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.

scurvy :: longitude :: bonny :: pittsburgh

• • •

1. Scurvy, bane of sailors, 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, malaise sets in, teeth fall out, mucous membranes bleed, and just to make it more horrifying, old wounds reopen, because 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. One notable land-based example comes from 13th-century crusaders. During lent, they refrained from eating meat, except for eel. God punished their piousness with a scurvy outbreak so bad that “the barber surgeons were forced to cut away the dead flesh from the gums to enable the people to masticate their food.” But they also got a free haircut in the process.

The eel-based anecdote is relevant because the crusaders made the not-illogical assumption that eels were responsible for the sickness, which turns out to be just one in a long, long list of bad assumptions about the nature of scurvy (a nutritional deficiency) and its cure (vitamin C). Those bad assumptions 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 would prevent scurvy, yet late 1800s Antarctic expeditions were beset by scurvy. The cure was lost.

Folk cures for scurvy have long been recognized. All the way back in 1500 BC, the Egyptian treatment for scurvy was eating onions (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, though 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. I’m not even going to tell you what Magellan did.

In 1747 British naval surgeon James Lind conducted a controlled experiment—by some accounts the first clinical trial. 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. But once the navy finally acted, British ships could stay at sea indefinitely, making their navy an unstoppable force, and causing them to turn the whole of Sicily into a lemon-growing operation.

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? I read a book about the London cholera outbreaks, and it talked about how before we knew germs caused disease, we thought foul-smelling air was the culprit (the miasma theory). On this basis, people made efforts to not live literally on top of their own sewage, which was good. Unfortunately, by following the belief that the smell was all that mattered, they dumped their sewage in the Thames, which was bad. The point, I guess, is that 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 that same type of misdirected induction. For example, an early belief was that acidity mattered, so in the mid-1850s when Britain’s colonization made it cheaper to get highly-acidic Caribbean limes, they opted for those, without realizing they had much less vitamin C than the lemons (an amount reduced further by exposure to open air and copper piping). Scurvy should have started reappearing…except it didn’t, because ships were faster thanks to steam power, and nutrition was better so scurvy took longer to set in.

Scott's expedition
Scott’s expedition

Then, all of a sudden, you had Arctic expeditions beset by scurvy, and infants coming down with it. Interspersed with that, a stranded icebound Arctic expedition went scurvy-free for three years, subsisting on a diet of fresh polar bear meat. And with the germ theory of disease having come to prominence in the interim, suddenly came the idea that scurvy was not a nutritional deficiency but a sort of long-term food poisoning caused by “germs” in poorly canned/preserved meat. Lime juice did prevent scurvy, they said, but only because the acidity killed those germs. Even by 1903 this theory held sway, and Antarctic expeditions were being careful to take only the highest-quality canned meats (didn’t work, they got scurvy). Same in 1910 (scurvy avoided because they ate fresh penguin meat).

Somehow the cure had been…not lost, really, but transmogrified; churned through a mill of bad assumptions and false inductions until it was no longer a cure at all, 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.



2. Four Royal Navy warships sank off the Isles of Scilly in October 1707, at a cost of up to 1400 sailors. Two aspects of the disaster: first, the commander of the vessels was Sir Cloudesley Shovell, which, great name. Second, the ships had run off-course because navigators were unable to precisely reckon the fleet’s longitude (they weren’t alone; no one could at the time). In 1714, Parliament passed the Longitude Act, which offered an inflation-adjusted £3 million for anyone who devised a reliable way to measure it. All that’s required is a really, really accurate and stable clock, one that won’t be affected by time at sea, oxidizing salt air, and the motion of the ocean.

That’s easier said than done; clockmaker John Harrison took about a half-century to finalize his chronometer (though 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 eventually got some money, but not the official prize. The “Board of Longitude” was then helmed by Nevil Maskelyne, an ideologically provincial jag who hemmed, hawed, and cast aspersions at Harrison—just to further his own, shittier method for longitude calculation (based on lunar positions).There’s a good, brief book on the entire affair. Also a movie. With Jeremy Irons!

Harrison's chronometer
Harrison’s chronometer


3. The “Golden Age of Piracy”—golden, I assume, for the pirates and not the plundered—lasted from somewhere around 1680 to somewhere around 1730. Of the notable 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 prior pardon of Rackham. Rather than blowing up the affair, Bonny and Rackham took off for the Caribbean, where she joined his crew. No records exist of the child.

Bonny’s repute as the lone lady pirate—and also her total ruthlessness—lent street cred to Rackham, who was otherwise a two-bit hustler by pirate standards (Rackham’s modern claim to fame is his use of the Jolly Roger flag). Actually, Rackham’s crew included another woman pirate, Mary Read. Read occasionally dressed in men’s clothing, although her almost-assuredly-apocryphal legend holds that the crew was none the wiser until Bonny tried to seduce her, discovered her secret, and the two became lovers.

Bonny and Read

After being captured, Rackham and his crew were 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.” That is cold as ice. 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 assigned 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 her children) is unknown. Read here for more, it’s an interesting story.


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”. The name stuck.

In 1891, the United States Board on Geographic Names mandated all US “burghs” (Scottish suffix) become “burgs” (German suffix). For two decades, the town (and team) was 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 (cowed by a wave of pro-Scottish fervor, I’m guessing). The -burgh even stuck through WWI, when we called sauerkraut “liberty cabbage” just to avoid even the faintest whiff of Teutonophilia. 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 (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 who was at the time squaring off against William Jennings Bryan for the presidency. The namer chose McKinley, a backer of the gold standard, only because he disliked silver miners (Bryan supported the silver standard).


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