Why Did Pirates Get Scurvy?

Scurvy, an ailment caused by a lack of vitamin C, is often associated with 17th-century pirates. Pirates had a relatively difficult life at sea, but scurvy made voyages even more challenging as it caused debilitating symptoms. But why did so many pirates fall victim to this easily curable illness?

Pirates got scurvy due to the lack of fruits and vegetables. This lack led to a serious vitamin C deficiency. The condition caused a plethora of symptoms, from severe joint pain to blotchy skin. If left untreated, scurvy was fatal. It killed over two million pirates from 1492 to the mid-1800s.

This article examines pirates’ diets during the Golden Age of Piracy to explain why so many sailors suffered from this debilitating condition. It also describes how pirates prevented scurvy after Dr. James Lind discovered a connection between two common fruits and a decline in symptoms. Finally, the article briefly talks about common causes of death among pirates and scurvy’s role in these deaths.

The Pirate Diet and Prevalence of Scurvy

The beginning of a pirate’s voyage was usually lighthearted and carefree. Their meals were hearty, plentiful, and well-balanced, featuring various ingredients, including fresh meats, fruits, vegetables, and eggs. They had rum, ale, and beer in ample quantities, and they were once again off to sail the beautiful, though tumultuous, sea.

However, after several weeks at sea, their provisions ran low. Fresh food spoiled, so the crew had to rely on other non-perishable food items, such as:

  • Hardtack
  • Salted meats
  • Dried beans
  • Dried peas
  • Hard cheeses

Hardtack, also referenced among pirates as “ship’s biscuit,” was a hard, flour-and-water dough cracker that could stay “fresh” for decades if kept dry.[1] Salted meats hardly resembled what we know as meat. The dried beans and peas provided fiber but weren’t very palatable.

They might use hard cheeses with their hardtack to make it taste better, but still, it was nothing compared to the lavish meals they’d have early on. 

To make up for the lack of healthy foods aboard the ship, pirates would eat fish, sea turtles, and other sea creatures. When docked, they could pick fruits and vegetables or hunt and keep live animals aboard for butchering later on.

William Dampier is a great example of a pirate who made do with the provisions around him. The pirate and explorer was the first Englishman in Australia in 1699. While there, he observed strange plants and animals and indulged in various foods of the land, from cashews to ostrich eggs and flamingoes to kumquat.[2]

Unfortunately, the majority of pirates didn’t have the luxury of a diet as varied as Dampier’s. This is especially true in cases of shipwrecked or stranded crews or those visiting areas where food was scarce. In these situations, pirates suffered from malnutrition, particularly vitamin C deficiency.

Today, we know that vitamin C deficiencies lead to scurvy, often resulting in a gruesome death if left untreated.

Pirates and Scurvy Symptoms

The lack of fruits and vegetables onboard pirate ships led to a variety of symptoms among the crew. Symptoms were often debilitating and intense and included:

  • Extreme fatigue
  • Swollen, sore gums
  • Loss of teeth
  • Swollen, bruised legs
  • Painful joints
  • Putrid breath
  • Splotchy skin from internal hemorrhage

Because, at the time, no one knew the cause of scurvy, millions of pirates died as a result of this condition.[3]

How Did Pirates Prevent Scurvy?

The majority of pirates, especially during the Golden Age of Piracy, knew little about the cause of scurvy. In fact, it wasn’t until after the Golden Age of Piracy had ended that Dr. James Lind discovered the cure for scurvy.[4]

In 1747, Dr. Lind was aboard a naval ship when several crewmates fell ill. He made it his mission to heal the mysterious ailment, prescribing various treatments, including seawater drinking, sulfuric acid gargling, and citrus fruit eating. 

Dr. Lind found that the pirates who had consumed citrus fruits felt better within a week, whereas the other sailors noted an increase in symptoms. Based on this information, he surmised that it was the citrus fruits that cured the condition. After his discovery, sailors, and pirates finally knew how to prevent the once devastating illness.

Pirates prevented scurvy by consuming lime juice during voyages when citrus fruits were in short supply. Lime juice is stored longer than fresh fruits and provided enough vitamin C to prevent the devastating effects of scurvy. The consumption of lime juice led to the nickname “limey” for sailors.

What Was The Most Common Cause of Death for Pirates?

The life of a pirate was rife with danger, and injuries and ailments were common. Some of the causes included:

  • Infections – Ships were notorious for their unsanitary conditions. Pirates often wore the same clothes for the entire voyage and hardly cleaned themselves.
  • Dehydration – Pirates rarely stored large amounts of fresh water onboard, as it often went slimy and rancid in casks after a couple of days.
  • Flu, dysentery, tuberculosis, and other contagious illnesses – Living in such close quarters allowed illnesses to spread quickly among shipmates.
  • Accidents – All work on a ship was completed by the crewmates, and safety wasn’t a concern back then. There were no harnesses, platforms, or gear to wear when climbing the rigging, heaving around the capstan, or stowing the sails.
  • Raids – Pirates invaded ports and other ships — that was the purpose of their voyages, after all. Needless to say, there were cannon blasts, gunfire, and other combat-related injuries that could severely maim or even kill the swashbucklers. 

However, scurvy killed more pirates than any other condition.[5] It’s estimated that scurvy claimed the lives of more than two million sailors from 1492 to the mid-1800s. The devastating illness ultimately took more pirate lives than hurricanes, water spouts, shipwrecks, raids, and all other diseases combined.

Do People Still Get Scurvy Today?

People still get scurvy today, even in developed nations. Though it’s relatively uncommon, it usually occurs among the elderly or those with limited diets. According to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, up to 14 percent of adults had a vitamin C deficiency in 1994.[6]

Unlike during the Golden Age of Piracy, hospitals and doctors’ offices now have testing procedures that can easily confirm the diagnosis of a low vitamin C level. To cure the ailment, doctors add vitamin C to the patient’s diet. Most people feel better within two days and most recover after 14 days.[7]

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