"Your Personal Feelings About Doctor Barry"
Dr. James Barry, Sir Richard Plasket, and the meaning of correct civil service in Cape Town
During his life Dr. James Barry was legendary for his temper and for the long and often ugly feuds he carried out with other doctors and civil servants including with Somerset's aide de camp, Captain Abraham Josias Cloete, that ended with the two fighting a pistol duel.
Yet none were quite as heated or as disastrous for Barry's career as his full-on, no holds barred, feud with Sir Richard Plasket.
From the records, it's hard to tell what the root of the Very Strong Feelings between Barry and Plasket actually were. I suspect they just never liked each other because they seemed to have clashed almost as soon as Plasket arrived in Cape Town and was appointed Secretary to Government for the Cape Colony. Plasket was higher ranked in the civil service than Barry and he was also a member of the gentry while Barry most definitely wasn't.
Plasket also entered the Cape Colony's civil service during a point of crisis. Only a few months earlier the first sodomy accusations against Somerset and Barry had been made making each's political position within the colony much more tenuous than it had previously been. It was the exact wrong time for Barry to be causing trouble within the colony. Unfortunately, Barry seemed pretty much incapable of not causing trouble.
Earlier that year, before the sodomy scandal had broken, Barry had been approached by C. F. Liesching to be licensed as a practicing apothecary in the colony. The year before, in 1823, Somerset, at Barry's strong urging, had reformed the medical laws governing the licensing of doctors, surgeons, and apothecaries within the Cape Colony. The new regulations now required them to show proof of having previously obtained a license or degree from a European school. This measure was important for Barry, as Colonial Medical Inspector, in his fight quack doctors and apothecaries who would charge exorbitant fees for ineffective or even dangerous medications and treatments. Under this new law practicing medical professions had to show proof of medical degrees and licenses to the Colonial Medical Inspector in order to be cleared to work in the Cape Colony.
C. F. Liesching was the son of Dr. F. L. Liesching one of the richest, more powerful and well-established doctors in the colony. His apothecary shop was run by not one two trained apothecaries with European licenses with whom C. F. Liesching had worked. Unfortunately, C. F. Liesching himself did not have a medical license from a European school. When he met with Barry he only had a document from his father stating that C. F. Liesching had apprenticed under him as an apothecary. Liesching expected that his father's good name and formidable reputation would be enough to secure him official licensing. It was not. When C. F. Liesching could not producing proper licensing Barry turned him down.
Liesching then went over Barry's head and petitioned Somerset directly. Liesching's argument was a good one, he argued that for medical practitioners born in the Cape Colony being expected to travel to Europe in order to be properly licensed was too great a burden. It was all well and good now, when the colony was new, to expect doctors and apothecaries to have been trained in Europe but the number of young professionals who, like Liesching, had been born in the Cape would only continue to grow. He argued that while he had not been trained in Europe he had worked with his father and his father's apothecaries all of whom had.
Somerset appointed Chief Justice Sir John Truter to review his case. Chief Justice Truter agreed with Liesching, ruling that Liesching’s years of apprenticeship under his father was equal to a European license and overturning Barry's initial ruling. He then sent the case back to Barry presumably so Barry could license Liesching to practice in the Cape Colony. Barry did not take this well. Although he met with Liesching again he refused to license him causing Liesching, now irate and feeling humiliated to write to Somerset directly again. He accused Barry of mocking him and of judging Liesching without all the facts and stated, dramatically at the end, that Barry wanted to see Liesching's wife and children doomed to a life of poverty.
Meanwhile Barry assembled a board of doctor's to back up his own position on the Liesching case while also writing a letter to Colonial Secretary stating that Chief Justice Truter did not have the authority to dictate medical law to medical professionals (most specifically to Barry.) It was the in the midst of this situation that Plasket was appointed Secretary to Government at which point Somerset turned the whole Liesching mess over to him.
Plasket was appalled by Barry's behavior.
To Plasket Chief Justice Sir John Truter was not only a superior government official but also Barry's better. Barry's bluntness in his letters also rubbed Plasket the wrong way. Plasket believed Barry's actions trying to go over Chief Justice Truter's head to be "most impertinent and disrespectful." Plasket wrote Barry himself, under Somerset's request, telling Barry that he had to license Liesching. It took two letters for Plasket to get an answer from Barry and when he did, as Plasket described it "it was couched in such disrespectful language that I was obliged to remonstrate against it." Plasket also took the letter to Somerset who spoke with Barry personally persuading him to eventually retract his statements against Plasket but unfortunately the damaged between Barry and Plasket had already been done.
In April 1824 Barry wrote a detailed reports of the conditions at the government run prison detailing severe abuse of prisoners by the prison guards that left broken bones, regular floggings, prisoners left shackled in empty cells,and prisoners denied proper bedding, medical attention and even water. True to Barry's style he didn't mince words. Abuse on the scale Barry was reporting was not the work of a few bad prison guards but of mismanagement that went all the way to the top of the Prison Department run by His Majesty's Fiscal. He also wrote an angry letter to Lord Somerset detailing Barry's personal outrage at the scale of the abuse. He urged Somerset, and anyone who doubted him to come and take a tour of the prison themselves.
Plasket took strong offense to Barry's implications of corruption on the part of the government officials tasked with overseeing the prison and the strong language Barry used to talk about it.
Barry's accusation of colonial government officials abusing their power and conspiring against defenseless people clearly struck at the heart of what Plasket believed the British colonial project to be. To Plasket, Barry was a constant disruption to societal order within the Cape Colony and the smooth workings of its government.
It didn't seem to help that Barry and Plasket disliked each other personally. Plasket strongly disliked Barry's tendency to speak his mind regardless of the company and found his, often biting, humor unpleasant. To Barry, Plasket was an outsider, someone who constantly tried to interfere in Barry's professional dealings and chided him on the correct way to interact with people Barry had known for years.
Late in 1825, an official inquiry began into the position of Colonial Medical Inspector. Although most involved were not questioning Barry's skill at practicing medicine he had amassed an ever-increasing number of political enemies. After the sodomy scandal, Somerset had faced increasing pressure to distance himself from Barry politically and with Barry continuing to rock the boat his position in the Cape Colony was increasingly tenuous.
The proposal to abolish the position of Colonial Medical Inspector and form a Medical Inspection Committee in its place. This would spread the duties Barry had been carrying out single-handedly for almost a decade among a group of government-appointed physicians.
Plasket wrote a very lengthy report (about ten pages fully transcribed. It mostly likely would have been considerably longer in its original handwritten form.) detailing all of his issues with Barry both professionally and personally. At that point, Plasket had only been serving in the Cape Colony for a year and had spent most of that time fighting with Barry.
Plasket argued that Barry was unfit to serve as Colonial Medical Inspector and laid out his case evoking both the Liesching episode as well as Barry's prison report. In both cases, Plasket's stressed that Barry had not shown the proper respect for authority and that he had failed to be a good cog in the colonial machine. He also detailed all of the personal slights he felt Barry had dealt both him and other civil servants and all of the ways Plasket thought Barry did not act as he was supposed to.
Although Plasket was careful to never criticize Somerset's decisions directly in his official report there was still a great deal of disapproval when he spoke of Somerset's relationship with Barry. Somerset had personally intervened on Barry's behalf when Barry had been called upon to defend his prison report before a Court Commissioner. Instead, Somerset personally mediated between all parties involved smoothing over the situation while still protecting Barry from the consequences of accusing multiple high-level civil servants of abuse.
That Barry did not suffer the full consequences of his actions so upset Plasket that he evidently spoke with Somerset directly about it only to be rebuffed.
There is a strong thread of jealousy in Plasket's accusations against Barry particularly when he talks about Somerset. Reading between the lines Plasket may well have felt that he should be Lord Charles Somerset's, right-hand man. He, after all, had both the political and social positioning for it. Plasket was slightly older than Barry, of significantly higher social rank, and was a much more seasoned civil servant in the British Colonies. Like Barry he had risen through the ranks of civil service unusually quickly but was also politically aware with a far gentler touch than Barry.
Like for Cleote before him though there was no hope that Plasket would become Somerset's close political adviser and confidant with Barry in the way. Early in his report on Barry, he notes, rather petulantly, that Somerset had never asked Plasket's advice for how to handle Barry not seeming to realize that to Somerset Barry was not just an unruly subordinate who didn't know his place. Somerset and Barry had worked together and been one another's personal companions for close to a decade by the time Plasket was appointed to the Cape Colony.
As the investigation into the Colonial Medical Inspector position and Barry, in particular, progressed the fighting between him and Plasket turned particular petty. Both of them using the investigation to air how much they personally didn't like each other. Namely Barry claimed that Plasket, in a moment of anger, had threatened his position in the Cape Colony. A threat Plasket denied having made in multiple letters, while implying that Barry often exaggerated to the point of lying. There was enough evidence though, combined with Plasket's obvious wish to see Barry gone, that the committee ended up siding with Barry about the threat but also issued a strong warning to both parties to keep their personal feelings out of the remainder of the investigation.
Eventually, the investigative committee ruled in favor of reestablishing the Medical Inspection Committee. Barry was offered a seat on the committee but he would come forth on the board subordinate to multiple wealthy and politically powerful physicians, not president of the committee as he had hoped. He refused a place on the committee completely and resigned all of his civil posts at the Cape Colony.
Shortly after Somerset would leave the Cape Colony to face an investigation of his own in England. Not long after that Barry himself would leave the Cape Colony to start a new chapter of his life and medical career.
Plasket would remain in his position at Cape Town, dying in 1847 while Barry would go on to live very nearly another twenty years, most of which as an active medical administrator.
Plasket and Barry's relationship highlights the type of passionate enemies Barry made his entire life. During the course of the investigation into Barry Plasket wrote dozens and dozens of pages complaining about Barry's actions and attitudes and by doing so gave us a window into how Barry acted and thought. In particular, it illustrates the ways in which Barry came up against the social and political colonial structures of his time. Over and over again Plasket's complaints about Barry focused on Barry's refusal to operate within the social and governmental role he'd been assigned. It wasn't just that Barry had a temper but that he didn't attempt to hide his displeasure behind social niceties and was just as willing to lecture his social superiors as those below him. It wasn't merely that Plasket found Barry's biting wit and jokes at others expense distasteful but that he was more likely to punch up than down. Barry's position in the Cape Colony was deeply political but Barry, by and large, didn't play politics in ways that Plasket approved of. During his entire career at Cape Town Barry didn't accomplish his goals by being a diligent civil servant who respected the established order. Instead he went above people's heads and behind their backs, openly flaunted Somerset's support and exploited every loophole the system could provide.
It's important to note that Plasket was far from the only person to take issue with Barry for these exact reasons. As Kirsten McKenzie points out in her book Scandal in the Colonies: Sydney and Cape Town, 1820-1850 white, British, high society in the colonies was, if anything, even more rigid than back in England. Those who rocked the boat and refused to conform to the societal norms of Cape Town's elite would face gossip that could turn into scandal and scandal could than very easily become legal action. Barry and Somerset had in fact faced exactly this in the form of accusations of sodomy and were still facing the ramifications of this when the investigation into the Colonial Medical Inspector position took place. People's willingness to believe the accusations and how quickly they spread throughout Cape Town was most likely a reaction to Barry's inability, or unwillingness, to play by the rules of Cape Town society. Certainly the concerns brought, not just by Plasket but many others, that led to the Colonial Medical Inspectorship being abolished were.
While a great deal of Plasket's issues with Barry boiled down to a clash of personalities and Plasket's firm belief in the British colonial status quo there was also a touch of practicality to his complained about Barry. Plasket was a career civil servant and politician and he pointed out at one point to the investigative committee that he actually believed governmental reform just as much as Barry did. But Barry needed to learn to work within the system Plasket wrote. Although even then Plasket seemed to realize what we, with hindsight know; that Barry never would.
All quotes and primary source research taken from Records of the Cape Colony 1823-1825 https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/001260161
Also Alix memeing Somerset's totally unbiased approach to the Plasket vs Barry situation https://twitter.com/transaziraphale/status/1125613284923727872