Scurvy and pirates go together. Either as an insult or a disease, scurvy figured prominently in the lives of pirates and other sailors during the 18th century. Let’s take a look at this disease, and see what it meant to the pirate lifestyle.
As I learned all the way back in grade school, scurvy is a result of not having enough vitamin C in a person’s diet. At the time I learned that this caused teeth to loosen and fall out – something that didn’t seem all that horrible to a kid who was receiving regular visits from the Tooth Fairy. But scurvy is a much more insidious disease.
Like many diseases, scurvy was first described by then ancient Greek physician Hippocrates at about 300 BCE. The symptoms include depression, spots on the skin, especially the legs, exhaustion, sore gums, tooth loss, yellow skin, fever and eventually death. The full course of scurvy takes months, so the exact cause and effect were difficult to pin down.
Also, vitamin C is available from many sources. We think of it as coming from citrus fruit, including lemons, limes and oranges, but it is also abundant in green peppers, kale, spinach, and many other green vegetables. But such substances as whale skin, and liver can supply the necessary vitamins in places where no vegetable matter at all is available.
And to make the matter more confusing, Vitamin C is destroyed by cooking, or exposure to air, iron or copper. So a vitamin-rich substance, overcooked in an iron or copper pot and then left in the open air might lose nearly all of its life-giving properties.
We think of scurvy as being a sailor’s disease, and it most certainly was. Men on board ship, eating a diet that consisted mostly of preserved meat and bread, soon suffered from the results of scurvy. But the disease was also surprisingly common among city-dwellers, especially the poor.
During the late 1600’s and early 1700’s the populations of cities grew, but the means of preserving and transporting food did not improve. With no way to keep vegetables cold, or to quickly transport them, these foods often spoiled long before they could be transported to city markets. The poor lived primarily on meat and bread, a very limiting diet that deprived them of many necessary vitamins.
Surprisingly, the reason why city people did not often die of scurvy may have been beer – the heavy, black, bread-like beers common at the time carried some vitamin C. Also popular was a drink called bitters – essentially bitter herbs used to flavor beer. Alcohol does not destroy the vitamin. So bitters were a decent way to preserve the nutritional properties of plants.
The potato also saved countless lives. A single potato can contain up to 70% of the daily vitamin C needed by an average adult. Potatoes have always been cheap food, but during the Golden Age of Piracy, about 1715, they were not yet fully integrated into the European diet.
But neither beer nor potatoes hold up well on a damp, variable-temperature, constantly moving ship. The folklore of the sea said that greens were the answer to scurvy – though why this worked was not yet understood. Some of the best efforts to preserve the crew’s health involved cabbages – which hold up better than other greens.
Still, many, many sailors died or were permanently crippled by the disease. In its final stages, scurvy is truly horrible. Vitamin C is necessary for the human body to maintain connective tissue. Connective tissue might not seem particularly important, but it is literally what holds the human body together. In the latter stages of scurvy, old wounds re-open, once broken bones re-break, and the entire body begins to fall apart.
How horrible this must have been to people who did not understand that it was the result of the body not having crucial building materials at hand can only be imagined. Yet men continued to go to sea, in the hopes of riches and adventure.
It was not until 1753 when a Scottish surgeon in the Royal Navy, James Lind, first proved the disease could be treated with citrus fruit. He described his experiments in his 1753 book A Treatise of the Scurvy. Interestingly enough, Lind’s efforts to define and cure scurvy were the first “clinical trial” in medicine.
But his books was poorly written, and the medical establishment had already decided what it believed to be the cause of scurvy - notable hard work, bad water and the consumption of salt meat in a damp atmosphere. This certainly described life on board a ship, but it did not reveal the actual cause. Lind’s efforts to provide vitamin C to his subjects also were not successful – he boiled lemon juice to a concentrated state. Unfortunately the action of boiling also destroyed the vitamins.
During Royal Navy expeditions, it was not uncommon for 2/3 of the crew to die from scurvy. Canny captains come up with their own remedies including British Vice Admiral Edward Vernon, known as “Old Grog” who added lime juice to his crew’s rum ration to control the disease.
The first long-range expedition free from scurvy was Captain Cook’s trip to the Pacific. Cook not only provided his men with preserved cabbage, in the form of sauerkraut, but as many fresh vegetables and fruit as he was able, but also insisted in scrupulous cleaning of the ship’s copper cooking pots, minimizing their vitamin-C leaching properties on other foods.
And the "scurvy dog" part? Well, diseases were a popular insult at the time. It wasn't uncommon to insult someone by saying that they were "poxy" meaning riddled with smallpox or marked by the disease. Such insults were used the way we might today refer to someone as an idiot.
And what has this to do with pirates? Well, as we have seen so often before, pirates operated from the bottom up – the opinions of the crew mattered as much or more than the leadership of the officers. For this reason, pirates often stopped on tropical islands to clean their ships, to party, and to consume native fruits and vegetables. Rum and fruit juice was an especial favorite. Pirates, you see, were much less likely to suffer from the disease.