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In the mid-19th century, life at sea was not for the faint-hearted. Many ships fell victim to storms, were sunk in combat or were marooned on rocks and reefs.

However, one of the biggest problems for sailors at the time HMB Endeavour set sail was scurvy—the plague of the sea.

This disease was so lethal that it is estimated to have killed more than two million sailors until the mid-19th century. More sailors in the English Navy died from scurvy than battle, storms and shipwrecks combined.

Symptoms and causes of scurvy

Scurvy can cause a number of symptoms such as sore joints, fever, ulcers, blotchy skin, night blindness, poor appetite, slow healing wounds, rotting gums and loose teeth. If left untreated, it can lead to death through infection and bleeding.

In the 18th century, no one knew the cause of scurvy. Sometimes, it was mistaken for other diseases including leprosy and dysentery.

Preventing it was largely guesswork during the time of the Endeavour voyage. However, with the advances in science and modern medicine, we now know it is caused by a lack of vitamin C and is easily preventable.

In Cook’s time, while a sailor’s diet of salted meat, salted fish, cheese, butter, rancid oil, biscuits and dried vegetables had enough calories, it did not have enough vitamin C. This essential vitamin comes largely from fresh fruit and vegetables, so scurvy was a major problem for those at sea for long periods.

18th Century medical science

British naval surgeon and physician, James Lind (1716–1794), was the leader when it came to working out preventions and treatments for scurvy. In 1747, he conducted experiments on HMS Salisbury through controlled trial, perhaps the first in medical science. He selected sailors with scurvy and tested different remedies.

Lind tested six treatments: cider, elixir of vitriol (sulphuric acid), vinegar, purging by sea water, a medicinal paste (garlic, dried mustard seed, dried radish root, balsam of Peru, and gum myrrh) and citrus fruit (oranges and lemons).

Oranges and lemons were the only things that worked to treat scurvy in two very lucky sailors.

Lind published a book in 1753 about his study and findings, called A Treatise on the Scurvy.

Photograph of the portrait of James Lind by Sir George Chalmers (painted approx. 1783), from the James Lind Library.
Caption: Photograph of the portrait of James Lind by Sir George Chalmers (painted approx. 1783), from the James Lind Library.

Cook’s prevention measures

For the Endeavour voyage, Cook based his scurvy prevention measures on what Lind found. He tested different drinks and foods on the crew. He also insisted they wash themselves and their possessions, and exercise on the open deck regularly.

Cook told the ship’s cook, John Thompson to feed the crew sauerkraut (preserved, fermented vegetables like cabbage), onions and lime juice to fight scurvy.

However, crew health was not all down to Cook and the food. Sir Joseph Banks, the botanist who accompanied Cook on the voyage, used his knowledge of botany to help protect against scurvy. In his journal, Banks records a likely example and the treatment,

‘Tupia complaind this evening of swelld Gums; he had it seems had his mouth sore for near a fortnight, but not knowing what cause it proceeded from did not complain. The Surgeon immediately put him upon taking extract of Lemons in all his drink.’

Banks also harvested fresh, local greens from the various ports and places where they landed. When they left Botany Bay, Banks recorded that they ate stingray and ‘had with it a dish of the leaves of tetragonia cornuta boild’, in other words boiled warrigal greens, which he described as almost as good as spinach.

‘Bread fruit’, watercolour, possibly by Sydney Parkinson. Circa 1769. The crew of the Endeavour ate this fruit in Tahiti, which would have helped to ward off scurvy. https://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-135498865/view
Caption: ‘Bread fruit’, watercolour, possibly by Sydney Parkinson. Circa 1769. The crew of the Endeavour ate this fruit in Tahiti, which would have helped to ward off scurvy. https://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-135498865/view

It was this combination of preserved and fresh green foods that kept the crew almost completely scurvy free.

While scurvy did appear among sailors on Cook's long sea voyages, not one sailor died of scurvy.

It was not until 1795 that lime juice was given to all sailors in the English Royal Navy as a way to prevent scurvy—giving British sailors the nickname 'Limeys'.