Posts tagged: hospital ships

Staff Finds: A Boer War Hospital Ship Diary

Annotated envelope and photograph.

Annotated envelope and photograph of three unidentified men. The writer of the diary may be one of them.

While conducting a Boston Medical Library-funded preservation survey, Center staff discovered a diary volume dating from the end of the nineteenth century.

The writer – his name may have been Otto Rinstrom or Renstrom – was on the hospital ship Maine, which sailed from New York to London and then on to Cape Town and Durban in South Africa to take part in the nursing of wounded British soldiers from the second Boer War. Most likely the writer was a male nurse or orderly, since the diary begins with the Maine leaving the New York docks, and female nurses did not come on board at the American end of the voyage.1

The writer notes life on board ship between New York and London and, later, London and South Africa, including the celebration of the birthday of Lady Randolph Churchill, one of the sponsors of the expedition and a fellow sailor. He also records, briefly, life in an Army barracks near London where the ship paused on its southward journey, noting the weather and any special events. During his time in London, the writer was an almost daily habitue of the theatre, although he does not mention which shows he saw. When on board ship, the writer almost invariably makes a daily notation of a distance he has run; presumably he was an onboard jogger, making so many circuits of the deck per day and wishing to record his progress. About midway through the volume, a small envelope containing a black-and-white photograph of three unidentified men, all in white coats, has been laid in. The envelope itself is covered in notes for diary entries.

The writer does not include much about his work with the wounded – upon its arrival in South Africa, the Maine almost immediately received injured soldiers from the fighting around Spion Kop, including Lady Churchill’s youngest son, John. He notes that wounded are on board, but seems more concerned to record his impressions of South Africa, the celebrities who visit the ship, including many of the English military commanders in South Africa, and the ship’s movement from port to port. Unfortunately, it seems that the writer did not survive to return to America; the last entry in the journal reads: “Here ends abruptly the diary of [Otto Rinstrom]. On Saturday morning May 18th he was suddenly seized with a violent apoplectiform meningitis and died…” Despite the abrupt ending and the possible fate of the writer, the journal is a fascinating personal record of the South African war from the perspective of a non-combatant.

1. M. Eugenie Hibbard, “With the Maine to South Africa,” American Journal of Nursing, (1) 1900, 1, Additional sections of the article were printed in later issues.

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