Press release

What shall we do with a drunken sailor?

Colourful tales of scurvy, drunkenness, shipwrecks and murder in the 18th and 19th centuries have been opened to the public as part of an extensive cataloguing project funded by the Wellcome Trust.

The National Archives has opened up and made accessible over 1,000 Royal Navy medical officers' journals, consisting of journals and diaries compiled by Royal Navy surgeons and assistant surgeons who served on HM ships, hospitals, naval brigades, shore parties and on emigrant and convict ships in the period 1793 to 1880.

The journals tell of ship life, including drunken rum-related incidents, venereal disease, shark bites, tarantulas, gun fights, mutiny, arrests and court-martial.

"Medical officers serving in the Royal Navy were required to submit detailed records of the health and treatment of those under their care in the form of journals which are probably the most significant collection of records for the study of health and medicine at sea for the 19th century," explains Bruno Pappalardo, Naval Records Specialist at the National Archives.

As a result of this extensive cataloguing work, the records can easily be searched by the name of the medical officer, the patient, the ship or even by disease or ailment. The cataloguing also revealed some unexpected 'bonus' material contained in the journals. This material includes water colour illustrations, sketches, hand-drawn maps, climate charts, vessel lay out and ventilation plans and details of the countries visited and people encountered.

To celebrate the Archive Awareness Campaign's nationwide theme, 'Discovery - Archives in Science, Technology and Medicine', the National Archives has created a web page and digitised a colourful selection of files called National Archives: Surgeons at Sea.