Captain Braden had been afloat for almost four days when an English merchant ship came upon his tiny craft. Braden was quite ill when he was spotted by the Elizabeth, a ship owned by the British East India Company on her way back from a journey to Italy. The Elizabeth was laden with wine and olive oil, but more fortunate for Captain Braden was the fact that the Elizabeth also carried a passenger who was returning from a scholarly mission to Padua where he had been studying with Italian scientists, (heretofore usually called natural philosophers) about anatomy and the properties of human blood. William Harvey had always had an interest in medicine, and he was excited about the latest discoveries, which were leading him to radical (and unpopular) ideas about anatomy. As the Elizabeth came upon Braden’s boat, the crew saw that he was an English Captain. Braden was too weak to call out for help, but he managed to wave to the approaching Elizabeth. The crew of the Elizabeth was not used to seeing such a sight as a small boat floating on the calm waters off the coast of Spain.
Word quickly spread through the Elizabeth that a small boat with one survivor had been spotted. Rumors of this man being the lone survivor of a shipwreck quickly spread through the ship. As Captain Braden was helped aboard the Elizabeth he was very weak. He was taken to the quarters below deck and William Harvey was asked to examine him. Captain Braden was able to relate to William Harvey that he had not been part of a shipwreck, but that he was Captain of the HMS Intrepid, and that he had been deposed in a mutiny.
As Harvey continued his examination of Captain Braden he noticed some faint splotches of purple on his thighs. He also noted that Braden had some swelling in his neck and armpits. Harvey had some suspicions about these symptoms, but he was more concerned over the fact that Braden was weak, pale and dehydrated. “He will need rest,” said Harvey. “He cannot be subjected to interrogation about his current state of affairs.” Harvey felt that his patient would be able to relate his tale of woe in good time, but a stream of inquisitors would be of great harm at this time. Besides, he was not so sure that people should be exposed to this man with an unknown illness. All the while, he pondered the symptoms he saw in the curious survivor.
On the Intrepid, Dr. Shepherd and I began to examine the men who had started to show symptoms of illness. As we approached the suffering sailors my heart sank. The plague had indeed been visited upon the Intrepid. I began to believe that this ship truly was cursed, and that God had somehow singled us out for destruction of the fiercest type. Any of the men on the ship would much rather die in battle than die the horrible death of the invisible plague. Yet, these men would have no chance for battle. They would die gasping for breath, their skin having turned almost black, and their bodies covered with terrible purple buboes. Worse still, the rest of the crew would panic, and general disorder would rule this renegade vessel until the entire ship became a ghost ship.
As my mind raced far ahead to this terrible scenario, Mr. Shepherd turned to me and asked how I would treat these men. I had seen people bled as treatment for the plague, but I had never seen much success from it. Perhaps it hurried death for them, so, in an odd way, it helped them to cheat the awful Black Death. I had also seen mercury compounds used, but also to little avail. Supportive measures which helped to comfort the patient seemed to have, at best, a palliative effect. “I have several ideas, Dr. Shepherd, but no answers,” I replied honestly. Shepherd then began to tell me of the way he had treated Captain Braden. Not treated, really, but how he had ministered to him. Shepherd said that Captain Braden was a religious man, and that, as he believed he was near death, he asked to have someone administer communion to him. No one else being present, Shepherd had taken it upon himself to give “communion” to Captain Braden. Shepherd reported that he had just fed the Captain some of the stale, moldy bread, and that he used the same bread as “communion elements,” along with a cup of rum. While these were no ordinary communion elements that I had ever heard of, it had given comfort to a dying man. If communion were of any value or not, I do not know, but there is value in making death more peaceful. “Are you suggesting that we give a religious service, Mr. Shepherd?” I asked whimsically. “No,” said Shepherd. “I scarcely think that religion is very well known on this ship. But I do suggest that we use the bread to feed to the sick crew. Who knows but that some healing may have come to Captain Braden from it? Besides, we have no real treatment other than the supportive measures you had suggested.”
Shepherd was correct about the sorry state we were in. “Well, Dr. Shepherd,” I said, “let us give them your bread.” Shepherd went to fetch the remaining bread left in his pouch. It was covered with mold – most unpleasant to look at. As Shepherd removed the last part of the loaf from his pouch, he broke it and said some sort of prayer. He then went to each man who was sick, and fed him a bit of the bread. He also gave them a bit of rum, duplicating the methods he used with Captain Braden. The men were weak and desperate, and they did not question this odd medical care. They ate and then seemed to slip off into a coma. “Their fate, and ours, now seems to be in the hands of your God,” I said to Shepherd. “That is all we can ever hope for,” replied Shepherd.
Captain North was feeling uncomfortable with the latest turn of events. He knew that plague was on his ship, and if word got out among the rest of the crew, he might not be able to retain control. He wanted to make for the nearest port, and he needed to do that while his crew remained healthy. He decided to sail immediately toward Plymouth. He figured that with good weather, he could reach port in less than two weeks, perhaps ten days.
On the Elizabeth, Captain Braden was slowly recovering. The commander of the Elizabeth, Edwin Carr, asked to speak to Captain Braden to inquire about his story. Mutinies on English warships were unsettling for merchant seamen. They depended on English rule of the seas, and anything that eroded this mastery posed a threat. Was this Braden a fraud? Or was he such a poor leader that he was dumped by his crew? What leads sailors to do such a thing? Discipline on a ship is imperative, and Carr wanted to know exactly what had happened. Captain Braden relayed his story. He explained his illness, his care by Dr. Greene and the stranger Joseph Shepherd, and the encounter with the pirates off La Coruna’s coast in Spain. He was not at all sure of the details of that attack, but he knew that the Intrepid had repulsed them.
Carr was most interested in the thing Braden knew least about – the existence of pirates near where he would be sailing in the coming week. William Harvey was interested in Braden for another reason. He believed that Captain Braden had the bubonic plague, yet he appeared to be gaining strength, not dying. Harvey asked Braden about his treatment. “I know very little about how I was treated,” said Braden, “only that I was treated with great kindness. I remember eating some stale bread, moldy bread. Moldy bread and rum. That is all I remember before being set adrift by Mr. North – the scoundrel!” “So was there plague on your ship?” asked Harvey. “Plague!” said Braden. “You think I have the plague?” Braden knew that the plague had ravaged London in 1606, the last major outbreak in England. He knew nothing of the plague on his ship. “I don’t know, Captain,” said Harvey, “but I see some signs in your body of the disease. Strangely, though, you seem to be recovering, and I was interested in what type of treatment you received.” Harvey went to Captain Edwin Carr to inform him of his observations. He cautioned Carr to isolate Captain Braden until he could see the progress of his disease. No need to expose the rest of the crew to disease just because they had been good Samaritans.
Joseph Shepherd and I were concerned about our patients. We believed that other sailors may be stricken, and we anxiously awaited the response of the men we had “treated” with such odd methods. Within two days we had our response. The men we had treated were rousing out of their lethargy. Fevers were down, swelling was down, and they asked for something to eat. They too were recovering! I asked Mr. Shepherd about the treatment. “Tell me, my good Dr. Shepherd, how did you learn of this treatment? It is nothing short of a miracle! Indeed, moldy bread and rum. Sailors eat that often at sea. Imagine that healing people of a dread disease.” Shepherd responded by saying, “Dr. Greene, don’t you recall stories in the Bible about Jesus using his own spittle to restore sight to the blind? Sometimes the most common of elements can be used in uncommon ways. God can use anything for his purpose, even a talking ass to Balaam, lamps to Gideon…”
“Enough, enough!” I said to Shepherd, smiling. “I suppose you could give me many examples from the Bible. You obviously know much more of that book than I.” “I did not mean to belittle you,” said Shepherd. “I simply meant to say that God heals; we simply provide our hands to Him.” “Perhaps God can tell us how we can save ourselves in the coming days,” I countered, a bit irritated with the talk of God. Honestly, Mr. Shepherd spoke like he knew God personally. This was more than a little disconcerting to me, and it would be of no help at all with a tyrant like Mr. North. North would only keep us alive as long as he believed that we could keep his crew healthy. Long enough to reach Plymouth – that was all he needed.
As I was talking to Mr. Shepherd, Seaman Kelley came limping into our quarters. He looked remarkably well considering his injuries in the past week. Often, sailors with such injuries survive the initial injury only to succumb to killing infections within a few days. “Mr. Kelley,” I hailed him, “you look well.” “Well?” he said. “My leg hurts like hell’s fire!” “Mr. Kelley,” I chided, “you are then fortunate to feel hell’s fire while still alive. Many sailors with your injury face life with one leg, then find hell itself after infection kills them. Perhaps,” I added, “you could thank the good Dr. Shepherd for your life and your limb!” “I beg your pardon, Dr. Greene,” he said. “You and Shepherd done your jobs with me, didn’t you?” “Yes, Mr. Kelley, we did our jobs.