevant Obscurity,” in Early Modern Things: Objects and their Histories, 1500–1800, ed. Paula Findlen (London: Routledge, 2013), 227-51.

[15] Letter_001_EG_XX-1801: Elizabeth Gwillim to Esther Symonds, 21 [February] 1801 (Mss.Eur.C.240/1 ff. 2r-3v).

[16] The Compleat Family Physician: Being a Perfect Compendium of Domestic Medicine (Newcastle upon Tyne, 1800)], pp. 51 and 59.

[17] Letter-032-EG-08-1803 (Mss.Eur.C.240/2, ff. 134r-139v) Elizabeth Gwillim to Hester James, August 14/15, 1803

[18] R. Levitt, Unsafe Medicine: Laudanum in the 19th Century. Wellcome History, 51 (2013), 24-25.

[19] J. F. Richards, J. F. “The Indian Empire and Peasant Production of Opium in the Nineteenth Century.” Modern Asian Studies, 15, no. 1, (1981), 59–82.

[20] Letter-056-EG-XX-1805 (Mss.Eur.C.240/4, ff. 271r-278v), Elizabeth Gwillim to Esther Symonds, no date; received in England February 28, 1806.

[21] Whitelaw Ainslie, The Materia Medica of Hindoostan (Madras: Government Press, 1813), p. 31.

[22] Elizabeth also refers here to reading a translation of an Indian poet who refers to the practice of bathing the pieces of the skull in milk and reading these letters after the cremation is complete.

[23] Hobson-Jobson p. 714 PISACHEE , Skt. piśāchī, a shedemon, m. piśācha.

[24]Francis Buchanan, “Customs of the Coicular, near Coimbatore: from Dr Buchanan’s journey from Madras, through Mysore, Canara, and Malabar” Annual Asiatic Register…for the Year 1807 (W. Otride and son and others: London, 1809), p. 947.

[25] “Figure of an archer. ‘Rajah Manar Swamy'”, British Library online collections, http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/onlineex/apac/other/019wdz000001063u00034000.html.  

[26] Letter-036-EG-10-1803 (Mss.Eur.C.240/2, ff. 154r-159v) Elizabeth Gwillim to Esther Symonds, October 20-21, 1803.

[27] Johann Peter Rottler, A Dictionary of the Tamil and English Languages, Vol I, Part I (Madras: Vepery Mission Press, 1834).

[28] Whitelaw Ainslie, The Materia Medica of Hindoostan (Madras: Government Press, 1813).

[29] Mark Jackson, “”Divine stramonium”: the rise and fall of smoking for asthma.” Medical history 54, no. 2 (2010): 171-94. doi:10.1017/s0025727300000235.

[30] Letter-072-MS-03-1807 (Mss.Eur.C.240/4, ff. 365r-368v), Mary Symonds to Hester James, March 4, 1807.

[31] Gwillim undated [Sept/Oct 1806], BL OIOC MSS Eur. C.240/4, fols. 329v–332r

[32] David Arnold, “Deathscapes: India in an Age of Romanticism and Empire, 1800-1856.” Nineteenth-Century Contexts, 26, no. 4, (2004), 339–353.

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