How Naval Scurvy was the Largest Obstacle for Sailors to Overcome

  • Uncategorized

HowNaval Scurvy was the Largest Obstacle for Sailors to Overcome

Scurvy was oneof the major obstacles that faced early European explorers lookingfor new lands. The cause of the scurvy was unknown, but the effectswere apparent. The body of the sailors became weakened. Especially,the gum became swollen and sored (Peyrefitte and Alain 57). Apartfrom the swollen gums, the teeth started falling out. The sailorscould also not walk because of swelling and bruises. Research on thecauses and cure for the scurvy was a priority for the government ifthe expeditions had to go on. The paper will discuss how scurvyaffected sailors and how they overcame it.

Scurvy started becoming a problem for European explorers when theybegan setting sail in the Indian and Pacific oceans. The voyages tookmonths in the sea. Many challenges were apparent on the long seajourney, including attacks by enemies and health of the sailors.Great explorers such as Vasco da Gama lost three-quarters of the crewon his way to India at the start of 1499. Christopher Columbus wasalso one of the greatest explorers for Britain (Woodman and Richard192). However, Columbus too lost many of his crewmembers to thestrange disease. Another European explorer was Magellan who also lostmore than three-quarters of his sailors in the Pacific oceans. Themany deaths occurring because of the unknown disease led many sailorsto such as Sir Richard Hawkins to refer to the illness as the plaguein the ocean (Peyrefitte and Alain 76).

The mystery ofthe scurvy came to the public notice in 1740. A British Commodorenamed George was on a mission to raid Spanish ships. During the raid,he lost more than three-quarters of his crewmembers to the disease(Woodman and Richard 192). The symptoms of the disease were evident,and Chaplain Walter who was on the voyage wrote them down. Thesymptoms as described by the Richard were as follows. The victims`skin became unusually black. In addition, the victims struggled tobreathe (labored respiration). One of the symptoms that stood outwas the abominable odor coming from the victim`s mouth. The odoroccurred due to the death of gum tissues that were sprouting out ofthe mouth. Walter noted another strange behavior exhibited by thevictim was that almost all the victims craved for fruits and whenthey got hold of one, they simply swallowed it (Bazan and Daniel 56). Walter suspected the disease led to increased sense of smell andtaste in the affected individuals. As noted by Walter, the diseaseseemed to disarm the sense inhibitors that regulate the senses ofsmell and taste. The reduced effects of the sensory inhibitors madethe victims cry from the smell of the blossoms from the sore.Interestingly, the victims had an unending yearning to go home (Gomesand Laurentino 215)

Speculationarose as to what caused the disease. Some scholars intimated thatscurvy occurred due to lack of oxygen in the body. Others suggestedskimmed oil from the boiling pans among many others. Notably, noscientist was sure about the possible cause of the scurvy. However,all were united that the sailors eating scurvy grass once in the seacould prevent the disease (Buchet and Christian 316). Cabbage treesand other esculent plant were all suggested as the possible cure forthe scurvy.

James Cook, aBritish explorer, was among the few people who managed to preventdeath to the crew due to scurvy. Cook maintained social order in hisvoyages and gave the crewmembers a regular dose of the malt and woebetide. Cook observed that sailors who refused to take the malt theirhealth deteriorated. In his presentation to the Royal Society, Cookasserted that malt was the best antiscorbutic drug at the time.However, not everyone was convinced with Cook new regiment. Anesteemed scientist at the time such as Gilbert Blane doubted the useof malt for treatment (Gough and Barry 521). They observed that theportable cabbage soup and sauerkraut were just placebos that maskedthe devastating effects of the scurvy.

Notably, Cookbanned the use of fats from the boiling pans. It was laterestablished that when hot salt fat come in contact with copper, itcauses irritation of the gut wall, which prevented absorption ofvitamin C. Similar effects are observed in the case of worminfestation. The irritation posed by the warms reduces the absorptionof vitamin B. Nobody knew whether Cook had, this understanding or itwas just a good intuition (Gough and Barry 519).

In subsequentvoyages, many men aboard Cook ship suffered and died from scurvy.Some of the notable deaths were Tupaia and Charles Green. Cookclaimed that Tupaia died because of his refusal to take malt andportable soup. He also suggested that Green’s alcohol addiction iswhat led to his death (Bazan and Daniel 54).

The pattern ofthe disease was predictable. It started with the mouth and thegum-becoming sore, which made eating painful. Consequently, manysailors did not eat and their body became frail. Another observationis that the skin started breaking up (Taaffe and Stephen 63)

Notably, thereare pathogenic bacteria that exist on the surface of the skin as partof the normal flora. Importantly, the skin acts as a physical barrierto invading bacteria, virus and other pathogens. Broken skin is oneof the ways in which the bacteria and fungi living on the skinsurface gain entry into the body. Therefore, skin can be consideredthe first line of defense against the invading pathogens (Taaffe andStephen 61). Scurvy led to the loss of the skin integrity through thebreaks, which allowed the pathogens to enter into the blood, whichmay lead to sepsis.

For example,Streptococcus aureus is part of the normal flora of the skin.If the bacteria get entry into the body through broken skin, itcauses conditions such as scalded skin syndrome. In addition, it cancause other fatal diseases like pneumonia and meningitis. The deathoccurred because of secondary infection than direct impacts of thescurvy (Buchet and Christian 314).

The symptoms ofthe scurvy occurred about three months after the sailors had set thesail. Therefore, a majority of the sailors affected by the scurvywere usually on long expeditions, for example, explorations of landsin New Zealand, Australia among others.

One of thepeople who did research on the disease and founded the cure was JamesLind. Lind did a nutritional experiment that led to a conclusion thatthe disease occurred due to lack of the vitamin C in the diet of thesailors. Putrefaction of the body was suspected as the likely causeof scurvy in the sailors by Lind. Therefore, Lind suggested thatacids could be used to reverse the negative impacts of putrefaction.

In the 1740s,Lind while aboard a Royal Navy ship became interested in unearthingwhat caused so much pain to the sailors. John Woodwall had alreadyestablished that citrus fruits had antiscorbutic effects. Heexamined some sailors and found twelve sailors as having similarsymptoms. Lind designed a simple experiment by dividing the sailorsinto six groups. Each group had two sailors who received adifferential amount of acid supplement in their meals. The hypothesisLind developed for the experiment is that something essential wasmissing in the diet of the sailors and led to the scurvy. Lindembarked on testing his hypothesis by giving different diet treatment(Bazan and Daniel 62).

One group wasmade by Lind to drink cider. The second group was given cider gargledwith sulphuric acid. The third group took vinegar three times in aday. The fourth group was given a glass of sea water a day. The fifthgroup was served with barley water once in a day while the last groupgot an orange and a lemon in a day.

Lind monitoredhis subjects closely each day for any signs of improvement. After sixdays, Lind noted the group that got a lemon and an orange a day hadgreatly improved their health. The subjects in the group had regainedtheir strength and walked comfortably. Lind speculated that somethingin the orange or lemon had antiscorbutic effects (Hickey, Donald,Connie and Clark 123). The essential substance in the orange andlemon was missing in the diet of the sailors. Lind concluded that itwas the acid of the citrus fruit that was the antiscorbutic effect.

Normally, at thestart of the sail, the voyagers had enough supplies of fresh fruitand vegetables. However, fruits could not be kept fresh for more thana month. Therefore, sailors ate all the fruits and vegetables at theearly days of the voyage. Months later, they had no access to freshfruits and vegetables. The point explains why the symptoms of thescurvy occurred at least three months after setting sail (Hickey,Donald, Connie and Clark 133). Following the discovery, orange andlemon juice was prepared for the sailors if they will be in the seafor more than a month. Finally, the scourge that had devastated thesailors was defeated.

Scurvy wasestablished later to be caused by a deficiency of ascorbic acid. Theacid is found in fresh vegetables and fruits. The other name forvitamin C is ascorbic acid. Fruits and vegetables are an essentialpart of balanced diet and preventing diseases. Naturally, vitaminsare co-enzymes in which case they help the body enzymes to work. Lackof the coenzymes may lead to failure of some enzymes that catalyzeessential body processes like glucose pathway (Hickey, Donald, Connieand Clark 89). A slowdown of the glucose breakdown pathway may leadto a lack of energy and death.

In conclusion,scurvy was one of the most deadly diseases for the sailor. Thedisease and its cause was unknown, which led people to refer to theillness as the plague of the sea. Many scientists and scholarsstarted speculating the cause of the disease. Famous sailors such asJames Cook used a combination of social order management and malt tocontrol disease in his ship. However, until the work of James Lind,the cause of scurvy was unknown. Therefore, Lind`s nutritionexperiment led to the discovery of the disease and dietary measuresthat can prevent it.


Woodman, Richard.&nbspThe Merchant Navy. BloomsburyPublishing, 2013: 189-218

Bazan, Daniel. &quotFor Want of Sloops, Water Casks, and Rum: TheDifficulties of Logistics in the Canadian Theater of the Seven YearsWar.&quot (2013): 54-67

Taaffe, Stephen.&nbspCommanding Lincoln`s Navy: Union NavalLeadership During the Civil War. Naval Institute Press, 2013:67-77

Hickey, Donald R., and Connie D. Clark, eds.&nbspThe RoutledgeHandbook of the War of 1812. Routledge, 2015: 88-135

Gomes, Laurentino.&nbsp1808: The Flight of the Emperor: How aWeak Prince, a Mad Queen, and the British Navy Tricked Napoleon andChanged the New World. Rowman &amp Littlefield, 2013: 214-234

Gough, Barry.&nbspBritannia`s Navy on the West Coast of NorthAmerica, 1914. Heritage House Publishing Co, 2016: 526-549

Buchet, Christian.&nbspThe British navy, economy and society inthe Seven Years War. Boydell Press, 2013: 313-334

Peyrefitte, Alain.&nbspThe Immobile Empire. Vintage, 2013:54-77