Thursday, May 20, 2010

Vitamins and health aboard ship

Blackcurrant fruits.

Did you know? We take it for granted that citrus fruits like oranges and limes from our local supermarkets and groceries provide us with a daily morning drink and vitamin C. But before it was discovered that lemons, limes, and blackcurrants contain a potent substance called anti-scorbutic acid good for promoting healthy skin and gums in cases of poor nutrition, sailors and crew on ships long at sea were in danger of loosing their lives to the disease called scurvy.

Several books have been written about this powerfully devastating disease, and may be popular in Great Britain's history, as it directly affected exploratory voyages and naval excursions. The back cover of our featured book states, "During the Age of Sail, scurvy was responsible for more deaths at sea than war, piracy, storms and shipwreck combined".


The Age of Scurvy: How a Surgeon, a Mariner and a Gentleman helped Britain win the Battle of Trafalgar. by Stephen Bown. Summersdale Press, 2005. ISBN 1 84024 402 X

If as a sailor or long-term traveller, you had contracted scurvy from a poor diet, your symptoms would have been pouchy gums, teeth that fell out, skin discoloration, lethargy and weakness, and finally, death. The British were probably first to discover, during long voyages of the 17th and 18th centuries, that drinking the juice of citrus fruits could delay the horrors of scurvy and maintain relative health aboard. These fruits were found on expeditions to the South Pacific where citrus fruits are native.

Explanation of terms used:
Scurvy, a disease caused by a deficiency of vitamin C, was very prevalent at sea between the 16th and 19th centuries owing to the difficulty of preserving fresh fruits and vegetables. It usually became apparent after about six weeks on salt provisions. It became a common ailment when long voyages began in the 16th century and continued until passages were shortened in the age of steam, and canned vegetables became available.” --- p. 763 Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea, edited by Peter Kemp. Oxford University Press, 1976.

Blackcurrant: name of a kind of berry native to Great Britain and other Northern European countries.

Web sites of interest:
The author Stephen Bown’s site is available here.
Wikipedia's article on Blackcurrants.
The Black Currant Foundation.
History of Scurvy by Jonathan Lamb.

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