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The Uncommercial Traveller [vii]

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Author Charles Dickens
Genre Prose: Report i
Subjects Great Britain—Armed Forces; Militias
Great Britain—Politics and Government
Medical care; Nursing; Hospitals; Hospital Care; Surgery; Medicine; Physicians
Ships; Boats; Shipwrecks; Salvage; Merchant Marine; Sailors; Sailing; Submarines (Ships)
Other Details
Printed : 21/4/1860
Journal : All the Year Round
Volume : Volume III
Magazine : No. 52
Office Book Notes
Views : 1140

Retitled 'The Great Tasmania's Cargo' in collected editions of the series

The London, Chatham & Dover railway, formed in 1859, had its terminus at London Bridge; there were barracks at Chatham. Dickens used this line frequently in the 1860s, boarding at Higham for journeys from Gadshill to both London and the south-east coast. Between 19 and 22 March 1860, an inquest was held at the Crown Court, St. George's Hall, Liverpool, into the deaths of British soldiers discharged from active service in India, who had fallen ill on the transport ship Great Tasmania during the voyage home. The majority were soldiers who 'refusing to be transferred from the service of the East India company to that of Her Majesty, without receiving the usual bounty given to recruits, were discharged and ordered to be sent home' (The Times, 20 March, p. 12, col. b). The ship had set out from Calcutta in November 1859, and had reached anchorage in the Mersey on the morning of 15 March, with doctors reporting 'two deaths and about 60 bad cases of scurvy' (The Times, ibid.) but according to India Office records signed by Captain Alexander Pond, by the 23rd of the month, there had been no less than 62 casualties (L/MIL/10/320, p. 39). During the intervening period, the sick had been removed to the Liverpool Workhouse, and given every medical attention. Over one in thirteen of the 971 passengers who made the journey, thus failed to survive it.

      Articles in The Manchester Guardian and The Times (21–23 March) reproduced the Coroner's Report, and recorded much of the evidence taken during the Inquest. Gunner John Worth of the Bengal House Artillery had testified, for example, that of the ship's stores, '...[t]he beef was very bad, and when boiled 'stunk so horribly' that it had to be thrown overboard... The limejuice was weak and not fit to drink. The biscuits were hard, musty, mouldy and maggotty until they reached St. Helena. The water was black and sometimes rusty. The suet 'stunk'...' (Manchester Guardian, 21 Mar 1860, p. 3, col. c). Other versions of events, however, stressed the excesses and intemperance of the men in the depôt at Chinsurah, near Calcutta, prior to embarkation, as the major factor in their physical deterioration. A Lieutenant in the 3rd Bengal recorded that 'there was one continued scene of drunkenness. On several occasions the men were so drunk that they were not able to parade, and sold their clothes and all they could possibly lay hold of to buy liquor' (The Times, 20 March 1860, p. 12, col. c). The Jury's eventual verdict was that the officers who had signed the general inspection report were culpable 'so far as the quality of the stores was concerned', but considered it 'an imperative to urge upon the Government the necessity of... a change in the system of military inspection... before soldiers leave India, or any other foreign country' (Manchester Guardian, 23 Mar 1860, p. 3, col. c).
      From such reports, a journalist of Dickens's calibre could easily have worked up the detailed descriptions included in the essay. Indeed, no explicit reference to the Great Tasmania scandal or to travelling to Liverpool at this period is to be found in Dickens's correspondence (see headnote to ['The Uncommercial Traveller [iv]', AYR, Vol. II, 10 March 1860; titled 'Poor Mercantile Jack' in collected editions of the series] Item 8 [in The Dent Uniform Edition of Dickens's Journalism, Vol. IV]). However, a letter states that on 15 March he is 'positively obliged to go out of town' on '"All The Year Round" business' which 'cannot be postponed, and must be done'. Subsequent letters written from London show that he was 'expressly engaged out of town' on 17 March, while on 30 March he reports himself to 'have been much engaged away from home'. Dickens could thus well have been in Liverpool on one or more occasions during the last fortnight of March, to visit the Workhouse and/or to attend the inquest of which he writes so passionately. Writing to Wills on Wednesday 28 March, Dickens states that a family problem arising 'when I got home last night' means that 'there is not a hope of my doing the Uncommercial, in time for Saturday's American Mail.... Can we make up the No. without it, for America, and afterwards re-make it up, with it, for this country?' (see Pilgrim, Vol. IX, pp. 225-27&nn.). The Pilgrim editors suggest that CD is referring here and in his letter to Charles Knight of 14 March (p. 225n.) to the writing of Item 10, whereas both the print schedule of ATYR, and the substance of the present item, make it the more likely candidate. Consultation of the American edition of ATYR, published by Emerson & Co., shows that in the event, no 'Uncommercial' papers of around this time were published out of step with their counterparts in the British edition.

Literary allusions

  • 'those who are put in authority over us': 'all that are put in authority under her' (i.e. The Queen), 'A Catechism', The Book of Common Prayer (1662); 
  • the name and character of 'Pangloss' are borrowed from those of the casuistical tutor satirised in Voltaire's Candide (1759), Ch. 1, who believes that 'all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds' (a parody of Leibniz's theological arguments in his Theodicée, 1710)

Textual note

Copy text has 'I burn and blush to remember it': UT1 has 'I blush to remember it'

Author: John Drew; © J. M. Dent/Orion Publishing Group, Dickens' Journalism Volume IV: 'The Uncommercial Traveller' and Other Papers, 1859–70 (2000). DJO gratefully acknowledges permission to reproduce this material.

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