We all know that scurvy was an unpleasant affliction, that particularly hit sailors in the 16th to 18th centuries, but it’s hard to be prepared for the sheer horror of this blight of the seas as presented graphically in Stephen Bown’s often gripping history of the disease and its cure.
Not only does Bown gives a vivid picture of the horrible nature of the disease itself, from rotting gums to the joints in old broken bones re-opening, but perhaps the biggest shock is the inhuman approach the authorities of the time took to seamen. We hear of Admiral Anson’s voyage in the 1740s where the crew of over 2,000 men on a flotilla of six ships was reduced to more like 200 on their return, largely by the impact of scurvy. In itself this was horrible, but at the time Anson set sail there were a shortage of able seamen – the solution? Just drag the elderly invalids from the Chelsea Hospital (for retired injured servicemen) and throw them on board. The practice at the time was to carry up to half as many men again as were required, on the assumption that a sizeable percentage would die en route.
These ships, Bown tells us, were riddled with disease. The food started off bad, and ended up inedible – the best tasting thing in the ship’s hold after a few months at sea were the rats. And though it was recognized what a cost scurvy presented to the navy (after all, if enough men died, the fleet might lose a valuable warship), the attempts at curing it were initially pitiful.
Bown leads us through some of the biggest scurvy disasters, the early attempts at curing it and the painful realization of what was required to prevent it. Along the way we meet characters like James Cook, and his unrivalled scurvy-free voyages, and see how Britain’s final realization of how to get scurvy under control influenced the aquatic defeat of Napoleon.
One of the most interesting reflections is the way that individuals realized that the fresh fruit and vegetables, and citrus juices, were helping, but the majority of “experts” didn’t notice, happier to go for odd (and non-functioning) cures like sea water, mostly because they were cheap and practical. There was even an early clinical trial in the 1700s, but the outcome was ignored. (To be fair, like many early attempts at science, it wasn’t a very good trial – see John Waller’s Leaps in the Dark for details of the flaws in early scientific experiments like this.) Time and time again it seems to us it should have been obvious to everyone what to do – but no, off they went again on some other peculiar and useless attempt.
Mostly Bown’s book is very readable, and brings the atmosphere of the time on ship alive in a way that can almost be cut with a knife. The only fault is a tendency to repeat the symptoms more than is needed – and a first few chapters before he settles into storytelling where he tells us once or twice what he’s then about to tell us again – but that’s bearable. In the end it’s the people and the story of the final realization of what’s happening, of a tiny outbreak of science in what had been a matter of habit and guesswork, that leads to Bown’s subtitle “How a Surgeon, a Mariner and a Gentleman helped Britain win the Battle of Trafalgar” – and when he’s showing us those people in action, Bown does a great job.