History Thread: The Triumph of Scurvy

In 1534, French explorer Jacques Cartier and his crew were stricken with the disease near modern-day Montreal. The symptoms were gruesome: Cartier’s menhad all their skins spotted with spots of blood of a purple colour: then did it ascend up to their ankels, knees, thighes, shoulders, armes and necke: their mouth became stincking, their gummes so rotten, that all the flesh did fall off, even to the rootes of teeth, which did also almost fall out.” At least twenty-five men died of the disease. Cartier’s men were victims of scurvy, a debilitating illness caused by Vitamin C deficiency, largely unknown in Europe1 until the long sea voyages of the Age of Exploration.

Lacking a cure, or even understanding of their plight, the Frenchmen turned to their Huron allies for assistance. A Huron named Domagaia told Cartier that he had recently suffered from scurvy himself, but “had taken the juice and sappe of the leaves of a certain Tree, and therewith had healed himselfe.” At Domagaia’s direction the bark, leaves and sap of the tree, which the Hurons called Annedda (believed to be the Eastern White Cedar), were brewed into a tea which the French consumed. Within days they began to recover. The French recognized the value of the Huron’s cue; Cartier sent seeds from the tree to Paris, where they were cultivated in the King’s botanical gardens and used to treat the sick.

Jacques Cartier and Chief Donnacona

The link between Vitamin C and scurvy, therefore, was known. It was known by Native Americans long before Europeans mastered it; in turn, the French knew about it for centuries. Yet the seagoing European empires – Spain, Portugal, Holland and England, it seems, most of all – scoffed at Cartier and Domagaia’s treatment for centuries. English authorities blamed the disease on “laziness and sloth,” encouraging exercise as a cure (a “cure” which hastened already weak men to the grave); others, as we’ll see, turned to various quack remedies. John White, a naval surgeon, even warned that fruit should be avoided on ocean voyages as “they are the commonest cause of fevers and obstruction of the vital organs.”

Such nostrums doomed as many as two million men, women and children to horrifying deaths. In the 16th, 17th and early 18th Centuries, one writer comments, “scurvy was responsible for more deaths at sea than storms, shipwrecks, combat, and all other diseases combined.” One voyage, more than any, exemplifies the cost of willful medical ignorance.

In September 1740, eight Royal Navy ships and 1,854 sailors under Commodore George Anson sailed from Portsmouth for the Pacific Ocean. Anson’s mission was part of the War of Jenkins’ Ear (1739 to 1748), a conflict between the British Empire and Spain waged for possession of overseas colonies.2 Even by the desultory standards of 18th Century warfare, large dynastic struggles which lasted until one side or the other collapsed from exhaustion, the conflict over Jenkins’ Ear seems singularly pointless. And it spawned both military disasters and medical catastrophes in measures extraordinary even by standards of the time.

The Siege of Cartagena

As Anson’s expedition organized, Admiral Edward Vernon and General Thomas Wentworth were mounting a costly siege of Cartagena de Indias in Colombia, a major base for Spanish privateers. Vernon was so confident of victory that he proclaimed himself “Conqueror of Cartagena” and had victory medals struck for his men before leaving England. His plans came to naught after a monumentally botched campaign, where poor coordination and constant feuding between commanders left Wentworth’s infantry stranded on land without naval support. Forced to attack at night with no artillery cover, the Redcoats were shot down “like skittles in an alley” by well—entrenched Spanish musketeers. One mortally wounded officer asserted with his dying breath that “the General should hang the guides and the King should hang the General.”

Spanish bullets, however, were secondary to sickness in mortality. Vernon’s expedition was annihilated by an endless outbreak of disease: smallpox, typhus, yellow fever and, finally, scurvy. Vernon’s second-in-command, George Cathcart, perished of disease even before the campaign commenced; thousands of sailors and enlisted men followed. Of the 27,000 men on the expedition, 11,500 died; 90 percent of those fell victim to disease.3

Anson’s task, if on a smaller scale, was even more daunting: sail around the world and destroy the Spanish treasure fleet operating from Manilla in the Philippines. On paper, he commanded a formidable squadron: five ships of the line, including his flagship, the 60 gun HMS Centurion; a single-decked sloop and two supply vessels. Even before leaving Portsmouth, Anson (a veteran of the War of the Spanish Succession) encountered difficulties: the war taxed British manpower to the breaking point, while a long winter led to massive food shortages in England.

Anson filled out his roster with a detachment of Marines, so green that most had never fired a rifle. He commenced “recruiting” prisoners from jail and over 200 men recovering in Chelsea Hospital. Many were borderline invalid, so ill that they had to be carried onboard on stretchers. Other men, in time honored tradition, were “shanghaied” by thugs outside hotels and grog houses, waking up with a hangover and a service contract with the Royal Navy.

If anything, provisioning the vessel proved even harder than staffing it. Anson procured the usual rations of hardtack, peas and preserved meat, with surfeits of beer in lieu of potable water. Such diets, high in calories but reeking of fat and sodium, lacking basic nutrients such as vitamins or carbohydrates, tended to ruin men’s digestive tracts and wear down their energy under the best circumstances. Pascoe Thomas, the fleet surgeon, found the biscuits “so much worm-eaten, it was scarce anything but dust”; Anson was so revolted by the “fresh” beef’s smell that he ordered it thrown overboard. And this before they even left port.

Unsurprisingly, preserving fresh fruits and vegetables was extremely difficult in this time period.4 Dried apples or raisins, sweet-tasting but of marginal nutritional value, were the most Royal Navy crews could expect. Anson and Thomas compensated with several dubious remedies: two ounces of vinegar, a noxious mixture of alcohol and sulfuric acid appropriately dubbed “vitriol,” and a diuretic called Ward’s Drop and Pill. On such quack remedies did Anson’s mission rest.

George Anson

Anson left port in September and spent months crossing the Atlantic. In March 1741, as the fleet rounded Cape Horn (the extreme tip of South America), they were lashed by a monstrous series of storms that scattered Anson’s vessels (three were sunk in the storms, and the others suffered heavy damage) and broke the crew’s health. Already struggling with digestive upset from their coarse diet, the sailors succumbed to exhaustion which, in turn, gave way to scurvy. All the “vitriol” in the world couldn’t prevent what happened next.

“Just when they needed their strength the most to battle the furious storm,” writes historian Stephen Bown, “they grew weaker by the day. The lower decks were awash with sickly bodily fluids, and men lay prostrate in the slime, sluicing about as the ships bucked and spun in the gale…Old battle wounds sustained decades earlier began to bleed anew and shattered leg bones separated again, causing bewilderment and excruciating pain.” They were crowded into hammocks below decks where, a survivor of the voyage recounted, “some lost their Senses, some had their sinews contracted in such a Manner as to draw their Limbs close to their Thyghs, and some rotted away.”

It took several months for the vessels to round the Horn and reform the remaining ships into some semblance of order. By then, the casualties mounted to catastrophic levels. Dead men were initially sewn into hammocks and thrown overboard in hasty funerals; soon, however, too many sailors were debilitated for this labor and the dead were left rotting in the hold alongside their “luckier” colleagues. The logs of Anson’s ships became a tattoo of funerals, with some ships losing six men a day. One vessel, the Gloucester, had “thrown overboard two-thirds of their complement, and of those that remained alive scarcely any were capable of doing duty, except the officers and their servants.” 

Finally, in June the remaining vessels reached Juan Fernandez Island, off the coast of Chile, their predetermined rendezvous point. 5 For survivors, the island was Paradise. “These vegetables with the fish and the flesh we found here,” Anson recalled, “were most salutary for recovering our sick, and of no mean service to us who were well, in destroying the lurking seeds of scurvy and in restoring us to our wonted strength.” The men gorged themselves on fruit, breaking off teeth in the first produce they’d eaten in months, enjoyed massive crayfish and other seafood.

Slowly, painfully, the survivors recovered. “To our great mortification,” one survivor recalled, “it was near twenty days after their landing, before the mortality was tolerably ceased; and for the first ten or twelve days, we buried rarely less than six each day, and many of those who survived recovered by very slow and insensible degrees.” The crew still needed to repair their ships; whether or not they succeeded on their mission, they needed to survive. And Anson planned to succeed.

Upon recovery, Anson resumed his mission. For several months he prowled the Pacific coast of Mexico and intercepting Spanish treasure ships, soon becoming weighted down with gold and silver. Many of the captured Spaniards were press-ganged into serving on Anson’s ships, supplementing his losses. In March 1742, as Anson prepared to resume his voyage to Asia, the ocean became becalmed, the vessels’ progress slowed and scurvy resumed with a vengeance. Surgeon Thomas quickly exhausted his supply of Ward’s Drop and Pill, which was just as well; malnourished, dying sailors weren’t helped by bloody diarrhea and constant urination.

Still the fleet sailed westward, with Anson determining to reach not Manilla but Canton, China, where the East India Company maintained a trading post. The results were predictable: the men continued dying “like rotten sheep,” with the Centurion‘s losses increased to ten men a day. Overloaded with treasure and with few able-bodied men, all of Anson’s vessels took leaks which the crew couldn’t repair; this added to the misery of those suffering below decks. They were forced to scuttle most of their ships. In August, Anson abandoned the Gloucester, which only had 27 crew members left alive. After the survivors looted the vessel’s alcohol, a ship once described as “the beauty of the English navy” was beached on a remote island and burned.

By the end of August, the Centurion finally spied the island of Tinian in the Marianas. They were the only ship to reach this point, and even they’d been reduced to a mere handful of sailors, three-quarters starved and bleeding from wounds and sores. “Had we stayed ten days longer at sea,” Lieutenant Phillip Sauremarez commented, “we should have lost the ship for want of men to navigate her.” Anson’s men indulged in another bacchanalia; for weeks, they lounged around the island, until they’d eaten enough fruit, vegetables and fresh fish to recover. Before they finally left the island, Anson ordered the hold of the Centurion stuffed with oranges.

The vessel reached the port of Macao, owned by Portugal, several months later where Anson finally contracted for proper repairs. Any hope of capturing the Philippines or destroying the Spanish treasure fleet had long since been bled or excreted into the Pacific Ocean. Anson received some consolation in April 1743 when he engaged the Spanish galleon Covadonga in the Philippine Sea, managing to defeat the vessel and take its crew prisoner. Anson returned to Macao as a victor, selling the vessel and its treasure for a handsome sum of money.

Anson finally arrived in England in 1744. He was hailed as a great military hero, promoted to Admiral and his exploits celebrated throughout the realm. Anson, however, entertained few delusions about his experiences. Of the 1,854 men he’d had when leaving Portsmouth, fewer than 200 survived (that number, no doubt, was augmented by sailors recruited in Macao or conscripted along the Mexican coast). Anson forced England’s authorities to confront the shortcomings in their commissary departments, and pressed for further research into curing scurvy – a chronic, wasting illness which had proven more lethal than a cocktail of communicable diseases.6

Dr. James Lind

Yet even after Anson’s return, skepticism about scurvy’s origins lingered; such accounts, however graphic and detailed, were labeled anecdotal by medical professionals. Finally, in 1747 Dr. James Lind conducted the first controlled experiments on victims of scurvy, feeding 12 stricken sailors lemons, oranges and citrus which quickly restored them to health. Within a few years of Lind’s discovery, the Royal Navy began outfitting its vessels with some combination of citrus fruits, sauerkraut or even alcohol enhanced with Vitamin C.

The British finally succeeded in conquering scurvy – though it took decades of study and thousands of lives to reach that point. One could say that if they’d listened to Native Americans, or even the hated French, they could have prevented disasters like Anson’s voyage. But Anson and his contemporaries needn’t have delved into history; they only needed to pay attention to other, contemporary voyages. It’s hard to sit in judgment on Anson’s vitriol and quack pills, however, when millions of modern people believe that a deadly virus can be cure by ingesting bleach. Medical ignorance, willful or otherwise, dies hard.

Note: This article is mostly drawn from Stephen R. Bown, Scurvy: How a Surgeon, a Mariner, and a Gentlemen Solved the Greatest Medical Mystery of the Age of Sail (2005). For the Cartagena de Indias campaign I relied on Geoffrey Regan’s Snafu: Great American Military Disasters (1993).