high seas trivia roundup

Load your blunderbuss, hide your doubloons, and swab your poopdeck: it’s time for some high seas scuttlebutt in the trivia roundup.

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1. Scurvy is gross: it reduces “the body to a bloated yellow carcass daubed with purple, red, and green blotches.” Caused by a deficit of vitamin C, which helps produce collagen, the effects are horrifying: malaise sets in, teeth fall out, mucous membranes bleed, and old wounds reopen when the collagen in the scar tissue dissolves. And then you die.

Scurvy was known to the ancient Greeks and Egyptians, but was rare until long seafaring voyages became common (for Europeans) in the Middle Ages. But it could appear even on land. During the 13th century, crusaders refrained from eating meat during lent, with one exception: eel. Eel lacks vitamin C, and God punished their piousness with a scurvy outbreak so acute that “the barber surgeons were forced to cut away the dead flesh from the gums to enable the people to masticate their food.”

The eel-based anecdote is just one in a long line of historical bad assumptions about the nature of scurvy and its cure. The crusaders made the not-illogical assumption that eels were causing the sickness; they were missing how the real cause was what they weren’t eating. Bad assumptions and false leads kept people dying of scurvy for nearly 150 years after the cure was known. By the late 1700s, it was known that daily lemon juice rations could prevent scurvy, and yet late 1800s Antarctic expeditions were beset by it.


The history of scurvy is one of folk cures. Back in 1500 BC, the Egyptian treatment for scurvy was eating onions—which probably worked; onions are high in vitamin C. 16th-century Native Americans fed Cartier’s scurvy-ridden crew a curative drink made from white cedar. By 1593 a British naval doctor was recommending lemons and oranges as treatment, echoed several times in succeeding decades. Not everyone was on the right track: Vasco da Gama tried to cure it by ordering his men to gargle their own urine. It didn’t work, and I’m not even going to tell you what Magellan did.

In 1747 British naval surgeon James Lind conducted a controlled experiment on scurvy. By some accounts, this is the first clinical trial ever: he fed different diets to a group of 12 men suffering from scurvy, noting that those who improved had eaten oranges and lemons. Unfortunately, it took fifty years for the navy to add lemon juice to sailors’ rations, probably in part because Lind was too young to be taken seriously. Thousands of sailors died owing to this foot-dragging. And once they acted on Lind’s advice, British ships could stay at sea indefinitely, making their navy an unstoppable force and causing them to turn the entirety of Sicily into a lemon-growing colony.

Curing scurvy by force
Curing scurvy by force

Scurvy was cured! Except it wasn’t: an 1875 Arctic expedition was felled by scurvy, much to the embarrassment of a nation that thought it was a relic. So was an expedition in 1903. Around this time, upper-class children began developing scurvy, because they were being fed then-new pasteurized milk, which had all the vitamin C boiled out of it.

So what happened? Before the germ theory of disease, the most common belief was that foul-smelling air caused sickness (the miasma theory). On this basis, people made efforts to not live literally on top of their own sewage, to avoid the smell. This was good for preventing disease, but they also assumed that the smell was all that mattered, and so dumped their sewage in the Thames. Which led to innumerable disease outbreaks. The point, I think, is that sometimes it can be very dangerous to be right, or almost right, but have the wrong explanation for why.

Scurvy treatments fell victim to both coincidence and misdirected induction. For example, an early belief was that acidity mattered. In the mid-1850s when colonization made it cheaper to get highly acidic Caribbean limes, the British navy switched to those, without realizing they had less vitamin C than lemons (an amount reduced further by exposure to open air and copper piping). Scurvy should have reappeared, but mostly didn’t: ships were faster thanks to steam power, and baseline nutrition levels were higher so scurvy took longer to set in. So no one really noticed that their primary scurvy-prevention technique wasn’t actually working.

Scott's expedition
Scott’s expedition

Then, all of a sudden, you had Arctic expeditions and infants beset by scurvy. An icebound Arctic expedition went scurvy-free for three years, subsisting on fresh polar bear meat. With germ theory of disease coming to prominence, suddenly came the idea that scurvy was not a nutritional deficiency, but a sort of long-term, low-grade food poisoning caused by the “germs” in poorly canned food. Lime juice prevented scurvy, scientists said, but only because the acidity killed those germs. Even in the early 1900s, this theory held sway, and Antarctic expeditions kept getting scurvy, 150 years after it had been cured.

Somehow the cure had been…not lost, really, but transmuted; churned through a mill of bad assumptions and false inductions until it wasn’t a cure anymore—like an ideological Theseus’ paradox about whether it’s the same boat once you replace all the parts. It wasn’t until 1932 that vitamin C was chemically isolated and its link to scurvy conclusively demonstrated. Multi Nobel-winner Linus Pauling would go on to some pretty bizarre ideas about the medicinal effects of massive doses of vitamin C, which he thought would cure cancer.

The history of scurvy is actually really interesting. Further reading here, here, and here.

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2. Four Royal Navy warships sank off the Isles of Scilly in October 1707, at a cost of up to 1400 sailors. Two relevant aspects of the calamity: first, the commander was Sir Cloudesley Shovell, which is a great name. Second, the ships ran off-course because navigators were unable to reckon the fleet’s longitude. They weren’t alone: no one could, at the time. So daunting was this challenge that seven years later, Parliament passed the Longitude Act, which offered an inflation-adjusted £3 million to whomever devised a reliable method of measurement.

The challenge was straightforward, in that everyone already knew how to measure longitude: it required only an accurate and stable clock. But the implementation was a problem: the clock had to be unaffected by time at sea, oxidizing salt air, and the motion of the ocean.

Clockmaker John Harrison took nearly half a century to finalize his chronometer (an early prototype sailed on the HMS Bounty—of mutiny fame—and ended up on Pitcairn Island with the survivors. The descendants are still there; the clock’s in a museum). Harrison was granted some money for his innovation, but was not given the prize. The “Board of Longitude” was them helmed by Nevil Maskelyne, an ideologically provincial jag who delayed and cast aspersions at Harrison, solely to further his own, worse method for calculating longitude based on lunar position. There’s a good, brief book on the entire affair, and even a movie. With Jeremy Irons!

Harrison's chronometer
Harrison’s chronometer

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3. The Golden Age of Piracy—golden, one assumes, for the pirates—lasted from about 1680 until about 1730. among the sundry pirates, privateers, buccaneers, scoundrels, scallywags, rapscallions, knaves, and picaroons populating the times was Anne Bonny, made famous by her gender and her appearance in Charles Johnson’s A General History of the Pyrates (Johnson was likely a pseudonym of Robinson Crusoe author Daniel Defoe).

Bonny’s path to piratehood sounds like something out of Dallas. The daughter of a wealthy merchant, she was disowned after marrying a milquetoast low-level quasi-governmental functionary who turned in pirates for reward money. The bored Anne somehow began an affair with the pirate “Calico Jack” Rackham and became pregnant. Her cuckolded husband then called in a favor from the governor, who revoked a pardon of Rackham. Rather than blowing up the affair, Bonny took off to the Caribbean, where she joined Rackham’s crew. No records exist of the child.

Bonny’s repute as a lady pirate and her total ruthlessness lent street cred to Rackham, who was essentially a two-bit hustler by pirate standard (about his only claim to fame is his use of the Jolly Roger flag). Rackham’s crew also included another woman pirate, Mary Read. Read occasionally dressed in men’s clothing; her almost assuredly mythical legend holds that the crew was none the of her genderbending until Bonny attempted to secude her, discovered her secret, and became her lover.

Bonny and Read

Rackham was eventually captured, and along with his crew sentenced to death by hanging and gibbeting. Before her ostensible lover was taken to the gallows, Bonny’s parting words were: “I’m sorry to see you here, but if you had fought like a man you need not have hanged like a dog.” She and Read were meant to suffer the same fate, but both were given a reprieve after revealing themselves to be pregnant (a provision of English common law called “pleading the belly,” superceded by the “Sentence of Death (Expectant Mothers) Act” of 1931, which required a “jury of matrons” to determine the legitimacy of the defendant’s pregnancy…those are all real things). Read died in prison a few months later. Bonny escaped the gallows, but her eventual fate, and that of any of her children is unknown. Read here for more, it’s an interesting story.

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4. The Pittsburgh baseball Pirates date to 1881ish, when they played in the American Association and were called the Alleghenys. Roundabouts 1887 they defected to the National League, signing away multiple American Association players in the process. Rival owners denounced the Alleghenys as “pirates,” and the name stuck.

In 1891, the US Board on Geographic Names mandated that all US “burghs” (Scottish suffix) become “burgs” (German suffix). For two decades afterward, both the town and the team were officially Pittsburg, which most denizens didn’t take kindly to. The Huns’ sphere of nominal influence lasted until 1911, when the board made Pittsburg Pittsburgh again, presumably cowed by a wave of pro-Scottish fervor. Remnants of the naming two-step are found in Pittsburg, KS and Pittsburg, CA, both named for the town that’s now got an H. Great Pirate player names include Arky Vaughan, Heinie Manush, Kiki Cuyler, Rabbit Maranville, and two of my all-time favorites, Pud Galvin and Burleigh Grimes, who was nicknamed Ol’ Stubblebeard.


Bonus naming dispute note: there’s debate about whether Mt. McKinley should be called McKinley or Denali. It was originally called McKinley after William McKinley, at the time running against William Jennings Bryan for the presidency. The namer, a backer of the gold standard, chose McKinley because he disliked silver miners; Bryan supported a “bimetallic” or silver standard.


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