• Paul Anthony Jones

Channel fever

(n.) an intense, restless homesickness sparked by nearing the end of a long journey



In the early nineteenth century, newly-recruited sailors who had given the impression (while on land, at least) that they were only too eager to start their new life at sea would occasionally fall foul of a mysterious malaise—grave enough to see them excused from their maritime duties—as soon as they were on board their new home-away-from-home, and had discovered for themselves just how arduous naval life could be.


Their less workshy colleagues nicknamed this malingering ailment channel fever, a droll reference to the fact that the recruits’ eagerness and zeal for a life on the ocean wave would typically disappear before they had even left the English Channel. The cure for this melancholic laziness? According to one Victorian sea captain, channel fever could only be remedied by a swift purgative dose of castor oil—with plenty more where that came from if the fever failed to shift:


A trouble to which sailors are peculiarly liable is what is known as channel fever … An old sea-captain, who has had long experience with it, thus describes its effect … ‘Channel fever is more apt to break out among the crew just after quitting port … A sailor comes to me with a long face, and says, ‘Cap’n, I feel awful bad.’ — ‘Where does it hurt you the most?’ I inquire. — ‘Well,’ he replies, ‘I feel cur’us pains all over.’ … I go down below to the medicine-chest and get a good dose of castor oil, which I bring up and give him … ‘Now, my man,’ I say, ‘cast off the lashings from those eight oars in the long-boat yonder, and scrape them all white with your sheath-knife … Keep your mind on the work, and be sure and let me know how you feel when it is finished.’ — ‘All right, cap’n; I’ll try,’ he says, and off he goes. But when he gets through his task, he complains of feeling still worse, and thinks if he turned in it would do him good. But I give him some more castor oil, and cut out another piece of work for him, and when that is completed he comes and tells that he’ll need no more castor oil, that the pains have left him, and he is all right again. Thus I cure him.’
‘Poor Jack: His Sorrows and His Joys’, Lippincott’s Magazine (1883)

From an invented malady suffered by the workshy, by the turn of the century, a quite different meaning had instead emerged in the slangy talk of the British Navy.



After a long time away at sea or at war, wearied sailors and crew members would begin to feel a surge of homesickness as their vessel finally neared home waters. With their lives and loved ones now tantalizingly close to hand, an aching combination of restless excitement and nervous melancholy would afflict even the oldest and saltiest of seadogs.


As this phenomenon became more common and ever more noticeable, it soon required a name: the old term was simply recycled, and so it is this particular brand of homesickness—worsened by a long journey, and sparked by its imminent end—that is now better known as channel fever.



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