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The Mapmakers: An Essay in Four Parts
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Scurvy: Scourge of the Voyagers

Mariners have always been confronted by risks and hazards -- disaster could come from uncharted reefs, fire on board, or shifts in the wind. In the 15th century, long-distance sea voyages introduced a new set of dangers. So long as seafaring had been limited to short-distance voyages, the quality of shipboard provisions mattered little, but once mariners undertook voyages that lasted months at a time, problems arose from poorly preserved food and from diets that lacked essential vitamins. As a result, thousands of seafarers died before these problems were solved.

Shipboard diet was invariably boring -- hardtack, salt meats, dried peas, dried fish, butter, cheese and fresh water or beer were typical staples -- but mariners generally received sufficient food to meet their daily caloric requirements. The problem was not the quantity of food but its quality. Shipboard provisions were preserved by being salted, pickled, dried or smoked, but even these methods could not prevent food from spoiling over time. This, combined with poor hygiene and sanitation, crowded shipboard conditions, and vermin, meant that sailors often fell victim to diseases like the "bloody fluxe" (dysentery), "ship fever" (typhus, spread by lice), and typhoid. No one understood the micro-organisms that caused these diseases, but sailors had no difficulty blaming meat that was putrefying, water that stank with algae, and biscuit infested with weevils. The quality of food was a common source of complaint among mariners through the ages.

Image: Title page of the French translation of Lind's "Treatise on the Scurvy"

One malady that killed sailors by the score was caused not by what was in the food but by what was not. Scurvy, caused by a lack of Vitamin C, was the great killer of mariners on long oceanic voyages. During his voyage to India in 1497-98, Vasco da Gama lost two-thirds of his men to scurvy. Two hundred and fifty years later, Commodore Anson lost over half of his nearly two thousand men during a four-year voyage. Mariners recognized that scurvy was somehow linked to their diet, but they did not understand how. Was it a lack of fresh meat? Fresh vegetables? Why did some foods help, while others did not?

As early as 1535, Jacques Cartier learned from Native people in Canada that a brew made from some evergreen bark and foliage would cure scurvy. By 1601, others had discovered that lemons were very effective against the disease. Still, it was not until James Lind conducted detailed tests in the late 1740s that the value of citrus fruit began to be scientifically recognized. Even then, decades passed before sailors could be convinced to change their diets -- James Cook himself thought sauerkraut was better than lemons for safeguarding the health of his men -- and the problem of scurvy persisted well into the 18th century.

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