Age of Invention: Plague of the Sea

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Some remarkable things happen to our bodies when we don’t eat fresh food for a long time. From the absence of Vitamin C alone, the waste matter of our brain builds up, and the body begins to disintegrate. Cartilage disappears, old wounds unknit, the gums weaken until the teeth fall loose, and the blood vessels leak, swelling limbs, blackening bones that have started to crack. The blood pools as blisters beneath the skin until ulcerating forth. The mind is affected too, as the brain fails to produce various hormones and neurotransmitters, leading to intense, unregulated emotions, and overwhelming senses. Sights, smells, and tastes at turns provoke intense disgust, joy, or despair — sometimes excitement enough to burst the long-weakening arteries and provoke a fatal aneurysm.

Such was scurvy, the scourge of sailors, explorers, and the besieged — sometimes worsened, if that can be imagined, when the absence of other vitamins from low food supplies added confusion, diarrhoea, memory loss, numbed extremities, and skin that started to stiffen and peel in the sun above deck.

For as long as humans have suffered severe food shortages, scurvy has been known. The first record of it appears to date to ancient Egypt, in 1550BC, and it was especially familiar to the inhabitants of northern climates, with fresh vegetation every winter becoming scarce. Our word for scurvy almost certainly comes from the old Norse skyrbjugr — the skyr being a sort of soured cow’s milk that was thought to have caused the disease by going bad. In mid-sixteenth-century sources, scurvy was often referred to as though it was endemic to the Netherlands — a flat land assailed by the North Sea each winter, that had suffered long sieges and devastation thanks to the Dutch Revolt, and where fishing and merchant shipping employed an especially large proportion of the workforce. The Dutch thus had a perfect storm of factors to make vitamin C deficiencies more common, even though they abounded in fresh-caught fish and imported Baltic grain.

And so, over the centuries, the people of the northern climes had discovered the cure. Or rather, cures. The Iroquois ate the bark, needles or sap of evergreen trees — most likely white cedar, or some other kind of spruce, fir, juniper or pine, all rich in vitamin C. Their remedy saved the lives of Jacques Cartier’s colonists based near modern-day Quebec City in the winter of 1536. It’s the reason white cedar is known as arborvitae, the tree of life. And the Saami of northern Scandinavia prized cabbages and other leafy greens, in the summertime filling up casks of reindeer milk with crowberries and cloudberries, to be ready for winter.

Cloudberries became something of an obsession for the common people of sixteenth-century Bergen, in northern Norway, who in the warm seasons quarantined their scurvy sufferers on an island abounding with the berries, and otherwise subsisted almost entirely each winter on honey-sweetened cloudberry jams, which they covered with a butter to preserve it from the air. (I’ve even seen some reference, which I’ve not yet been able to follow, of Arabic sources mentioning Viking visitors to the Mediterranean sailing with barrels of cloudberries aboard).

The more temperate climes had their remedies too. In Britain, Germany, and the Low Countries, ordinary people swore by all sorts of salads of watercress, brooklime, bistort, sorrel, rocket, dock leaves, horseradish, and the appropriately-named scurvygrass, many of which might be pickled in wine or beer.

Still more remedies were discovered by accident, as European ships began to range farther and farther abroad. The very first Portuguese voyagers around the Cape of Good Hope almost immediately discovered the value of orange and lemons — especially effective sources of vitamin C, as their acidity helps to preserve it. The voyage of Vasco da Gama, having been the first to round the Cape and reach the eastern coast of Africa, was then stricken with scurvy. They were only inadvertently saved when they traded with some Arabian ships laden with oranges, before landing at Mombasa. There, the ruler sent them a sheep and some sugar-cane, the gift also happening to include some oranges and lemons. Although the Portuguese couldn’t stay there long — they learned of a conspiracy to capture their ship — one of the voyagers later reported in wonder how the climate there must have been especially healthful to have cured them all.

Fortunately, at least some of the crew suspected the citrus instead. On the return journey from India, after a fatally slow three-month crossing of the Indian Ocean, some of the newly scurvy-ridden sailors asked their captain to procure them some oranges at Malindi. At least a few of the crew must certainly have been saved by this request, though perhaps the excitement of their imminent deliverance induced a few fatal aneurysms: “our sick did not profit”, was the report, “for the climate affected them in such a way that many of them died here.” By the time the fleet limped home back to Lisbon in 1499, scurvy had still managed to claim the lives of over two thirds of the original crew.

Nonetheless, the status of oranges as a scurvy wonder-cure had entered sailors’ lore. When Pedro Alvares Cabral repeated da Gama’s feat of rounding the Cape of Good Hope in 1500, his crew purposefully treated their scurvy using oranges. And by the 1560s, if not earlier, the news of the cure had spread beyond the Portuguese. Sailors from the Low Countries, on the eve of the Dutch Revolt from Spain, were said to be staving off scurvy by eating oranges in large quantities, skins and all. (Orange peel is in fact especially rich in vitamin C, so they were onto something.) Their value was certainly appreciated by the Dutch explorer Jacob Corneliszoon van Neck by the time of his second expedition to the Indian Ocean in 1598. Not long after setting out, he purchased 10,000 oranges from a passing ship off the coast of Spain, rationing them out to all his crew. And on the return journey via St Helena they were dismayed when initially “we found no oranges, whereof we had most need, for those that were troubled with the scurvy disease.”

The account of van Neck’s journey was translated into English for the first voyage of the East India Company in 1601, which may be why its commander, James Lancaster, directed his crew to drink three spoonfuls of lemon juice every morning. Lancaster doesn’t appear to have paid any special attention to oranges and lemons ten years earlier, when he first attempted the voyage, although other English mariners like the privateer Sir Richard Hawkins had in the 1590s already been extolling their virtues. We don’t know many of the details of Lancaster’s lemon juice trial, but his flagship’s crew was not entirely saved. Contrary to common report, at least a third of them had died by the time they left their first landing at Table Bay, South Africa — a proportion similar those on the other ships of his fleet, though we don’t know how many actually died of scurvy or of other causes. But upon the expedition’s return, the experience placed lemon juice firmly on the list of known scurvy cures — “the most precious help that ever was discovered against the scurvy” as the East India Company’s surgeon-general put it.

Inventors were soon at work finding ways to preserve such wonder cures. The polymath Sir Hugh Plat in 1607 advertised a method of treating Lancaster’s lemon juice with a “philosophical fire”, but I haven’t been able to find evidence of what exactly this was or whether it worked. (Incidentally, contrary to many papers the historian Malcolm Thick in his biography of Plat says that there is no evidence that Plat had prescribed Lancaster lemon juice ahead of the 1601 journey.) Citrus was thus added to the growing list of scurvy’s known remedies: Plat’s advertisements for mariners also listed barberry conserves, sold at three shillings the pound — not far off Scandinavia’s cloudberry jams.

Otherwise, captains took care to plant the known cures at waypoints along the long-distance routes, to have them fresh and at hand for resupply. The uninhabited island of St Helena, conveniently situated in the mid-Atlantic, was planted with thousands of orange trees by the Portuguese. These ended up saving van Neck’s expedition, mentioned above, when a hunting party stumbled across them a few days after their arrival. In the Indian Ocean van Neck himself planted orange and lemon pips on uninhabited Mauritius. The later Dutch colony at Cape Town did the same. And turnips, having at some point seemingly been added to the list of scurvy cures, were planted at Jamestown, Virginia, coming in handy for the English colonists during the winter of 1613: “diverse had the scurvy, whereto their turnips, there sown, were an excellent remedy”.

But for all these known cures, scurvy managed to keep on killing hundreds of thousands of sailors throughout the age of sail, and even beyond. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, and into the early twentieth, legendary Arctic explorers like Fridtjof Nansen still swore by useless remedies like unspoilt meat. (Nansen’s expeditions may not have been quite so successful had he not also happened to bring lots of cloudberry preserve.) Rather than being recognised as a simple deficiency, scurvy was generally thought to be an infection — cloudberries, scurvygrass, citrus, turnips, and the arborvitae were seen as specific cures, when actually any fresh vegetation would have done the trick. Even vitamin C itself, discovered in the 1920s, was named ascorbic acid or ascorbate, after the latinised word for scurvy, scorbutus. Ascorbic acid thus came to be named for the prevention of its own mere absence.

Without the right theory of what was causing the disease, sailors just kept on dying. The sheer variety of vegetation containing vitamin C meant that often a mere return to land, from months at sea, could seemingly bring about a miraculous cure. It appeared as though it was just unnatural for people to be away from the land for too long. When the scurvy persisted even when the sick came ashore, people blamed it on the infection having taken root, on the bad air of a place, or on various other factors. They wished for one of the more specific, known cures, even while they were surrounded by the means of their salvation. Reading accounts of long-distance voyages can be heart-wrenching when you see talk of scurvy-ridden crews finally reaching land after months becalmed at sea, and then taking the fatal decision to boil their vegetables rather than eating them fresh. Subsequent mention of a salad, or the location’s fruit, helps to explain how anyone lived to tell the tale.

Adding to the confusion were the major discrepancies in diet between different people aboard a ship. Sailors seemed to get it more than the officers, passengers, servants, or ships’ boys — often resulting in these inexperienced mariners having to somehow navigate the ships to port, as the only ones left standing. Yet there were discrepancies here too, with some people unduly affected while others just didn’t seem to get it at all — much like any infectious disease. The French explorer Jacques Cartier quarantined his crew in 1536 when he heard of a scurvy outbreak among the Iroquois, and then hid them inside a fort so that they would not appear weak and invite attack. He was seemingly the only member of the crew to have been entirely unaffected — did he happen to have some big personal supply of marmalade or something? — and only discovered the local cure at the last minute because he happened to be walking about outside and met a native who he noticed had made a remarkably rapid recovery. His decision to quarantine and hide the crew likely cost them dearly, for they might have learned the cure sooner.

Physicians often thought that scurvy was a stoppage of the spleen, perhaps caused by eating spoilt meat, bad hygiene, sheer laziness, or even just being unhappy. And so they sought to stave it off like they would any other infectious disease, recommending exercise regimes, cleaner clothes and quarters, or even just some cheering up. They cannot have known that it was the scurvy itself that was causing mood swings, personality changes, depression and fatigue. They also prescribed purgatives and other supposed cure-alls like dilute sulphuric acid, or else subjected scurvy sufferers to bleeding. If the spleen was stopped up, they needed to “open the obstructions”. For patients whose blood vessels were already falling apart, a course of bleeding must have been deadly.

Even when physicians or ships’ surgeons relied directly on one of the many known vegetable cures, they inadvertently destroyed all of the vitamin C by trying to integrate them into a more complex medicine, boiling herbs or crushing them to extract their juices. Vitamin C is a fragile, easily-oxidised thing. By so often destroying the active ingredient of something that really did work, medical practitioners and mariners occasionally brought the real cures into doubt, as happened to citrus juice in the 1870s.

It is possible to discover that a thing works, and even to use it for hundreds upon hundreds of years. But without knowing why it works, its potential will never be realised. In fact, the lack of understanding can make a perfectly useful method of solving a problem extremely vulnerable to being discredited and lost. It can lead to all sorts of fads for solving the problem that will come and go — some actually effective, but often not. It’s something to ponder for those trying to improve things at the very edges of our understanding today.

P.S. Paying subscribers to this newsletter get another post every other week, and directly support me in writing these free ones too. Last week’s subscribers-only post was on how Dutch financial innovations allowed them to outcompete the English in the Indian Ocean. Others have been on the crucial but rarely-appreciated commercial infrastructure of long-distance trade, common misunderstandings of the enclosure movement, and what inventors called themselves in the past.

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