It was the scourge of all seafarers since the first extended offshore passages were undertaken. Its symptoms include loosening of teeth, swollen gums, bleeding beneath the skin and a general lethargy that is virtually impossible to overcome. The sufferer’s only deliverance is either through death or the consumption of foods containing vitamin C. Any sailor, contemporary or ancient, recognizes this description of the malady known today as scurvy.
Two hundred and fifty years ago, the causes of this ailment were still a mystery, not fully understood until the discovery of vitamins in 1912. Its horrific effects became especially well known during the Commodore Lord George Anson’s circumnavigation. In 1740, the British Admiralty commanded Anson, who would later become an admiral of the fleet, to sail to the Pacific with orders to harry Spanish possessions and capture a treasure ship. He accomplished both of these directives; however, the price of success was frightfully high.
Anson departed Portsmouth with a squadron of six ships and almost 2,000 sailors, marines and merchant seamen. Seasoned mariners were perpetually in short supply and as a result, many were pensioners and veterans from Chelsea Hospital, while others were pressed from taverns, fields and prisons. Some of the more experienced hands were over the age of 70. After enduring several trials, in addition to the effects of scurvy, while transiting the North and South Atlantic Ocean, and rounding the Horn, the squadron stopped at Juan Fernandez, an island off the coast of South America. They regained their strength by consuming fresh food, fruits, vegetables and meat. With the crew reinvigorated and ships repaired, the group set out on a 7,000-mile passage to the Marianas in the western Pacific — eventually becoming bogged down by the doldrums on a voyage that lasted an appalling 114 days, as opposed to the expected 50 or 60 days.
The rest of the story is one of both triumph and tragedy. By August 1742, only one ship remained of the original eight, Anson’s own flagship, Centurion. With that ship, however, Anson managed to follow and capture Nuestra Señora Covadonga in the straits south of Luzon in the Philippines. A Spanish galleon, unescorted but heavily laden, the vessel carried the inconceivable sum of $100 million (in current value) in bullion, plate and specie from Spain’s possessions in Mexico. After a short but pitched battle, in which Centurion fired volley after volley of grapeshot, seeking to disable Covadonga’s crew without sinking the ship, Anson’s prize was taken.
After this triumph, Anson completed a circumnavigation and arrived in England to a hero’s welcome. The price he paid in human life was colossal. Of the 1,939 crewmen who set sail on this exploit, a mere 500 survived. The majority of those who did not return had fallen victim to scurvy. Only four died in battle.
These losses captured the attention of a British naval surgeon named James Lind, a brilliant physician often acknowledged as the father of nautical medicine, who is responsible for conducting what may have been the first controlled dietary experiment in history. He discovered that the juice of oranges and lemons is a powerful antiscorbutic, staving off the onset of scurvy indefinitely. After the completion of his experiments, he authored a tome entitled, A Treatise of the Scurvy in 1753, which described his findings in detail.
Unfortunately, many officers in the Royal Navy held a common quarterdeck conviction that scurvy was essentially a disciplinary problem, the refuge of malingerers and malcontents. As knowledgeable as Lind was on the causes and effects of scurvy, he was not an effective lobbyist. His pleas for dietary reformation within the Navy were ignored for nearly 40 years. Not until 1795, when Sir Gilbert Blane, another Royal Navy physician and adherent to Lind’s theories, wielded his considerable influence to convince the admiralty to issue a ration of lemon juice throughout the fleet. Jack Tar finally received his due, relegating scurvy to the dustbin of history.
The story of scurvy does not end there. Shortly after the institution of the lemon-juice edict, it appears that the Admiralty, in an attempt to secure a reliable supply of antiscorbutic, substituted lime for lemon juice. Limes were grown in abundance in the British West Indies, providing a ready source for this now all-too-important tonic. Lemons, on the other hand, were a product of Mediterranean countries, none of which were British possessions. The result was a switch to the more accessible and less expensive lime juice. Unfortunately, it was discovered much later that limes possess only half the antiscorbutic as lemons, so the recipients of the lime-juice ration probably suffered from, at the very least, a vitamin-C deficiency, if not fully developed scurvy.
Eventually, all British vessels, both military and merchant alike, were bound by law to carry and provide lime juice to their crews. Because of this, these vessels eventually became known, particularly by Americans, as lime-juicers and their crew limeys.
Steve C. D’Antonio