History of West Australia/Henry Calvert Barnett

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IN all communities there are men whose strong individuality is felt by their neighbours. Their superior attainments and knowledge of the world dominate the community. In the colony of Western Australia there are many men who possess these qualities, and few so much as Dr. Henry Calvert Barnett, the Medical Superintendent of the Fremantle Lunatic Asylum. Dr. Barnett comes of an old Belfast family, the members of which seem to have had a predilection for the medical profession and for travel. His elder brothers distinguished themselves in the medical world and journeyed much in India, but it was left to Henry, the youngest, to earn for himself the title of "the much-travelled."

Henry Calvert Barnett HOFWA.jpg
Photo by
Greenham & Evans.

Dr. Henry Calvert Barnett is the third son of the late Richard Barnett, of Belfast, Ireland, in which town he was born on 10th February, 1832. After studying under private tutors and at the school of Dr. Moloney, T.C.D., he would have gone to college, but was seized with such a resistless desire for a sailor's life that, in the year 1849, he left Liverpool in the merchant ship Salem for Canada. When he reached Quebec, cholera was raging. Hundreds of vessels were arriving from Ireland filled with peasantry, who were driven from their homes by the potato famine, and the deaths reached 400 a day, the bodies being interred in great pits. The Salem was detained in this plague-stricken port for months, waiting for a cargo of timber. Strange to say, none of the crew succumbed to the disease, although fourteen deaths occurred on board a neighbouring vessel. Misfortunes came in other guises, for, after obtaining a cargo of timber, the Salem ran ashore in the Gulf of St. Lawrence while on the voyage to Liverpool. Although she was got off the rocks, she leaked so badly that she was in a helpless condition, and soon became water-logged, the deck being level with the water. The ship was only prevented from sinking by the timber cargo. In this condition, she was brought to an anchor off as dangerous a piece of coast as can be found on American shores. Although the interior of the country was unknown to him, the captain landed and travelled by the south bank of the St. Lawrence to Quebec to obtain assistance, selecting as a companion on the journey. the subject of this sketch. After an extremely adventurous time Point Levy, opposite the city was reached, and two steamers were engaged to relieve the distressed vessel. She was found in a terrible plight, the seas making clean breaches over her hull and rendering her deck untentable; the crew had to seek shelter in the tops. When the weather moderated the steamers towed the Salem to Quebec, where she was taken into a floating dock for repairs. While these were proceeding, young Barnett visited places of historical interest. In a small birch-bark canoe which he purchased, he made several long excursions up the river, and, being of an observant disposition, gained much information concerning the nature of the country. The tardy shipwrights eventually finished their task, and the vessel once more spread her wings to a favouring breeze, homeward bound. All went well until she was off the dreaded Banks of Newfoundland, where a terrific hurricane was encountered. The ship was hove to, and for three days was exposed to the full force of the blow. Her boats and bulwarks were carried away, and were soon followed by water-casks which were on deck. Ships of all sizes and rigs round them were battling with the tempest, and one large ship, hailing from Liverpool, went down with all hands. Although the Salem was only a mile distant, she could do nothing to help the doomed crew. During those three terrible days and nights there was no rest for the Salem's crew, who fully expected the vessel to founder. The old ship rode out the storm, sadly damaged, it is true, but seaworthy. The topmasts and the topsail yards were sprung, but the gallant old salt who commanded her determined to press on the homeward voyage. The loss of the water-casks, and the damage done to the provisions by salt water, necessitated the crew being put on half-rations, and as the weather was bitterly cold, their privations were intense. The only fresh water available was that obtained by melting snow, and to add to their misfortunes, the vessel made so much water owing to the straining she had received, that the pumps had to be kept in constant use. In this plight, the west coast of Ireland was sighted, but sixteen days elapsed before the Salem was able to reach Liverpool. On two occasions she got up the Channel as far as Bristol, only to be driven back again by the fierce northerly gales, which in that year were unparalleled in their severity; the Channel was full of homeward-bound ships in distress. With damaged hulls and spars, while short of provisions, they sought in vain to reach a haven of refuge, until at last the Government was forced to send to their succour. Steamers supplied many of the vessels with provisions, but the Salem was one of the unfortunate ones, and had to work out her own salvation. When at last she reached Liverpool, young Barnett was famished and utterly worn out, and on reaching home his ardour for a sailor's life had, as might be expected, considerably abated.

He now decided to enter the medical profession, and after a full course of study at Queen's College successfully passed his examinations and became a member of the Royal College of Surgeons, England. On the 20th of January, 1855, he entered the Peninsular and Oriental Company's service, and was sent to join a ship at Suez. This was before the canal was constructed, and in order to reach his ship at Suez Dr. Barnett had to land at Alexandria, travel to Cairo, and cross the dreary desert. He made several voyages to Bombay, Ceylon, Calcutta, Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai, and other Eastern ports, in the mail steamer Bengal. In the beginning of 1856, at the request of the English and American merchants at Foochow, he left the P. and O. service and settled in practice at that port. The hard work, combined with the unhealthy climate, was too much for his constitution, and he was compelled to travel to recuperate. The gold diggings of California were still prosperous, and Dr. Barnett wisely decided to seek health amid the varying scenes of digger life. In the commencement of 1859, after a short trip to Manilla, he sailed in an American ship for California. During his long residence in China he had several encounters with the natives. Once in Foochow the townspeople attacked the Cantonese servants of the foreign merchants, whom the masters had to defend, and during the fight Howard Cunningham, a young American, and a good friend of Dr. Barnett's, was killed close to him, by a spear which penetrated his liver. Again, when with two companions he sailed in a Portuguese lorcha for Ningpo, the party was attacked at the entrance of the river by two large junks, but managed to avoid the dreaded stinkpots and prove that Eley's green cartridges, when judiciously used, are more than a match for gingalls. On a third occasion, after forming one of a shooting party on the mainland, about twenty miles from Hong Kong, when stopping at an old Buddhist monastery on a hill, they were attacked by a large party of pirates. All the Chinese servants ran away, and the doctor and his friends had to fight their way to the coast, where the boat was waiting for them. On arriving at Hong Kong, they reported the occurrence to the then Governor (Sir John Bowring), who, as the pirates in question had previously given much trouble, immediately ordered a gunboat to proceed to the spot and shell tle village,

On landing at San Francisco, Dr. Barnett proceeded on horseback right through California, seeing and associating with the principal actors in the fierce race for wealth, men with whom Mark Twain and Bret Harte have made the world familiar. He also visited the then newly-discovered groves of mammoth trees and the Yosemite Valley, in which he camped for several days, there being no house in the place at the time. This tour, which he states was the most enjoyable he ever made, was the means of completely renewing his health. His next journey was by rail, across the Isthmus of Panama, and by boat through the Gulf of Mexico. Landing at New York, he travelled in the States and Canada, remaining some time at Niagara. Then, leaving Boston by the Cunard steamer Europa, he went to England round the north coast of Ireland, seeing in its fullest perfection the aurora borealis, a poetical description of which he published in a London newspaper. From Liverpool he went to Edinburgh, passed the necessary examinations, and became a licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians. After revisiting the Highlands, this time on foot, and taking a short run on the Continent, he embarked once more on the sea, in the ship Flower of the Forest, which left London in 1861, bound for Melbourne. During a violent storm in the Bay of Biscay the ship was dismasted, and Dr. Barnett was required to amputate the leg of a sailor who fell from aloft. This occurred at midnight, and as the cabin lamps were broken, and only one man could be spared from the work of cutting away the wreckage which, knocking against the side of the ship, threatened her destruct:ion, the operation was a delicate one. By the light of a single candle the intrepid doctor, despite the fact that the ship was bobbing like a cork in the heavy sea, commenced his task, and performed the operation successfully. The vessel was so seriously damaged that she had to put back to the nearest port—Cork—to refit. During her detention, Dr. Barnett visited the Lakes of Killarney. On reaching Melbourne, he passed most of 1861 in touring the colonies of Victoria, New South Wales, and Queensland. The latter colony was not very well known at this time, and, ever on the search for fresh scenes, he decided to penetrate its vastnesses. He purchased horses in Sydney, and proceeded by steamer to Moreton Bay, whence he took his departure into the bushlands. He was away for many months, and wrote several interesting and instructive articles on his travels, which were published in Chambers's Journal and other English magazines. On his return to England, he was made a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, and was highly commended for his work, which was really of an exploring character. On reaching London, he entered the service of the African Steamship Company, and made three successive voyages to the West Coast of Africa. Early in 1868 he was appointed by the Secretary for the Colonies (the Duke of Buckingham) Colonial Surgeon at York, Western Australia, and he landed at Fremantle from the ship Lady Louise in June, 1868. For some time he did duty at York, until an injury to his knee brought on such severe inflammation of the joint that he was compelled to visit Perth to undergo amputation. Despite this misfortune Dr. Barnett continued his work with unabated vigour until 1872, when Governor Weld appointed him Colonial Surgeon at Fremantle, an office which he held for twenty-three years. This position included the duties of Health Officer to the port—boarding ships and visiting the Aboriginal Convict Prison at Rottnest. The bad sanitary condition of the majority of the towns throughout the colony was severely commented upon by the doctor in a series of letters to the press, in which he sought to warn the people of the risks they ran by the culpable negligence of all sanitary rules. He pointed out how the danger could be avoided, and the letters were thought so highly of by Governor Weld that he had them issued in pamphlet form from the office of the Government Printer. In 1891 Dr. Barnett was granted extended leave of absence, and going home by the P. and O. Company's steamer Victoria landed in England after an absence of twenty-four years. He visited nearly every part of the British Isles, and returned to the colony by the Oceans in 1892. Three years later the office of Colonial Surgeon at Fremantle was abolished, and Dr. Barnett was appointed to the sole charge of the Lunatic Asylum as Medical Superintendent. In speaking of his work in the asylum he deplores the increase of lunacy in the colony, which he attributes to the practice so common in remote parts, of intermarriage among people who have hereditary predisposition to insanity. Dr. Barnett was gazetted a Justice of the Peace in 1869, and is one of the oldest honorary magistrates in the colony.

In addition to being a medical man of more than ordinary attainments, he has some literary ability. His descriptions of the journey through Queensland are effectively penned. That he is possessed of poetic instinct is shown in his poem written on board the ship Nourmahal, off Cape Horn. In referring to the beautiful ice mountains, he says:—

"For, frequent rise the dreaded icebergs near—
Vast, cold, and cheerless; silent, grim, and tall;
Of forms fantastic, hugely strange and queer,
With surf high breaking on each glassy wall."

Being a clever conversationalist, Dr. Barnett sometimes treats his friends to a priceless wealth of anecdote; stories which, indeed, roam largely over five hemispheres.