Scurvy: How a Surgeon, a Mariner, and a Gentlemen Solved the Greatest Medical Mystery of the Age of Sailby Stephen Bown
Scurvy took a terrible toll in the Age of Sail, killing more sailors than were lost in all sea battles combined. The threat of the disease kept ships close to home and doomed those vessels that ventured too far from port. The willful ignorance of the royal medical elite, who endorsed ludicrous medical theories based on speculative research while ignoring the
Scurvy took a terrible toll in the Age of Sail, killing more sailors than were lost in all sea battles combined. The threat of the disease kept ships close to home and doomed those vessels that ventured too far from port. The willful ignorance of the royal medical elite, who endorsed ludicrous medical theories based on speculative research while ignoring the life-saving properties of citrus fruit, cost tens of thousands of lives and altered the course of many battles at sea. The cure for scurvy ranks among the greatest of human accomplishments, yet its impact on history has, until now, been largely ignored.
From the earliest recorded appearance of the disease in the sixteenth century, to the eighteenth century, where a man had only half a chance of surviving the scourge, to the early nineteenth century, when the British conquered scurvy and successfully blockaded the French and defeated Napoleon, Scurvy is a medical detective story for the ages, the fascinating true story of how James Lind (the surgeon), James Cook (the mariner), and Gilbert Blane (the gentleman) worked separately to eliminate the dreaded affliction.
Scurvy is an evocative journey back to the era of wooden ships and sails, when the disease infiltrated every aspect of seafaring life: press gangs "recruit" mariners on the way home from a late night at the pub; a terrible voyage in search of riches ends with a hobbled fleet and half the crew heaved overboard; Cook majestically travels the South Seas but suffers an unimaginable fate. Brimming with tales of ships, sailors, and baffling bureaucracy, Scurvy is a rare mix of compelling history and classic adventure story.
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Read an Excerpt
THE EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY SEAFARING WORLD: THE AGE OF SCURVY
AN ENGLISH SAILOR RELAXED in an alehouse with companions after a long voyage from the West Indies. After over a year away, he wanted to celebrate his safe return. The merchant ship had returned to Portsmouth with a load of spices and exotic wood. It had been a good run; the winds and weather had been fair and the incidence of disease low. Still, he was lucky to have survived, and several of his fellow mariners had not. He had been ashore for several days, paid out by his captain, and he was enjoying his liberty, spending his hard-earned coin. Downing the last of many mugs of ale, he was surprised to find a shilling at the bottom. Something did not seem right, but he had had much to drink this night. Blessing his good fortune, he pocketed the coin, bade farewell to his drinking companions, and staggered from the crowded interior out onto the dark street, heading for a flophouse. He was followed from the alehouse. Three more men waited for him in the shadows. Armedwith clubs and with stern expressions on their faces, they surrounded him, leaving no room for escape. With dawning horror, the sailor realized his predicament. He felt the coin in his pocket, the King's Shilling, and belatedly knew that it had been placed in his drink, and that the men of the press gang would swear he had gladly taken it and agreed to join a ship's company. The men grabbed him and dragged him, protesting and struggling until a thump on his head silenced him, towards the harbour. A man-of-war had sailed into port and was looking for recruits.
The sailor, like countless others, had now joined the Royal Navy. Life was so hard in the navy, the chance of death so high, and the demand for human fuel so insatiable during times of war that sailors in sufficient quantities to navigate the lumbering warships would rarely sign on voluntarily. It was far safer and more rewarding to sail on merchant ships. The navy's need for men was at least double, perhaps triple, the number of able-bodied seamen who willingly served. Ships were chronically short-handed. Offering a bonus to new recruits failed to provide the needed seamen. A quota system, whereby each county was responsible for furnishing to the navy a specified number of sailors, failed. Beseeching men to do their duty for their country also failed. Short of raising wages and improving conditions, the navy could guarantee a ready supply of sailors only by taking them by force.
Famous fighting captains who were believed to have good luck, and who could boast of a good chance of prize money from capturing enemy ships, could announce their need for sailors on posters about town and receive a stream of able seamen eager to join the ship's company. But most captains had to resort to the notorious Impress Service. As a consequence, in eighteenth-century Britain men frequently disappeared from seaport towns and villages. Wandering alone one evening, they would be clubbed, dragged aboard a ship in port, and "recruited" into the navy. Wives were often left wondering what had become of their husbands, and children of theirfathers. Many were never seen by their families again. Press gangs patrolled the narrow warrens and alleys of the poor dockside quarters, searching for anyone alone or too drunk to flee, sailors preferably, but during wartime any reasonably able-bodied men would do. Sometimes the new recruits were rounded up by land-based agents of the Impress Service, who were paid a commission to deliver men to whichever ship lay in port. On other occasions, captains were empowered to search for men themselves, employing gangs usually consisting of four stout seamen armed with clubs andofficially, at leastone lieutenant armed with a cutlass, ostensibly used to impress bystanders with his martial appearance and social respectability. They would sally forth from the ship after darkness in pursuit of their quarry.
Many of the "recruits" brought in by the press gangs had little or no experience at sea. Although officially the Impress Service had the legal right to deliver only "seamen, seafaring men and persons whose occupations or callings are to work in vessels and boats upon rivers," on short notice nearly anyone would do (providing they weren't influential or wealthy). Once shipboard, the men were subject to the law of the sea, and to leave was desertion. Desertion was punishable by death. The impressed sailor, if he was lucky, could look forward to years of harsh, brutal service at sea. If he was unlucky, he would die without ever setting foot on his native soil again. The naval historian Sir Harold Scott wryly observed that "it was a curious anomaly: the security of citizens depended on the Fleet. The manning of the Fleet was, therefore, a prime necessity, and the citizensthe pressed men among them, at leastwere 'made slaves' in order to keep them free." Up to a third of a ship's company could be made up of men pressed from land or taken from incoming merchant ships.
The majority of the men newly rounded up by the Impress Service, as might be supposed, were not the pick of the country; they were primarily spindle-legged landlubbers, vagrants, or tramps in the poorest of physical health. The press gang might also roust out the sick, malnourished, or elderly, or receive from local magistrates convicts who were given a choice between severe punishment or the king's service. Seamen aboard incoming merchant ships were also at risk of impressment. The Royal Navy stopped these ships and claimed any men on board, preferably those who had already served in the navy, beyond the absolute minimum needed to sail the vessel. But not all men in the navy were pressed or convicts. Many joined willingly: for a chance to see the world or out of patriotic duty. But some of those inclined to volunteer would do so only at the end of a particularly harsh winter, when a secure place to sleep, regular, if paltry, pay, and the promise of a daily meal overcame their fear of possible death and the inevitable loss of freedom.
Once shipboard, duty was paramount. Discipline was strict, authoritarian, and often violent. There was a great social gulf between the commissioned officers and the common crew, and the captain was a virtual dictator while at sea. It was an age of severe punishments; life was cheap, and the concept of workers' rights lay in the distant future. Even minor crimes such as theft would be dealt with harshly, usually by flogging with the dreaded cat-o'-nine-tails. Crimes that seem relatively innocuous, such as disrespect for a superior officer or inattention to duty, were very serious shipboard, where the lives of all depended on each other; these could be punished with a dozen or even a hundred or more lashessometimes enough to kill a man. Because there were no standards for punishment, individual captains wielded great power over their crews. Some were known for being brutal martinets, lashing and beating sailors far in excess of their crimes, while others rarely resorted to the lash. Another common but lesser punishment was known as starting; an officer would whack a sailor with his cane if he thought he was moving too slowly or was showing belligerence to authority. Lashing and starting were most prevalent on ships with great numbers of convicts and pressed men, and they created a tense and gloomyatmosphere that was poor for morale and health. The threat of corporal punishment hung over every man's head.
Most of the newly pressed recruits in the navy were not mariners and had never been to sea before. Although they all lived and slept together and ate the same food, there was a hierarchy even amongst the common sailors. While a contingent of skilled able seamen performed all the difficult tasks, such as climbing the rigging and setting the sails, the unskilled men, sickly or weak, were good only for hauling on a rope or swabbing the decks. Not only did they have no nautical skill or inclination, but many of the new recruits, and especially those who had recently come from prison, were already afflicted with one of the many illnesses common in the Age of Sail. Even the able seamen on the majority of ships were barely fit for the harsh realities of life at sea, and conditions became worse when the pressed sailors (morose and melancholy at their dreadful fate) and the convicts (delirious from typhus or dysentery) were taken on board and housed with the rest of the crew, thereby spreading discontent and disease throughout the ship's company.
Mariners in the eighteenth century suffered from a bewildering array of ailments, diseases, and dietary deficiencies, such that it was next to impossible for surgeons or physicians to accurately separate the symptoms of one from those of another. Niacin deficiency caused lunacy and convulsions, thiamin deficiency caused beriberi, and vitamin-A deficiency caused night blindness. Syphilis, malaria, rickets, smallpox, tuberculosis, yellow fever, venereal diseases, dysentery, and food poisoning were constant companions. Typhus, or typhoid fever, was common on every ship. Spread by infected lice in the frequently shared and rarely cleaned bedding, typhus was so prevalent in the navy that it was known as "ship's fever" or "gaol fever." Man-of-war and merchantman, both were a cozy den for disease.
Life shipboard was not conducive to curing or avoiding any of these varied ailments, and indeed was an ideal environment for spreading them. The sailor's wooden world was infested with refuse,trash, rotting flesh, urine, and vomit. The mariners were either crammed into their quarters like sardines in a box or slept, occasionally in good weather, sprawled like hounds on the deck. The holds were crammed with vermin, festering and spoiled provisions, and in some cases rotting corpses. On English and Dutch ships, the primarily Protestant dead sailors were wrapped in their hammocks and pitched overboardwith proper ceremony, naturally. But on the ships from Catholic countries such as France and Spain, the decaying bodies were stowed in the gravel of the hold, mouldering for perhaps months until the ships returned to home port and the dead could be buried in their native soil. The ships always leaked, and pumps could never keep the water our entirely, so the ballast of gravel or sand became incredibly putrid. Ventilation was poor and the bilge gases so noxious that it was extremely hazardous for carpenters to go below to work in the hold. The stench was unbearable, and occasionally men suffocated from inhaling the fumes.
Sanitary conditions aboard ships, and particularly the warships of national navies, were as bad as or worse than the filthiest slums then in London, Amsterdam, Paris, or Seville. The cramped, stifling, congested forecastle, where the crew slept, was dark and dingy. The air was clouded with noxious bilge gasses and congested with the sweet, cloying reek of rot and sweat. Sailors slept in dirty bedding and wore the same vermin-infested rags for months on end. The British naval commander Frederick Chamier wrote in The Life of a Sailor of his first days on a ship in port as a young midshipman during the Napoleonic Wars. "Dirty women," he wrote, "the objects of sailors' affections, with beer cans in hand, were everywhere conspicuous: the shrill whistle squeaked, and the noise of the boatswain and his mate rattled like thunder in my ears; the deck was dirty, slippery and wet; the smells abominable; the whole sight disgusting."
Overcrowding contributed to the unsanitary conditions and the spread of disease. The largest battleships, weighing approximately 2,500 tons and boasting 120 great guns, yet only several hundred feetlong, could house more than a thousand men. Large crews were needed because, in addition to manning the sails, eight to twelve men were required to operate each gun. Because of the high mortality rates, navy ships were oversupplied with men. The ships themselves were extremely valuable; they took years to build and required two thousand to three thousand mature oak trees each. It was unthinkable to lose a ship of the line because of a lack of manpower to sail it properly. Consequently, a warship requiring a normal complement of a thousand sailors would weigh anchor and depart for sea with many hundreds more crammed aboard. Perhaps five hundred men at any given time slung their hammocks between the great guns, in a compartment no more than 50 feet wide and 150 feet long. Sleeping, coughing, and sneezing with as little as fourteen inches between men encouraged the spread of infectious and contagious diseases. The overcrowding itself was as great a cause of disease as the unsanitary conditions. One of the great and sad ironies of the age was that naval authorities increased the number of men on ships in anticipation of replacing those who died. The overcrowding increased the deaths, however, leading naval authorities to strive for even greater numbers at the start of every voyage. It was a vicious circle that in the 1700s took a terrible toll of human life from all the major seafaring nations, leaving ships dangerously undermanned at sea and occasionally crippling entire fleets.
A warship preparing for sea was a hive of chaotic activity. All hands scuttled about the dock and deck, hauling on rough hemp ropes and hoisting provisions and stores across the crack of water that separated the ship from the provisioning barge. They swabbed the upper deck, scrubbed the gun decks with vinegar, and fumigated the lower compartments with smoking brimstone to cleanse the malignant airs that were believed to be the cause of most ailments.They lowered the wrapped bundles and barrels into the gaping maw of the hatch, stowing everything in the dank bowels of the ship, including carpenters' tools, cutlasses and other weapons for close combat, kegs of gunpowder, mounds of cannonballs, spare spars, dozens of sails, vast coils of rope, tubs of tar, casks of grease, canisters of paint, cords of wood, and buckets of coral.
But perhaps most impressive were the mountains of food needed to feed hundreds of mariners for months or years without replenishing. Although ships frequently purchased supplies from local ports, these could not be counted on for price or availability, and particularly in the navy, ships had to be prepared to carry out orders at a moment's notice. Once the provisions had been lowered onto the deck, the barefoot, pigtailed foremast jacks leapt to roll to the central hatch great oak barrels of salted beef, pork, and fish; kegs of English beer and West Indian rum; back-breaking burlap sacks of flour, dried peas, and oats; monstrous wheels of cheese; great blocks of butter; casks of molasses; and a huge quantity of hardtack cakes. The victualling yards of the major European ports were all well supplied to support departing ships on short notice.
The standard naval diet varied only slightly over the centuries and only slightly between the various European nations. Ships' provisions were limited by what could be preserved or stored for months at a time without going bad. Salt beef or pork, dried peas or grains, or ship's biscuit were standard fare from the time of the Spanish Armada in the sixteenth century through the period when Dutch merchants piloted their way to Indonesia (the Dutch East Indies) to the era of the great naval battles between France and England in the eighteenth century. The Spanish fed on more oil and pickled vegetables, the Dutch on more sauerkraut and dunderfunk (fried biscuit with lard and molasses), but on the whole the sailors' diet was remarkably constant between nationsit simply reflected the only items that could survive for any length of time. On foreign shores, items such as rice were substituted for floor, wine for beer,and other hard liquors for rum. From 1757 on, the British navy issued a vital and innovative substance known as portable soup. Essentially it was a dried soup made from "all the offals of oxen killed in London for the use of the navy," mixed with salt and a few vegetables. It resembled large slabs of glue and could be stored for years.
A typical weekly menu for the average sailor was as follows:
To this weekly menu were often added raisins, barley meal, sugar, and perhaps dried apples or pears. More expensive provisions were allocated to the ship's company and were to be administered to the sick under the watchful eye of the surgeon. These could include currants, tamarinds, sago, almonds, garlic, mace, and nutmeg. The men were divided into messes of six to eight companions, and they ate between the great guns at tables suspended from above deck with rope. Breakfast, dinner, and supper were all similar, with the beer, grog, or wine served up just after the men had eaten. The monotonous, crude, and nearly unpalatable food was served in great quantity, though, and would have amounted to nearly four thousand calories per daymore than adequate for the hard labour of the menif nor for the fact that it was sorely deficient in certain key vitamins. Bur the problem with the naval diet went far beyond its vitamin deficiencies. After prolonged time at sea, the provisions began to rot.
Ships were built almost exclusively from wood. While this had advantages, such as increased buoyancy, the wood quickly became waterlogged, creating a permanently damp and cold environment. Men lived in the damp, worked belowdecks in the damp, slept in the damp, and ate food that was continuously stored in the damp. When it rained and during rough seas, they had no means of drying themselves after their watch. Although the ship's biscuit room was sometimes specially lined with tin and caulked to keep it as dry as possible, biscuit being a staple of the sea diet and particularly susceptible to mould, it too eventually became waterlogged, so that the hardtack grew heavy and green about the edges on prolonged voyages. The peas, oats, and flour likewise began to moulder.
The Scottish naval surgeon and physician James Lind wrote that the naval food in his experience consisted of "putrid beef, rancid pork, mouldy biscuits and flour." The naval captain and later first Lord of the Admiralty Sir George Anson complained that some of the "fresh" beef he acquired in Brazil on his famous voyage in 1741 was "bruized and stinking," and he threw it overboard. Later in the voyage, his surgeon, Pascoe Thomas, described the sea rations as almost inedible: the biscuit was "so much worm-eaten, it was scarce anything but Dust," while the salt pork "was likewise very rusty and rotten." James Patten, a surgeon aboard Cook's second voyage, remarked that "our bread was ... both musty and mouldy, and at the same time swarming with two different sorts of little brown grubs, the circulio granorius (or weevil) and the dermestes paniceus ... . Their larvas, or maggots, were found in such quantities in the pease-soup, as if they had been strewed over our plates on purpose, so that we could not avoid swallowing some of them in every spoonful we took."
The damp, dark, and unventilated environment was ideal for vermin, which infested nearly all the food eaten shipboard. Admiral Raigersfield wrote in the late 1700s that "the biscuit that was servedto the ship's company was so light, that when you tipped it on the table, it almost fell into dust, and thereout numerous insects, called weevils, crawled; they were bitter to the taste, and a sure indication that the biscuit had lost its nutritious particles; it instead of these weevils, large white maggots with black heads made their appearance (these were called bargemen in the Navy), then the biscuit was considered to be only in its first state of decay; these maggots were fat and cold to the taste, but not bitter." Sailors were known to be particularly suspicious of hardtack that contained no weevils or maggots, believing it to be too bad even for these ever-prevalent pests. One of the most nutritious foods found shipboard, a food that was at least marginally less revolting than the weevils and bargemen, were the rats. With a secure food supply, the rats grew plump over time and were reputedly "full as good as rabbits, although not so large." They were known as millers, because they were white with flour dust. After months of living on sea rations, for many sailors rats were the only source of fresh meat.
Salt beef or pork, the staple of a sea diet, was known as sea junk or sea horse (and periodically the indistinguishable tough grey meat was indeed horse). After several months at sea, it stank horribly when taken from the brine, was riddled with maggots, or had dried and hardened beyond the ability of the saltwater soaking to reconstitute it. The method of preparing meals also added woe to a sailor's life. A day in advance of each mealtime, the cook removed the meat from the brine in the barrel and slung it into several large nets attached to a rope. These he brought to the stern of the ship and, after tying the rope to a cleat, flung overboard. The meat would then "wash" in the sea as it was dragged behind the ship, cleansing it of excess salt for up to half a day. Fresh water was too valuable and scarce, particularly after months at sea when supplies were dwindling, for soaking meat. The meat was then boiled in a great copper vat of sea water, fresh water again being too scarce even for cooking. The salt was so strong and concentrated on the cooked meat that ifit was not eaten quickly, white crystals would form on the surface. It burned the sailors' mouths as they ate, increasing their thirst for the carefully rationed supply of water. Instead of water to quench their thirst, they drank beer or grog or wine, and as a blessed respite by the late eighteenth century, tea or cocoa.
One of the few special treats available to the crew were the fatty dregs of the boiled salt meat, called slush. Because it was usually in great demand, it was the cook's special privilege to claim the slush and sell it to augment his wages. Sailors would smear it on hardtack or mix it with their oatmeal or work it into their clothes to waterproof them. Occasionally the cook would ration it to the ship to grease the ropes or canvas. But usually it was purchased and eaten. Unfortunately the slush, although high in calories, contributed to malabsorption of the nutrients of other foods, because the copper acetate from the pots dissolved in the fat.
Ship's cheese quickly went rancid, cloaking the entire ship in a cloying cloud of noxious stench. If it didn't turn putrid, the cheese hardened like a rock, so sailors carved it with their knives into buttons for their clothing. Vast quantities of cheese were hove overboard, considered too foul even for seasoned sailors accustomed to corrupted sea horse. In general, more food was spoiled than was eaten, because there was no refrigeration and no other entirely effective means of preserving food beyond salting and drying. Even the fresh water became putrid or briny, so the standard drink on ships was alcoholbeer at the start of a voyage, before it spoiled, then wine mixed with water or diluted hard liquor. Alcoholism was rampant amongst the crew and the officers, and it was not uncommon for surgeons to be treating sailors who broke bones tumbling from the rigging while drunk.
Although Admiralty victualling authorities were supposed to oversee the quality and quantity of provisions, victuallers were known to provide shortened quantities of food, or to supply poor-quality meat from old or sick animals. Occasionally they didn'tbother to rinse the meat after butchering, so that blood and other animal fluids leaked into the brine and spoiled it. It was not uncommon for provisions to be several years old before even being loaded onto a ship, and then months more passed before the casks were opened. Before a ship left port, much of its provisions were past their prime. On paper the food might have seemed nutritious, but with ships in port serving up sea rations to the men for months before sailing, even high-quality provisions deteriorated so as to be nearly unpalatable after a short time at sea. Furthermore, because of the great number of men packed onto warships in port, pursers were less inclined to purchase the more expensive and wholesome fresh foods. After subsisting for months on maggot-infested ship's biscuit made putrid by storage, briny, unwholesome water, mouldy cheese, roach-ridden porridge, and stale beer, the crews became weakened and succumbed to an array of illnesses. From a modern perspective, the substances ladled out to the sailors in the eighteenth century would hardly be considered food, although it was often better and of greater quantity than the food available to many of the poor on land.
When a ship weighed anchor and put to sea, the workload of the average sailor increased dramatically. Even with hundreds of extra hands crowded on board, there was an endless cycle of duties. A warship at sea had to be manned around the clock, in foul weather as well as fair. The ship didn't shut down for the night or tie up at a dock; it needed an equal number of men at all times, hour after hour, day after day, without a break. If a ship did need to get to port, because of disease, an ailing captain, or storm damage, it could take days, even weeks, with men constantly on duty. A day in the British navy was divided into seven watchesfive of four hours in length and two shorter "dog watches" of two hours each. Other nations had a similar system for dividing the responsibilities aboard ship. The seven periods of duty in each twenty-four-hour day were divided between two shifts, the starboard watch and the larboard (port)watch. The alternating shifts meant that the men never slept for more than four hours at a time (in reality less, since socializing and eating were done during time off duty). This routine, however, applied only to periods of calm sailing. During storms, or while fleeing an enemy ship or preparing for combat, mariners laboured long hours in the cold and damp, sometimes for days without much sleep. Not to do so would have resulted in the foundering or loss of the ship and perhaps of their lives.
In addition to disease and corporal punishment, there were innumerable other ways for the average sailor to be maimed or killed during the Age of Sail, when the only thing powering the mighty ships was muscle and wind. He could slip and tumble from the rigging onto the deck and his bones crushed. He could be swept overboard in a storm and drown. The skin could be flayed off his hands from rope burn. During battle, he could be shot with guns, have his feet or a leg pulverized by the kickback of his own great cannon (which lobbed twenty-four- or thirty-two-pound balls of iron), or be mangled by flying cannonballs from an enemy ship. Shrapnel caused gaping splinter wounds, while exploding black powder would severely burn him. It would have been a rare sailor who didn't show the scars and wounds of his profession. "In consequence of what they [seamen] undergo," wrote the Scottish physician Sir Gilbert Blane in the 1790s, "they are in general short lived, and have their constitutions worn out ten years before the rest of the laborious part of mankind. A seaman, at the age of forty-five, if shown to a person not accustomed to be among them, would be taken by his looks to be fifty-five, or even on the borders of sixty."
While the average sailor was in poor health and suffering from malnutrition and a varying array of illnesses, and the sea life was harsh and physically and psychologically demanding, the cruellest fate of all was that each and every aspect of a sailor's working and living conditions conspired to bring on the greatest maritime disease of all, the dreaded scurvy.
Although after months at sea the entire ship's company would eventually be afflicted with scurvy, it was the common sailors who showed the earliest and most severe symptoms. Even after prolonged time at sea, the officers seldom fell prey to scurvy to the same extent as the crew, and the disease was often thought of as an illness particularly of the lower classes (reflected in such slang as "lazy skivvies" or "scurvy dogs"). The captain and ship's officers lived under more sanitary and less crowded conditions. They wore drier, cleaner clothes, ate better food, and slept more regularly. Although the navy officially supplied the captain and officers with the same sea rations as the crew, the officers always brought their own private preserves on board. These usually included fresh, dried, and pickled fruits and vegetables. They also kept live animals, which were slaughtered at sea for fresh meat. The decks of ships often had dozens of chickens, sheep, or pigs living in pens. On Cook's ship, the Endeavour, the same goat that had sailed on a previous Pacific voyage was "transferred to Cook so that South Sea coffee should still have its milk." Technically, the crew also were permitted to bring a store of personal supplies, but they rarely did so because the expense was beyond their meagre means and their pay was kept up to six months in arrears to prevent them from deserting.
The quest for a viable, portable, affordable alternative to a good diet and working conditionssomething that would enable maritime expansion to continue without the horrendous lossesspanned centuries. In the 1590s Sir Richard Hawkins, who claimed to have personally witnessed more than ten thousand cases of scurvy during his life at sea, "wished some learned man would write of it, for it is the plague of the sea and Spoyle of Mariners." The renowned eighteenth-century essayist and critic Dr. Samuel Johnson waggishly remarked, "Why, Sir, no man will be a sailor who has contrivance to get himself into a jail, for being in a ship is being in a jail with the chance of being drowned." Although Johnson was no doubr exaggerating to make a point, and life on land was also comparatively harsh, the record shows that he was not entirely off base. The sea life for European navy crew members was brutal. Drowning was of course an ever-present possibility, but what should really have concerned Johnson was scurvy. the Annual Register for 1763 tabulated the casualty list for British sailors in the Seven Years' War with France. Out of 184,899 men raised or rounded up for the war, 133,708 died from disease, primarily scurvy, while only 1,512 were killed in action.
While mariners died by the tens of thousands, the cocktail of other diseases and dietary deficiencies that afflicted the common sailors made it extremely difficult for medical men to isolate the symptoms and causes of, and therefore the cure for, the plague of the sea. People from around the world have a remarkable ability to survive in even the harshest environments. But a perpetually damp ship floating far from land for months at a time without fresh food was one of the most extreme environments possible for human survival. Throughout the eighteenth century, disease was the greatest killer in European national navies, and scurvy was the greatest of the ship diseases, feared and dreaded like no other. With larger ships, longer voyages, and increased shipping traffic in that century, scurvy was a problem that was getting progressively worsedespite its already long and malignant pedigree that extended far back to the dawn of the Age of Sail.
SCURVY. Copyright © 2003 by Stephen R. Bown. All rights reserved No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.
Meet the Author
STEPHEN R. BOWN was born in Ottawa and graduated in history from the University of Alberta. He has a special interest in the history of science and exploration. His books include The Naturalists: Scientific Travelers in the Golden Age of Natural History and the internationally successful Scurvy: How a Surgeon, a Mariner, and a Gentleman Solved the Greatest Medical Mystery of the Age of Sail. He lives in the Canadian Rockies with his wife and two young children.
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The book seemed to be self published, the editing was horrible. The number of typos was distracting, it seemed to have been simply run through a spell check, most of the errors would have made it through a spell check, but would have be caught easily by a human proofreader. I caught a couple factual errors, the biggest of which was that Napoleon wasn't "diminutive" he was average height for an European of his era. The book is very Anglo-centric, the author missed the opportunity to cover the subject from the perspective of other countries, and the issue (or non-issue) of scurvy in non-European countries was never discussed.