The Mysterious Doctor James Barry

Dr James "Miranda" Barry in South Africa

Beneath Lion's Head, and the mountains known as the Twelve Apostles, Camp's Bay has one of the most beautiful settings on the Cape Peninsula. On the slopes of Lion's Head, above the pines, is a forest of silver trees, a memorable sight when they shimmer in the wind. Relatives of the protea, they are unique to the Western Cape.

Above Camp's Bay, in The Glen on Kloof Road, is the Round House. Dating from the early nineteenth century, it was the shooting box of the governor, Lord Charles Somerset. Small game was already the main attraction on the Cape Peninsula, but there were leopards as recently as the nineteen-thirties, and in the eighteen-thirties, the astronomer Sir John Herschel recorded hippos near his observatory in Claremont. (Hippos have actually been re-introduced to the Cape Peninsula's Rondevlei Bird Sanctuary, where they maintain the habitat for the birds by controlling vegetation. Leopards are still found in the Hottentots Holland mountains, within sight of Cape Town. In the nineteen-nineties, a leopard from these mountains was a common daytime sight in Betty's Bay, where it was said to sometimes prey on penguins.)

The Round House is now a small restaurant, specialising in French cuisine. Here, according to the late historian Eric Rosenthal, "the shade of the mysterious Dr. James Barry has been observed on many occasions." Dr. Barry also roams the surrounding mountains. Lawrence Green described the spirit as "a fragile-looking ghost in British military uniform."

According to Lawrence Green, Barry arrived at the Cape in 1817, when he would have been about twenty-two. Other sources give the year 1815, but Barry had acquired considerable experience by the time he had reached South Africa. Red-haired, he wore three-inch soles on his shoes, and his shoulders seemed to be padded with cotton wool, so that the Malay people called him the "Kapok Doctor". Barry had studied at Edinburgh University, sponsored by the Earl of Buchan. Graduating at the age of eighteen, he served in Spain and Belgium, possibly at Waterloo. Afterwards, he served in India, before being posted to the Cape.

Dr. Barry would ride about in dress uniform and cocked hat, carrying a parasol, and accompanied by a black manservant. Although skilful with the rapier, it was a huge cavalry sword that he wore. He also had a black poodle, Psyche, which he took every day to a confectioners for a treat.

Though privately commenting on Barry's effeminacy, the officers were impressed by his bad temper. At the house Alphen, Dr. Barry fought a pistol duel with one Josias Cloete. The reason for the duel is disputed, but nobody was hurt. It was Cloete who was punished, however, being banished to the garrison on the cold and remote island of Tristan da Cunha. (Cloete was eventually knighted, and the Cloete family bought the Alphen estate. The homestead is now the Alphen Hotel, said to be haunted by ghostly revellers. It is on Peter Cloete Avenue, Constantia.)

Barry generally escaped severe punishment, probably because of protection from the Earl of Buchan, believed by some to have been his father or grandfather. In fact, Barry was promoted to the rank of Medical Inspector for the colony, only weeks after his arrival. The fact that he had saved the life of one of Lord Somerset's daughters could have done his career no harm. His bad behaviour did, however, often lead to his being sent home under arrest.

Dr.Barry (c)DT Dr. Barry was not bad-tempered with patients. A woman at the Cape told him "No man could show such sympathy for one in pain." In what was said to have been the first Caesarian section performed in the English-speaking world, Dr. Barry saved a baby which was christened James Barry Munnik. This child in turn became godfather to James Barry Munnik Hertzog, later prime minister of South Africa (but unimpressed when a newspaper editor told him the source of his name.) The grateful Munnik family commissioned the only known portrait of Dr. Barry. You may see the painting in the Alphen Hotel, already mentioned in connection with the duel. The eyes follow you around the room, but this is just the skill of the artist. Maybe.

Nobody doubted his abilities or his intellect. With Sherlock Holmesian deduction, Barry traced the cause of Cape Town's impure water supply, and arranged for a better system.

Barry was a vegetarian, and took a goat everywhere for its milk. He advised patients to bathe in wine, as he believed that the alcohol reduced the risk of infections.

Barry did not stoop to handling cases which he considered to be beneath his skill as a surgeon. When a clergyman sent a message asking Barry to pull a tooth, Barry sent him a farrier, who told the clergyman that he had come to pull a donkey's tooth.

Barry did handle cases that other doctors regarded as beneath their dignity. Barry denounced the cruelty and negligence of the officials in whose care were prisoners, lepers and lunatics. This led to accusations of defamation, but Barry tore up the summons and refused to answer questions. The Fiscal (who, like Dredd, was both judge and policeman) sentenced him to imprisonment, but Lord Somerset set aside the punishment. Dr. Barry commented "If I had had my sword on when Mr. Fiscal proposed sending me to the tronk (gaol), I would certainly have cut off both his ears to make him look smart." Some historians believe that the matter led to Barry losing his position as Medical Inspector, to be sent back to Britain in 1825 or 1826. Lawrence Green, however, found an advertisement in a Cape Town newspaper, dated September 1, 1828, referring to Dr. Barry's farewell dinner.

Dr. Barry cultivated a reputation as a ladies' man, and one of Lord Somerset's daughters was said to have been in love with him. However, a placard appeared on a wall, accusing the governor of a homosexual relationship with Barry. This was not enough for Somerset to get rid of Barry, but it may have fuelled his opposition to a free press. Dr. Barry was a toady in some respects, but according to Lawrence Green, he opposed Lord Somerset on this issue.

Lord Somerset privately commented that Dr. Barry was the finest doctor that he had ever seen, but "absurd in everything else". He obviously found the doctor entertaining company, however, and often invited him to the Round House. On one occasion, the governor took Barry to stay with George Rex at Knysna. In those days, the Knysna forests were famous for their numerous elephants. There are still a few, but you are more likely to see them in the Addo Elephant National Park, further east. Rex was another expatriate with high-level protection. He is believed to have been the illegitimate son of George III and his quaker mistress, Hannah Lightfoot.

Dr. Barry also worked on the eastern frontier, during a war between the white settlers and the Xhosa nation.

After a campaign led by Sir Rufane Donkin to remove him from office, Lord Somerset returned to Britain in 1826, to answer charges of extravagance and incompetence. (Donkin had been acting governor while Somerset was on leave in England.) Acquitted, Lord Somerset still resigned his governorship in 1827. As mentioned earlier, Dr. Barry left in 1828.

Subsequent postings included Mauritius, Trinidad and the island of Saint Helena, where he continued to have trouble with local officials. From Saint Helena, he returned to England without official leave. Barry told his annoyed superior that he had come back for a haircut. Again Barry survived where others would have been imprisoned or dishonourably discharged, and he served in Malta, Corfu, the Crimea (where he insulted Florence Nightingale), Jamaica and Canada. In Montreal, he was a magnificent sight in winter, wearing musk ox robes and being driven in a sleigh by two footmen. He had reached the rank of Inspector General, H.M. Army Hospitals, at the head of the army lists for that branch. No military doctor could reach a higher rank.

In 1864, Barry retired. He returned to England, still with a black manservant and a poodle called Psyche. The daughters of Lord Somerset called on him, and took him for carriage rides.

In 1865, Barry died. One newspaper account stated that he had died in Corfu, but this must have been an error. A doctor signed the death certificate without realising that Dr. Barry was a woman. A charwoman who laid out the body was more observant. The manservant, John, may have been Dr. Barry's close confidante, as every day he brought her the six clean towels which she used to disguise her shape. A story arose that a post mortem revealed that Dr. Barry had been a mother, but this appears to be untrue, and there probably was no post mortem. Dr. Barry was buried in Kensal Rise cemetery, London, with 'his' name and rank on the gravestone. Friends of Dr. Barry arranged John's passage to Jamaica.

Some believe that Dr. Barry went to Africa to follow a surgeon with whom she was in love. Lawrence Green believed that this was one Andrew Smith, founder of the South African Museum and later knighted. Again, there is no proof.

About six weeks after Barry's death, the news reached South Africa. Of course, after the event, many people claimed to have known her secret all along.

Sometimes, Dr. Barry's middle name is given as "Miranda". I doubt that she used a middle initial, let alone a girl's name. Perhaps the story arose out of the similarity of Dr. Barry's name to that of James M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan, whose middle name was Matthew. It is possible, however, that her real name was Miranda Stuart.

In 1951, Lawrence Green asserted that Cape Town's nursemaids still told children "Old Dr. Barry's ghost will get you if you stay out late." Bearing in mind Antjie Somers, this seems to indicate a peculiar fear of transvestites, of both sexes.

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