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Exploration at Sea; Diet during

The standard of food on ships at sea was a serious problem for many centuries, only really improving when it was realised that lack of vitamin C caused scurvy, and when the carrying and topping-up of fresh fruit and vegetables en route became possible.

Typical shipboard menus consisted largely of dried or salted meat, salt fish, biscuit, rice, cheese, onions, garlic oil, vinegar, dried peas, wine and water. In good times, seamen ate about 3500 calories a day, but times were not always good. A chronicle of Magellan"s Pacific crossing records some grim facts:

"We ate old biscuits reduced to powder, and full of grubs, and stinking from the dirt which rats had made on it when eating the good biscuit, and we drank water that was yellow and stinking. We also ate ox hides which were under the mainyards so that the yard should not break the rigging . . . also the sawdust of wood, and rats".

Grain and ship"s biscuit (hardtack) became sour and swarmed with weevils on many a ship, but even worse were the horrors of scurvy. With no refrigeration, it was virtually impossible to keep supplies of fresh fruit aboard ship for the weeks and months that sailing ships carried men out of sight of land.

Scurvy struck hardest on the route to India; on a passage to India it was considered lucky if only one out of five men died of the dreaded disease. Part of the trouble being that seamen were often undernourished before leaving land. One contemporary account, written by a survivor, pulls no punches:

"It rotted all my gums, which gave out a black and putrid blood. My thighs and lower legs were black and gangrenous, and I was forced to use my knife each day to cut into the flesh in order to release this black and foul blood. I also used my knife on my gums, which were livid and growing over my teeth. When I cut away this dead flesh and caused much black blood to flow, I rinsed my mouth and teeth with my urine, rubbing them very hard . . . And the unfortunate thing was that I could not eat, desiring more to swallow than to chew. Many of our people died of it every day, and we saw bodies thrown into the sea constantly, three or four at a time. For the most part they died with no aid given them, expiring behind some case or chest, their eyes and the soles of their feet away by the rats".

So while the Spanish and Portuguese planted citrus fields everywhere they landed, and the Dutch (and later Captain Cook) carried barrels of sauerkraut as an antiscorbutic, this nutritional deficiency disease, for centuries, proved as effective a barrier to sea exploration as gravity was to become to space exploration.

As mentioned earlier, seamen were often on the verge of scurvy even before they left port, having symptoms the English called "Winter Rash". To combat this, Elizabethan"s drank verjuice, usually made from crab apples or grapes, with the addition of oranges - if they were available.

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