Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Tools Of The Trade: Limey

Scurvy is one of those words that just naturally brings sailors to mind. Lazy writers and reenactors of the piratical variety invariable pepper their prose and speech with the word, generally using it as if it were an adjective. Your humble hostess was called a "scurvy dog" by not one but two ersatz pirate wenches at the local Renaissance Faire last spring. Both received a large dose of privateer shut-the-hell-up. I'm sure there's no need to elaborate.

If history is looked at carefully, however, we find that it is exactly because of sailors and their physicians that the cause of and cure for scurvy was rediscovered at the end of the 18th century. In the U.S. alone it took the Army until 1878 to ensure that their doctors knew the symptoms of scurvy and what to do about it once it was diagnosed. The Navy had that handled before 1810. Let's hope the military is a little more forthcoming with one another in this modern age.
During the American Revolution, Royal Navy physician Sir Gilbert Blane (pictured above) was aboard a ship of war on the Jamaica station and many of his mates were afflicted with scurvy. The disease typically manifests itself through small hemorrhages on the skin, spongy, painful and bleeding gums that can lead to tooth loss, foul breath and a general listlessness that eventually becomes exhaustion. Death is inevitable without treatment. It's a true misery, and Dr. Blane was at his wits end.

Then the "ah-ha" moment came in the form of a fabled capture of a prize. The ship - an American merchant according to the unverifiable story - was jam packed with limes. Blane used these to dose his patients, adding it to their water. The men recovered in that miraculous way that scurvy patients will once their bodies get some vitamin C and Blane knew what to do. He published his findings in his book Observations on the Diseases of Seamen in 1785. By the inception of the U.S. Navy in 1794, all major navies were routinely mixing their grog or water with some form of citrus fruit.

The whole "prize full of limes" story may be apocryphal, but the humorous point to my mind is which fruit was favored by whom. The British, of course, stuck with limes. They were easy for the Empire to obtain, both in the West Indies and India, and British sailors at first and eventually Brits in general became "limeys" to most of the world. The French, notoriously snotty about doing anything the English way, chose lemons. Americans embraced cranberry juice. The bonus there was it's benefits for the bladder.

Interestingly, pirates and privateers were almost never hit with scurvy at sea. Their cruises tended to be short; six months was a long time for a privateer and unheard of for a small pirate sloop. The major campaigns of men like L'Olonnais and Morgan were pursued by land, with their ships being mostly a way to get back and forth from home port to the target town. Circumnavigation like that undertaken by Drake was rare for freebooters. If a pirate got scurvy, it was his dietary choices and not any prolonged lack of available fruits or vegetables that caused it.

So no more of that "scurvy" business if you please, Brethren. It's unbecoming at the least and decidedly inaccurate from an historical perspective. Especially if you're a pirate. I'm looking at you, wenches.


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! “I had scurvy once.”
Ha! No danger of that happening given the amount of citrus fruit I consume... Interesting post though, and funny how it was the navy sailors who were more likely to be "scurvy dogs" than pirates or privateers. So, I get why the British are called "limeys" and I'm guessing the French are called "frogs" for eating frogs legs. I guess that's better than some deriviative of lemons. And us Yanks could be called "berries" or "crannies" too, I guess. Yankees doesn't seem so bad by comparison, does it Pirate Queen?

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! I am damn certain the world has far worse terms for us than Yankee so yeah; even a Southern girl can appreciate the Yankee moniker now and again. But it still means "New Englander" to this Louisiana Creole.

Timmy! said...

"So the Yank says, "Remember the Alamo!" And chucks out the Mexican"...