Skeletons reveal sailors' grisly deaths

Botched amputations and scurvy are among the grim realities of naval life during the Napoleonic Wars revealed by a scientific examination of skeletons buried in three Royal Navy graveyards.

The in-depth examination of 340 mid-18th-century to early 19th-century mariners is shedding crucial new light on the social background sailors came from, the diseases they suffered from and combat-related and accidental injuries they sustained.

The new evidence suggests that a significant percentage – perhaps around 6 per cent - of Royal Navy sailors, who died in service in naval hospitals in England, perished as a result of amputation operations that went wrong, probably as a result of excessive blood loss or infection.

The newly obtained data also reveals that by far the biggest cause of amputation was infection of broken shin bones – probably as a result of naval combat. Because the shin bone is so close to the surface of the skin, broken bone material can end up breaking through the skin and being infected more easily.

The investigations - carried out by osteologists Ceri Boston of Oxford University’s School of Archaeology and Catherine Sinnott of Cranfield University – have also revealed a surprisingly high incidence of scurvy.

Although scurvy itself rarely killed its victims, it did make them more vulnerable to contracting or dying from other diseases such as malaria, yellow fever, typhus or dysentery.

The skeletons that have been examined are from three Royal Navy graveyards – Plymouth, Haslar (near Gosport) and Greenwich.

Most of the skeletal remains, excavated at various times over the past decade and analysed in detail over the past four years, were unearthed as a result of re-development activity

At Plymouth, almost a fifth of the 170 skeletons excavated and examined were of teenagers, many of whom are believed to have died from malaria or dysentery. Their remains testify to the huge numbers of very young people, some as young as eleven or twelve, who formed part of ships’ companies in the Nelsonian era. Many probably served in the Atlantic and the Caribbean.

At Haslar, virtually all the skeletons excavated and examined – 50 in total - were of men in their 20s and early 30s who appear to have served in a different theatre of operations to those buried at Plymouth. The cemetery as a whole contains 20,000 individuals.

At Greenwich (the retirement home for Royal Navy sailors and marines), all the skeletons were, by definition, those of veterans who had generally survived into middle or old age, albeit often scarred by terrible injuries.

Key aspects of the new research will be presented, for the first time, in a special Channel 4 documentary being broadcast tonight.

The investigations vividly demonstrate the way in which, especially during periods of intense military operations, vast numbers of young people died on naval service, reflecting the youthful character of naval personnel.

At Plymouth, 55% of the 170 individuals examined had died under the age of 25 (indeed 17% were under 18) and a further 29% had died aged 26 to 34.

“The Plymouth, Haslar and Greenwich skeletons are the only major groups of Royal Navy skeletal material from Britain for this period, which have ever been excavated. The thousands of pieces of data we’ve been able to extract through our analysis is dramatically enriching our understanding of naval life in the Nelsonian era,” said osteologist Ceri Boston, of Oxford University’s School of Archaeology, who has been examining material from all three sites.

The investigations are also helping historians to understand the social and cultural make-up of the mid 18th to early 19th century Royal Navy.

By looking at the heights and childhood malnutrition rates of the individuals, the scientists have been able to demonstrate that most were not from the very bottom of society – but from the mainstream working class. A small percentage were of African descent and are believed to have been former slaves who gained their freedom by joining the navy.

Key individuals who have been studied by the scientists, and who will feature in tomorrow’s special Channel 4 documentary, will include a ‘topman’ (a sailor who worked aloft) who almost certainly fell from high up in a ship’s rigging, potentially during a battle; an 11 year old boy who may well have been a ‘powder monkey’ supplying explosive charges to gunners; a probable former slave who gained his freedom by joining the Royal Navy; an American-originating sailor who suffered from scurvy; and a sailor who died of syphilis.

Organisations which have been involved in the excavations and the analysis of the skeletal material, include Oxford University, Oxford Archaeology, Pre-Construct Archaeology, Cranfield University and Exeter Archaeology.

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