Taste of Life: When horse sense guided hygiene of British troops in India

Sir William James Moore carried out his experiments while spending a few months at the Poona stations. The troops stationed there were considered the healthiest. But Moore thought that they were overfed
To supply the soldiers with a variety of meat diet, and yet to spare the feelings of the natives, Moore recommended that the dietary habits of the soldiers needed improvement. (REPRESENTATIONAL PHOTO)
To supply the soldiers with a variety of meat diet, and yet to spare the feelings of the natives, Moore recommended that the dietary habits of the soldiers needed improvement. (REPRESENTATIONAL PHOTO)
Published on May 26, 2022 04:16 PM IST
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ByChinmay Damle

Sir William James Moore came to Poona sometime in 1846. He headed the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and was the personal physician to the Queen and the Viceroy of India. He was entrusted by the government to produce a manual that would lay down the principle of sanitation and hygiene for the British troops in India.

Moore carried out his experiments while spending a few months at the Poona stations. The troops stationed there were considered the healthiest. But Moore thought that they were overfed.

The rations of European troops in India daily per man were as follows – meat (beef or mutton) – 1 lb, vegetables - 1lb, bread – 1 lb, rice 4 oz, sugar – 2.5 oz, tea or coffee – half oz, salt – 1 oz. At many stations, particularly where fresh beef could not be obtained, salted beef or pork was issued once a week. To this over–liberal allowance the men added themselves one pound of meat (often the common bazaar pork; and the meat they bought was always of inferior quality, as they paid no more than at the rate of two rupees for a sheep), and one pound of vegetables, and often rice too. So that each man consumed, on an average, seventy–six ounces of food per diem; whereas a man in the Royal Navy, during the same period of time, ate but thirty–five ounces, and yet he was in a service that compelled him to take a large amount of muscular exercise in the open air, while the soldier in the 1st European Bengal Fusiliers was in a situation which, unless he was on active service, required him to make out but little muscular exertion; and he was, moreover, exposed to the influences of a climate which, from its very nature, would compel him, if he wished to preserve his health, to live in the most moderate way possible.

Several medical men employed by the British army had entertained the opinion that the amount of food consumed by the British soldier in India was excessive and that thereby a considerable amount of disease or tendency to disease was generated. The reports of numerous medical officers tended to show a very prevalent opinion, that the quantity of meat might be reduced during the hot weather at least. The soldiers, in addition to the weekly rations, bought common bazaar pork, eggs, ducks, and hot stews and curries from local markets. The doctors believed that these “induced fatty degeneration”. Moore agreed with them.

The meat supplied to the soldier in India, whether beef or mutton, was not generally of the best or what in Indian bazaar terms was called the “first sort”. In the monsoon season, when all was green and the pasture rich and succulent, meat acquired something of the flavour of a poorly–fed beast in Britain; but when, with the return of the vertical sun and fiery blasts, the whole country became dry, patched, and barren, cattle searching for pasture in jungle became tough, lean, and flavourless, and when killed and dressed, the intercostal muscles were actually transparent. It was, of course, possible to obtain fat cattle even in the hot weather in India, but inasmuch as retaining them even in tolerable condition involved a considerable outlay in grain, or “gram” of their food, corn–fed mutton or beef was never supplied for the use of the European soldier.

At some stations, the religious beliefs of the Hindu population against the killing of the sacred cow rendered it impossible to supply the European troops with beef, who consequently were condemned to a diet of mutton during the whole year. To supply the soldiers with a variety of meat diet, and yet to spare the feelings of the natives, Moore recommended that the dietary habits of the soldiers needed improvement.

In a report submitted to the Commanding Officer of the Poona Cantonment, he wrote – “It is a question well worthy of consideration if horse-flesh might not serve as provision for soldiers who are placed in such locality where beef is not procurable. The idea at present is certainly not very palatable to the English mind, although in Germany, as is well known, horse-flesh is publicly sold in the butchers’ shop. It seems absurd that the horse should be held in such ill–favour for food, as, like the ox, it is herbivorous. Horse–flesh is extremely well adapted for food, for the animal is washed and curried every day, and its flesh, if tougher than that of the ox, is certainly not less nutritious. In fact, it makes first-rate soup”.

Two batteries of artillery, of the division Automarre, when encamped at Baidar, fed upon horses, and had no reason to regret it, as they escaped much of the disease which devastated the allied armies in the Crimea. “I for one do not see why it should not be used at other times when only mutton can be obtained, provided indeed, horses could be supplied without ruinous expenditure,” he concluded.

Moore also wondered why pigs should not be fed for the use of the soldier, by which two beneficial results would be achieved. First, there would be a greater variety of diet, and, secondly, the men would not care to buy inferior or diseased bazaar pork–meat obtained from animals which, in the absence of better sanitary arrangements, acted the part of scavengers, and fed chiefly on human ordure.

Moore listed the characteristics of good meat as follows–muscles firm, fresh, and red–looking; fat white and hard; interstices between muscles and fat-filled with white areolar tissue. Yellowishness, serosity, air–bubbles, flabbiness, discoloured spots, and granular specks, denote inferior meat.

The Commanding Officer at Poona decided to implement Moore’s suggestions. But the soldiers were repelled by the idea of consuming horse–flesh. It is not clear what transpired exactly, but the idea of feeding the soldiers with horse–flesh was dropped quickly. The pork was included in the weekly rations and this move did not attract any opposition.

Moore’s suggestions regarding vegetables and bread were met with mixed enthusiasm. More about it the next week.

Chinmay Damle is a research scientist and food enthusiast. He writes here on Pune’s food culture. He can be contacted at chinmay.damle@gmail.com

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