The tropics

1849 sketch of men bathing on deck.

Sea bathing in the tropics. Edward Snell, 1849.

The ‘tropics’ is a band of calm weather around the equator where the trade winds of the north and south meet. This phenomenon, known universally by sailors as the ‘doldrums’, produces a peculiar set of weather conditions characterised by high temperatures and light to calm winds. During the 1800s sailing ships relied solely on wind power to propel them – this was not always assured in the tropics.

Captains hoped to catch a steady breeze through the tropics but many were caught in the ‘doldrums’, the tedium of no wind, no progress and hot, sleepless, airless nights. Such conditions encouraged the spread of disease and general malaise amongst passengers and crew. Sustained exposure to this oppressive heat was known to induce fever, convulsions and excessive debility. Diarrhoea and dehydration, especially dangerous for pregnant women and small babies, were prevalent in the tropics.

For some sailing through the tropics was a welcome period of calm after weeks of wet, stormy weather and widespread seasickness. Some passengers took the opportunity to dry out their bedding and belongings on deck, while others enjoyed the extra rations of lime juice issued by the ship’s store. Sailors and passengers (mostly men) escaped the heat by shedding their outer clothing and bathing and sleeping near naked on deck at night. Meals would also be taken on deck, as the lower decks became unbearable sweatboxes.

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