Free Settler or Felon
Convict and Colonial History

James McKerrow R. N.,

Convict Ship Surgeon-Superintendent

James McKerrow was appointed Assistant-Surgeon on 11 June 1811.

The Zaire Expedition

In 1816 as Assistant-Surgeon, he volunteered to join the expedition of James Hingston Tuckey to the River Zaire (The Congo), South Africa.[1]

The Zaire Expedition, left Deptford on February 16, 1816. The selection of personnel was left to the choice of the leader, Commander J. K. Tuckey, R.N. (died). There were six commissioned officers - Lieutenant John Hawkey, R. N. (died); Mr. Lewis Fitzmaurice, master and surveyor; Mr. Robert Hodder and Mr. Robert Beecraft, master's mates; Mr. John Eyre, purser (died); and Mr. James McKerrow, assistant surgeon. Under these were eight petty officers, four carpenters, two blacksmiths, and fourteen able seamen. The marines numbered one sergeant, one corporal, and twelve privates. Grand total of combatants, forty-nine.

To these were added five 'savants': Professor Chetien Smith, a Norwegian botanist and geologist (died); Mr. Cranch, collector of objects of natural history (died); Mr. Tudor, comparative anatomist (died); Mr. Galway, Irishman and volunteer naturalist (died); and Lockhart, a gardener (of His Majesty's Gardens, Kew). There were two Congo negroes, Benjamin Benjamins and Somme Simmons; the latter, engaged as a cook's mate, proved to be a 'prince of the blood,' which did not prevent his deserting for fear of the bush men........

Sir Joseph Banks had suggested a steamer drawing four feet, with twenty-four horse-power; an admirable idea, but practical difficulties of construction rendered the 'Congo' useless. Of the fifty-four white men, eighteen, including eleven of the 'Congo' crew, died in less than three months. Fourteen out of a party of thirty officers and men, who set out to explore the cataracts vid, the northern bank, lost their lives; and they were followed by four more on board the ' Congo,' and one at Bahia.

The expedition remained in the river between July 6th and October 18th, little more than three months; yet twenty-one, or nearly one-third, three of the superior officers and all the scientific men, perished.

Captain Tuckey died of fatigue and exhaustion (Oct. 4th) rather than of disease; Lieutenant Hawkey, of fatal typhus (which during 1862 followed the yellow fever, in the Bonny and New Calabar Rivers) ; and Mr. Eyre, palpably of bilious remittent. Professor Smith had been so charmed with the river, that he was with difficulty persuaded to return. Prostrated four days afterwards by sickness on board the transport, he refused physic and food, because his stomach rejected bark, and, preferring cold water1, he became delirious ; apparently, he died of disappointment, popularly called a 'broken heart.' Messrs. Tudor and Cranchalso fell victims to bilious remittents, complicated, in the case of the latter, by the 'gloomy view taken of Christianity by that sect denominated Methodists.' Mr. Galway, on September 28th, visited Sangala, the highest rapid ('Narrative,' p. 328). In the Introduction, p. 80, we are wrongly told that he went to Banza Ninga, whence, being taken ill on August 24th, he was sent down stream. He, like his commander, had to sleep in the open, almost without food, and he also succumbed to fever, fatigue, and exhaustion.

The cause of this prodigious mortality appears in the records of the expedition. Officers and men were all raw, unseasoned, and unacclimatized. Captain Tuckey, an able navigator, the author of 'Maritime Geography and Statistics,' had served in the tropics; his biographer, however, writes that a long imprisonment in France and 'residence in India had broken down his constitution, and at the age of thirty (ob. aet. thirty-nine) his hair was grey and his head nearly bald.' The men perished,. exactly like the missionaries of old, by hard work, insufficient and innutritious food, physical exhaustion, and by the doctor. At first 'immediate bleeding and gentle cathartics' are found to be panaceas for mild fevers :

Presently the surgeon makes a discovery as follows: 'With regard to the treatment I shall here only observe that bleeding was particularly unsuccessful. Cathartics were of the greatest utility, and calomel, so administered as speedily to induce copious salivation, generally procured a remission of all the violent symptoms.' The phlebotomy was inherited from the missioners, who own almost to have blinded themselves by it. When one was 'blooded' fifteen times and died, his amateur Sangrado said, 'It had been better to have bled him thirty times:' the theory was that in so hot a climate all the European blood should be replaced by African. One of the entries in Captain Tuckey's diary is, ' Awaking extremely unwell, I directly swallowed five grains of calomel' - a man worn out by work and sleeping in the open air!

The 'Congo' sloop was moored in a reach surrounded by hills, instead of being anchored in mid stream where the current of water creates a current of air; those left behind in her died of palm wine, of visits from native women, and of exposure to the sun by day and to the nightly dews. On the line of march the unfortunate marines wore pigtails and cocked hats; stocks and cross-belts; tight-fitting, short-waisted red coats, and knee-breeches with boots or spatterdashes - even the stout Lord Clyde in his latest days used to recall the miseries of his march to Margate, and declare that the horrid dress gave him more pain than anything he afterwards endured in a life-time of marching. None seemed capable of calculating what amount of fatigue and privation the European system is able to support in the tropics. And thus they perished, sometimes of violent bilious remittents, more often of utter weariness and starvation. Peace to their manes! - they did their best, and 'angels can no more.' They played for high stakes, existence against fame

Surgeon Superintendent

James McKerrow was employed as Surgeon Superintendent on two convict ship voyages to Australia:

1). Earl St. Vincent to Van Diemen's Land in 1826

2). John to New South Wales in 1827. James McKerrow drowned on this voyage, having thrown himself overboard during in a supposed 'fit of lunacy' on 16 October 1827.

Notes and Links

[1] Narrative of an Expedition to Explore the River Zaire ... (Compiled posthumously from notes by James Hingston Tuckey)

[2] The Zaire Expedition was described by Richard F. Burton in Two Trips to Gorilla Land published in 1876