Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Scurvy knaves

Like most people, I learned the cautionary tales about scurvy as a child: how, before the nineteenth century, sailors, and sometimes even aristocrats, would develop symptoms moving from loss of appetite to skin spots, bleeding gums, loss of teeth and hair and eventual horrible death - and how various heroes, chiefly Captain Cook, solved the problem by prescribing such unsavoury diets as (depending on which children's book you read) a lemon a month, a raw onion a month or (which seems to have been more accurate) a regular dose of sauerkraut. No wonder Jellicoe couldn't beat the German navy.

But now, from a lovely book by Karen Ordahl Kupperman* on a forgotten, doomed colonial venture (the Puritan-sponsored colony on Providence Island, off the Honduran coast, from 1630-41) I learn about an alternative, earlier cure. A scandal arose in the colony in 1634, when a man named Floud, an indentured servant to Captain William Rudyerd, the colony's muster-master, was discovered to have died following a truly vicious whipping. Indentured servants were Englishmen and not slaves: you weren't supposed to do that sort of thing. The accusation was that Floud had complained to the colony's governor about the mistreatment he had already suffered at Captain Rudyerd's hands, provoking the further 'discipline' which killed him.

But Captain Rudyerd had an explanation: it was not a punishment at all. Floud, apparently, was developing scurvy (like many of the colonists). The whipping was intended as treatment.

The point is that one of scurvy's first symptoms is lethargy and difficulty in movement, later exacerbated by painful joints. At least, that's the way round we put it nowadays. Apparently many in the 17th century, perfectly logically, reversed the causation: scurvy is simply an extreme form of laziness, in which the moral defect has become so severe that the body breaks down. When you have a lazy servant, then, rigorously correcting his fault will both ensure you are better served, and also potentially save his life by reintroducing him to the virtues of hard labour. Rudyerd explained that he had 'used all fair means to prevent the Scurvy which through laziness was seizing upon him'.

In this case, the treatment was successful but the patient died. Whether this regime of treatment was more or less popular with victims than was sauerkraut is a subject on which we clearly need further research.

*Karen Ordahl Kupperman, Providence Island 1630-41: The Other Puritan Colony (Cambridge, 1993), p. 157.

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating. I'm halfway through my second re-read of Patrick O'Brien's Aubrey/Maturin chronicles, which have as you might imagine plenty of scurvy, eating of strange sea-cabbage and also a certain amount of the lash - but I don't think it's ever suggested that the last of those is a cure for the first! At least one can be fairly confident that Jack Aubrey would have voted Tory but not UKIP...

    [Bother, I thought Google would identify me - this is Hazel Rothera btw]