Monday, October 25, 2010

King George II & III, Colonial News, and a Royal Autopsy

Randall Stephens

On October 25, 1760 George III became King of Great Britain. News traveled slow, of course, and New Englanders didn't know about George II's (b. 1683) death or their new monarch for weeks.

Just how slow did people and information cross the Atlantic? In 1750 the school master and organist Gottlieb Mittelberger made the voyage from England to Philadelphia. He later wrote: "When the ships have for the last time weighed their anchors near the city of Kaupp [Cowes] in Old England, the real misery begins with the long voyage. For from there the ships, unless they have good wind, must often sail 8, 9, 10 to 12 weeks before they reach Philadelphia. But even with the best wind the voyage lasts 7 weeks."* Sailing technology had greatly improved in the 18th century. Still, slow transatlantic journeys and poor roads hindered the speed of information for decades. (See the map showing travel times circa. 1800.)

So, finally, in late December Bostonians read of the King's demise in the Boston Post: "Saturday arrived here Capt Partridge in about 6 weeks from London by whom we have the melancholly News of the Death of the most high, most mighty, and most excellent Monarch, GEORGE the Second, King of Great Britain . . . Defender of the Faith . . . . GEORGE the Third was proclaimed KING. . ." ("Partridge; Weeks; London; News; Death; Monarch; George," Boston Post-Boy, December 29, 1760, 2.)

The British American loyalty to King and Country sometimes gets lost in our popular view of colonials as patriots in the making. But as Brendan McConville writes in his The King's Three Faces: The Rise and Fall of Royal America, 1688-1776, "British North Americans championed their British king with emotional intensity in print, during public political rites, and in private conversation" (9).

Yet, before Americans pulled out the bunting and uncorked bottles to celebrate their new King, they had a bit of morbid curiosity to satisfy. How did George II die?

Fortunately, newspaper editors, keen to print what the people wanted, had the scoop on the Royal Autopsy. The Boston Post relayed the news from London: "In obedience to the order transmitted to us by the Right Hon. Vice-Chamberlain, We the under-signed have this day opened and examined the body of his Majesty . . ." They found "all parts contained in a natural and healthy state, except only the surface of each kidney there were some hydrides, or watery bladders, which however, we determined could not have been at this time of any material consequence." The regal heart, though, did not look so well. Among other abnormalities, they observed "a rupture in the right venticle." ("London, November 4," Boston Post-Boy, December 29, 1760, 2.) (For what passed as medicine in that day, see the amusing film The Madness of King George. The physicians in the movie are a hoot!)

Certainly, the 18th century is culturally distant from us today. This past is definitely a foreign country. Today, we travel at breakneck speeds and communicate across space and time with ease. Still, reading newspaper accounts like the above, makes the celebrity mongering of today and news as infotainment seem not entirely new.

1 comment:

hcr said...

I don't care much about King George's internal organs, but the material here on the length of time it took for news to spread is a real eye-opener.

The thing that always astonishes me about ocean travel before the twentieth century is how many derelict ships cluttered up the shipping lanes. Seems like there was floating trash everywhere, making these voyages not only long but also deadly-- even in good weather.