The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 5 No 4 - December 1981

Sykes and Tulloch - Pioneer Researchers into Sickness and Mortality Rates amongst British Army Personnel in the mid - 19th Century

by P.H. Butterfield


William Henry Sykes was born on 25 January 1790, and entered the service of the East India Company, as a cadet, in 1803. On 1 May of the following year he received his commission, and then on 12 October 1805 he was promoted to a Lieutenancy. He participated in the siege of Bhurtpur, at the same time studying both the Hindustani and Mahratta languages, in which he passed his examinations as an interpreter. On 25 January 1819, he was promoted to a Captaincy and in the following year he returned to Europe, where he spent the ensuing four years traversing the entire continent. He was then offered the position of statistician to the Bombay government and so returned to India in 1824, where his statistical researches involved him in natural history and population studies. Further promotion was achieved on 8 September 1826, when he was made a Major but economic retrenchment in December 1829 necessitated the abolition of the statistical post, although Sykes performed his duties gratuitously, until his researches were completed in January 1831, whereupon he returned to England. Official acknowledgement of his expertise in Indian affairs was confirmed by his testifying before committees of the House of Commons, in the years 1833 and 1853, on matters pertaining to the sub-continent. Sykes retired from active service with the rank of Colonel on 18 June 1833, and seven years later he was appointed to the board of directors of the East India Company. In 1855 he became the deputy chairman of the company and, only one year later, he was appointed chairman. His great interest in statistics was consolidated when he became a Founder Member of the London Statistical Society when it was established in March 1834. After this body had become the Statistical Society the culmination of Sykes's membership was attained when he was elected President in 1863. (1)

Alexander Murray Tulloch was born in 1803 and he spent his entire career in the Army in which, most unusually for this period, he always evinced a great interest in the welfare of the soldiers under him. He was to attain his greatest fame as one of the two investigators, Sir John McNeill being the other one, who visited the Crimea and reported on the mismanagement of the campaign there. When he finally retired from the Army he had not only attained the rank of Major-General but had also been knighted: (2)


On 18 June 1838, Tulloch established a precedent by reading a paper before the London Statistical Society which dealt with the general conditions appertaining to the health and fitness of the British military garrisons in the West Indies. His researches showed that during the years 1817 to 1836 there had been an average of 4 333 troops in the station annually, of whom 7 069, or about 85 per 1 000 died. This mortality rate was equal to about six times the rate among the same class of soldiers in the United Kingdom, for whom the rate was 15 per 1 000 annually. Of the 7 069 deaths in the West Indies only 6 803 actually occurred from disease, the remainder being from accidental causes. Apparently the different islands comprising the archipelago had what might be called 'speciality diseases' for Tobago was remarkable for fevers, Dominica for diseases of the bowels and brain, Barbados for infections of the liver, and Trinidad for dropsies. Despite the fact that the cause of malaria was still unknown the complaint itself was immediately diagnosed, whereas the bowel diseases were mainly dysentery, especially in 1817, when half of the Queen's Regiment was in hospital suffering from this disability. Grenada was especially notorious for yellow fever until the late 1820s, with the great epidemic of 1794 being particularly severe, but after that date the incidence of this complaint had lessened, although the island still had a great preponderance of liver diseases. Dominica, however, was undoubtedly the most insalubrious of all the West Indian islands, for there the mortality rate over the previous twenty years had been 135 per 1 000. (3)

In Jamaica the British military forces, consisting of both white and black soldiers, had been decimated by yellow fever in the previous twenty years. An average annual garrison of 2 578 white troops had lost 6 595 men in the period, giving a mortality rate of 128 per 1 000 annually. Even these depressing figures palled when compared with those for 1855 when 140 soldiers died every week, or for those for a few years afterwards, when a contingent of 800 reinforcements lost two thirds of their numbers within a fortnight. Not only was there a consistent loss of manpower due to yellow fever, but there were frequent extraordinary epidemics in which deaths multiplied rapidly. In 1819 the 50th Regiment had arrived in March and the 93rd three months later, both being stationed at Up-Park Camp, just two miles north of Kingston. Towards the end of June the first signs of the pestilence appeared and then it reached an unprecedented intensity during July and August, such being the ravages that one half of each Regiment's personnel died from this disease. Up-Park Camp was generally considered to possess the finest barracks on the island, yet its mortality rates were well above the average for the entire region. Conversely, Fort Augusta was built on a peninsula forming the north-west boundary of Port Royal Harbour with an extensive marsh nearby. Whenever the wind blew from the same quarter as the marsh there was a most unpleasant odour of rotting vegetation of every description. Yet, surprisingly, in what appeared to be the most insalubrious station, the mortality rate was only about one half of that prevailing on the island as a whole. Only the great epidemic of 1827 had affected the soldiers in this camp, those of 1819, 1822, and 1825, having had little effect. However, in February 1827, the 84th Regiment arrived and suffered only one death in their first five months, but then, suddenly, in July, a virulent yellow fever appeared. As the barracks were rather crowded at the time it was decided to send a section of the Regiment to Up-Park Camp, a move that originally seemed to result in an improvement but, unfortunately, the disease again erupted in August and the fort was evacuated. Tents were erected at Airey Castle a few miles away and, again, a temporary improvement occurred but a bout of wet weather nullified this counter-measure and it was not until the Regiment was re-housed in temporary huts that the epidemic finally abated, An unusual feature of this specific epidemic was that it killed about two-fifths of the men, but only half that fraction of officers, wives and children. Stoney Hill, about nine miles from Kingston, 1 300 feet up in the Liguanea Mountains, was in an apparently salubrious position but its health records demonstrated that this most desirable posting had a very irregular mortality rate. Port Antonie, 80 miles from Kingston, at the northeastern extremity of the island, showed an extremely high mortality rate of 149 per 1 000 annually, practically all the deaths being due to the prevalence of yellow fever. Montego Bay, a rarely occupied post, was notoriously unhealthy with a mortality rate of 179 per 1 000 annually. It is further worthy of note that the incidence of consumption amongst the troops on the island was 13 per 1 000 annually compared with five to six per 1 000 annually in Great Britain, a fact made remarkable because catarrhal affections and inflammation of the lungs were less frequent in the West Indies than in Great Britain. (4)

Tulloch completed his investigations by examining the health records of the Bahamas and Honduras, the former being the more healthy. New Providence, the island upon which the majority of the troops were quartered, was a veritable death trap, owing to the unhealthy site of the camp, Fort Charlotte. This defence had been established towards the end of the 18th Century and had, almost immediately, through the agency of yellow fever, decimated the 47th Regiment, which lost nearly its entire personnel including men, women, and children. Although the Honduras Command was much healthier than the Bahamas post, it was, nevertheless, the only station in the West Indies where cholera in its epidemic form had appeared. (5)

After the completion of his survey Tulloch compiled a report upon the mortality rates of black troops in the stations of the West Indies with the intention of comparing their statistics with those for white soldiers. From his researches he was able to conclude that yellow fever was comparatively harmless for these troops but smallpox was deadly in its impact upon them, two out of seven who contracted it dying as a consequence. Lung diseases were also conducive to more fatalities amongst black troops than white although fewer black soldiers contracted it because it was, in the case of black regiments, the virulence of the disease that enhanced the number of deaths. In his summing up of the situation Tulloch made four important observations, the first being that British troops were not likely to gain any real immunity from diseases by prolonged postings to the West Indies. Secondly, he asserted that the soldiers were not more liable to contract fatal diseases in their first year on the islands than at any other times. His third comment was that, whenever the previous two conclusions appeared to be incorrect, the reason was the occurrence, at regular intervals, of epidemics. Finally, he claimed to have detected a slight advantage, during epidemics, for those corps which had been on the island stations for long periods. Officers suffered much more than their men from diseases of the liver and, in proportion, had greater casualties from yellow fever. However, curiously enough, they were almost exempt from the milder forms of fever. Strangely enough, the numbers of soldiers reporting sick daily would be expected to be approximately in the same proportion as the comparable mortality statistics, that is eight times as great in the West Indies as in Great Britain, but, in actual fact, only just under twice as many reported sick in the foreign station. The reason for this interesting statistic was that 80 per cent of the deaths in the West Indies occurred from fevers which rapidly terminated in death and only 20 per cent from afflictions that lingered.(6)


Sykes commenced his reports on the health of the British troops in India with an account of the mortality and chief diseases of the troops controlled by the Madras Government during the inclusive period 1842 to 1846. His first article is, in the main, a list of tables of statistics meticulously compiled, enumerating the types of diseases and the numbers of those afflicted in each of the respective Divisions of the Raj. According to Sykes, there were nine principal diseases prevalent in the sub-continent namely : cholera, fever, liver, diarrhoea, dysentery, theracia, rheumatism, venereal, and dropsy. From these detailed tables it can be seen that the three most dangerous diseases for Europeans were cholera, dysentery, and fevers compared with the worst native sicknesses of cholera, fevers and diarrhoea. However, when the actual percentages of the cases were analysed, the two races suffered the most from fevers, including the major scourge, malaria, and venereal diseases, although deaths from the latter complaint were very infrequent. As far as mortality rates were concerned it was cholera which claimed the most lives of both European and native personnel. Nevertheless, despite all the indigenous diseases, there was one self-inflicted injury with which Europeans insisted upon persevering, and that was intemperance, which greatly undermined the health of the white community. (7)

Early in the year 1852 Sykes read another paper before the Statistical Society of London, his topic being the sickness and mortality in the Bombay army in the years 1848-1849. In this paper he returned to his previous theme of intemperance as the cause of much of the mortality within the armies of India, and, to a lesser degree, adventitious circumstances, defective barrack accommodation, and ventilation, and unhealthy sites of forts. Bombay Island preserved its unenviable reputation as the most dangerous posting for European troops but it was impossible to attribute this mortality to the climate because the European community of Bombay did not have a similarly high mortality rate. It was also divulged by Sykes that some stations in India actually possessed lower mortality rates than existed in Great Britain. (8)


Until the founding of the Manchester Statistical Society in 1833 it was not really possible to collect accurate statistics in Great Britain, although the first census had been conducted in 1801. To the 19th Century statistician his task was seen as being to tabulate lists of accurate figures, either to support or refute certain contentions; only rarely was there an attempt to interpret figures amassed during the course of investigations. It was only in the early part of the 20th Century that statistics developed as a science, largely due to the work of Karl Pearson (1857-1936). One must, therefore, judge the work of Tulloch and Sykes as examples of the earliest statistical investigations. From their findings the point that is really impressive is the lack of medical knowledge of the various diseases, an ignorance emphasized by the various conjectures made by the two officers on the theme of the cause of the diseases. At this time medical authorities explained diseases by stressing the perfidious effects of various miasmas or obnoxious effluvia. Tulloch, for example, continually stressed that there were swamps in the neighbourhood but, to his credit, he often dismissed them as sources of infection. Again this medical ignorance is exemplified by commanding officers ordering moves to other sites whenever their forts or posts suffered from epidemics, yet there had been fears of contagious diseases, such as leprosy, since Medieval times. One can only feel great sympathy for the British soldiers serving in the distant parts of the Empire and, many of them, dying there, the victims of inadequate medical knowledge.


  1. Dictionary of National Biography (DNB). Vol XIX, p 258.
  2. Op cit Vol XIX, pp 1233-1234.
  3. On the Sickness and Mortality among the Troops of the West Indies in The Journal of the Statistical Society of London, July 1838, pp 129-142.
  4. Op cit. Part II, August 1838, pp 216-228.
  5. Op cit. pp 228-230.
  6. Op cit. November 1838, pp 428-443.
  7. Op cit. May 1851, pp 109-152.
  8. Op cit. June 1852, pp 100-107.
Readers may care to know that Sykes read another paper comparing the French and British armies, which was published in The Journal of the Statistical Society of London, March 1864, pp 1-69.

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