4. Staying Alive While Crossing the Deep
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4 Staying Alive While Crossing the Deep But mine is all as hungry as the sea. —William Shakespeare, Sonnet 64, 1609 It is a long, long way across the span of the Pacific Ocean, and even the width of the Atlantic is far from negligible. How could voyagers traveling in boats of limited size and cargo capacity possibly have carried with them sufficient fresh water and food to sustain them during the prolonged time needed to traverse the deep? That is the question that must next be addressed. A Scurvy Lot? The Question of Dietary-­ Deficiency Diseases Prolonged deprivation of criti­cal nutrients produces dietary-­deficiency diseases, and history relates that long voyages of­ ten led to severe suffering from such conditions. The best known of these maladies is scorbutus or scurvy. This debilitating and of­ ten lethal condition common on shipboard during the two hundred years or so following 1492 (although not on Columbus’s voyages), results from an insufficiency of ascorbic acid (vitamin C), which in ordinary diets is obtained largely from fresh fruits and vegetables. Symptoms include joint swelling and pain, fatigue, swollen and bleeding gums, and tooth loss. The crews of da Gama, Magellan, Cabral, Cartier, and the Manila galleons, among many others, suffered from it—on land as well as at sea. Most famously, Captain George Anson’s 1740–44 expedition lost 1,255 of its 1,955 men to the malady. There are ancient and classical mentions as well. Francis Cuppage observed, “Scurvy . . . formed a tether that held back the [European] explorations leading to world expansion. . . . Colonization, dominion of the seas, mercantilism, and scientific explorations were all delayed by this persistent scourge.”1 If scorbutus held back early modern Europeans, would it not have definitively impeded earlier, less advanced voyagers? First, let us recollect that despite the fact that scurvy was of­ ten a severe prob­ lem on very long European voyages (it did not ordinarily become an issue for 44 / Chapter 4 the first two or three months), such voyaging was accomplished anyway. In the British Navy, the difficulty was finally definitively overcome in the eighteenth century by ships’ carrying and crews’ consuming citrus fruits or juices or hard cider. Although the subtitle of Stephen R. Bown’s 2004 book titled Scurvy calls the disease The Greatest Mystery of the Age of Sail, carrying cider or citrus was a practice that had some systematic precedent in Europe as least as far back as the late 1500s. Through the ages, there have been, in fact, many mentions of antiscorbutics . Gilbertus Anglicus’s 1227 Compendium Medicinae, urged ocean travelers to carry citrus fruits and pickled vegetables, presumably to evade scurvy. When Vasco da Gama’s crew was suffering from scorbutus, recoveries occurred after the captain followed the advice of experienced Arabs and issued oranges.2 The Dutch were using citrus by 1598. In the 1500s, too, Pedro Álvares Cabral and Richard Hawkins were aware of the curative properties of citrus. Also, “scurvy grass”—spoonwort and cresses—and wild celery were employed. Royal Navy experiments demonstrated the efficacy of citrus against scurvy, but the results were ignored until a sec­ ond experiment was done in 1747. Even then, the Admiralty failed to adopt citrus until 1794, and the British merchant marine did not do so until 1865—a prime example of resistance to beneficial innovation even in the face of blatant incentive in the form of the avoidability of thousands of deaths and the conservation of untold thousands of pounds sterling. Shipboard diets varied over the centuries and in different parts of the world. How, if at all, scurvy was dealt with before the European Renaissance and in the more distant past and in other regions may not normally be ascertainable, but we may observe that some of the putative transoceanic voyaging originated in lands where citrus was available. The Arab practice of preparing and carrying lime juice on long voyages may have a long history, and the fourteenth-­ century Arab traveler Ibn Battutah observed Chinese sailors stowing ascorbic-­ acid-­ rich “green stuff, vegetables and ginger” on board their ships.3 Foods that also contain significant quantities of vitamin C (at least when fresh), include brussels sprouts, cabbage, lettuce, celery, cress, carrot, onion, potato, prickly pear, annona , pineapple, currant, cranberry and vari­ ous other berries, conifer twigs and bark (used in infusions), and even rats (usually all too abundant on shipboard), which synthesize their own ascorbic acid. Additional good sources of vitamin C include sweet potatoes...


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