“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.
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. Continue reading