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“For, by this time, very many of our men were fallen sicke of the Scurvey in all our ships, and unless it were in the Generals ship only, the other three were so weake of men, that they could hardly handle the sayles.”

… from the East-Indies voyage of James Lancaster, 1601-03.

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Scurvy is a disease of vitamin C deficiency, and was notably fatal amongst sailors on long sea voyages. The symptoms: apathy, weakness, easy bruising, skin haemorrhages, bleeding gums, swollen legs.

From ancient times scurvy had been treated by consumption of fresh foods and citrus fruit, but even in 1695 a group of sailors suffering from the disease was described as, “perfect moving skeletons”. Europe’s Age of Discovery found itself under a rolling sentence of death: from about 1500 to 1800 two million sailors are estimated to have died from scurvy on expeditions to Asia, Africa and the New World.

Why no cure? In Tudor England an effective treatment, scurvy grass (a corruption of cress), was commonly recommended; at the same time the Portuguese knew a cure, and so did the Spanish and the Dutch. For unknown reasons such wisdom was applied inconsistently (even by Britain’s Royal Navy after the Napoleonic Wars) until the identification of vitamin C in the 20th century.

Sir James Lancaster (died 1618) c.1600

I assume that, where life and wealth are at stake, once a solution to a problem is found that solution will stick. Not so in the treatment of scurvy – strange, but I guess we don’t have enough information to judge the practical difficulties of our ancestors.

And the Tudor connection? There are many, and they in turn connect to the wider concerns of European explorers in this age.

The example I’ve chosen is the second East-Indies expedition of the English privateer, James Lancaster.

Lancaster set out in 1601 with a fleet of four vessels led by his flagship, the Red Dragon, and returned to England in 1603. The record of his expedition shows that doses of lemon juice were known to cure the disease. The experiment was probably suggested by the observations of Sir Richard Hawkins on Spanish practices in the 1590s (pp.56 ff.).

The Red Dragon

The following account of Lancaster’s expedition is from a reprint of the 1625 edition of Samuel Purchas’, Hakluytus posthumus, or Purchas his pilgrimes: contayning a history of the world in sea voyages and lande travells by Englishmen and others, vol. 2 (1905).*

 

 

The first Voyage made to East-India by Master James Lancaster … Anno 1600 – p.395 ff.:

Thus following our course, the first of August we came into the height of thirtie degrees, South of the Line: at which time we met the South-west wind, to the great comfort of all our people. For, by this time, very many of our men were fallen sicke of the Scurvey in all our ships, and unless it were in the Generals ship only, the other three were so weake of men, that they could hardly handle the sayles. This wind held faire, till wee came within two hundred and fiftie leagues of the Cape Buena Esperanza [Cape of Good Hope, southern tip of Africa], and then came cleane contrarie against us to the East: and so held some fifteene or sixteene days to the great discomfort of our men. For now the few whole men we had, beganne also to fall sicke, so that our weaknesse of men was so great, that in some of the ships, the Merchants tooke their turnes at the Helme: and went into the top to take in the top-sayles, as the common Mariners did. But God (who sheweth mercy in all distresses) sent us a faire wind againe, so that the ninth of September wee came to Saldania [the station at the Cape of Good Hope], where the Generall before the rest bare in, and came to an anchor, and hoysed out his Boats to helpe the rest of the ships. For now the state of the other three was such, that they were hardly able to let fall an Anchor, to save themselves withall. The Generall went aboord of them, and carryed good store of men, and hoysed out their Boats for them, which they were not able to doe of themselves. And the reason why the Generals men stood better in health then the men of other ships, was this: he brought to Sea with him certaine Bottles of the Juice of Limons, which hee gave to each one, as long as it would last, three spoonfuls every morning fasting: not suffering them to eate any thing after it till noone. This Juice worketh much the better, if the partie keepe a short Dyet, and wholly refraine salt meate, which salt meate, and long being at the Sea is the only cause of the breeding of this Disease. By this meanes the Generall cured many of his men, and preserved the rest: so that in his ship (having the double of men that was in the rest of the ships) he had not so many sicke, nor lost so many men as they did, which was the mercie of God to us all.

It is said that Lancaster effectively performed the first recorded controlled experiment in the treatment of scurvy, because his flagship was exclusively supplied with the lemon juice and suffered far fewer cases of scurvy than the other three ships. But this seems to be untrue. There’s a handy analysis of the historical information by Jeremy Hugh Baron at this link (20 page pdf, quick upload).

Earlier I remarked on the difficulty of judging the past, owing to our imperfect information. But maybe there is a lesson to be drawn from history, according to Baron’s analysis, which is that medical opinion is too often dictated by a boneheaded professional cartel.

As for judging the practical difficulties of our ancestors, please bear this in mind – from the highly respected astronomer royal in 2012:

“Scientists still can’t agree on what food is good for us. There is a real sense in which dietetics is harder than cosmology.”

All this fancy-talk of vitamin C may prove hopelessly naive.

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* A few notes: Hakluytus posthumus is made up of 20 volumes – plenty of interesting Renaissance travel writing; and Lancaster’s first expedition was actually in 1591-94.

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p.s. For a reference to an Indian cure for scurvy in Canada in 1535 see this quotation in Weston Price’s Nutrition and Physical Degeneration ch.15 n.6:

“The earliest recorded successful treatment of scurvy occurred in Canada in 1535 when Jacques Cartier, on the advice of a friendly Indian, gave his scurvy prostrated men a decoction of young green succulent ‘shoots’ from the spruce trees with successful results. These happy effects apparently were not appreciated in Europe, for scurvy continued to be endemic.”

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