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Frankly, I Prefer the Snakebite

Forget about me. You folks are scary.

Forget about me. You folks are scary. Photo: Paul Venter

At the close of the 19th century, Ewart S. Grogan and Arthur H. Sharp, two Cambridge undergraduates, took advantage of a vacation from classes to successfully attempt the first walking traverse along the length of Africa, south to north, in part to impress a girl’s father. They did some shooting along the way.

That’s a succinct description that sucks all the juice from one of the more impressive real-life adventures ever, accomplished by two college students who may well have subsequently inspired every P. G. Wodehouse and Monty Python parody of simultaneously insufferable and seemingly superhuman British imperialists to come. They wrote up their journey in From the Cape to Cairo, published in 1900, a reprint of which I’m reading now.

Following is a representative excerpt. Note, even for the time Grogan and Sharp were almost comically (not so funny if you were on the receiving end) racist. The racial epithet appears in the original.

During lunch, a native rushed in, saying that he had been bitten by a night adder, one of the most deadly snakes in Africa. I promptly collared him by the arm, stopped the circulation with some string, slit his finger cross-wise with my pocket-knife, exploded some gunpowder in the cut, while Dodson administered repeated subcutaneous injections of permanganate of potash. Meanwhile, the arm, chest, and left side swelled to the most appalling proportions. Cavendish then appeared on the scene with a bottle of whisky, three parts of which we poured down his throat; then we told off three strong men to run him round the camp till he subsided like a log into a drunken stupor. The following morning he was still alive, but the swelling was enormous, and the coloring of his nails indicated incipient gangrene. Not knowing what else to do, we put a pot on the fire, and made a very strong solution of the permanganate which we kept gently simmering, while six stalwart niggers forced the unfortunate’s hand in and out. His yells were fearful, but the cure was complete; the swelling rapidly subsided, the nails resumed their normal colour, and the following morning, with the exception of the loss of the skin of his hand, he was comparatively well.

I’ll note here that night adders are dangerous, but not usually fatal to adults, and that potassium permanganate is an antiseptic not known for antivenin properties (although it was commonly used as one at the time). I’m truly impressed as much by the patient’s physical endurance as by the treatment. And I’ll bet that was an epic hangover.

Best fraternity initiation, ever!

Posted in Culture, Self-medication

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