by Greg McKenzie © Copyright 2016
Seals, Scurvy And Survival:Diet Secrets Of Ancient Cultures
Greg's articles

Seals, Scurvy And Survival: Diet Secrets Of Ancient Cultures (Part 2))

Vasco da Gama’s crew suffered a serious outbreak of it (scurvy) while exploring the African coast for Portugal in 1498. They were saved by Arab traders passing in a dhow who offered them oranges. Their recovery was swift but da Gama did not learn the lesson offered by these experienced voyagers. In a subsequent six-month voyage to India, he lost thirty of his men to scurvy: they died believing that unhealthy air was the cause.

It seems preposterous that Antarctic expeditions in the early twentieth century could be just as ignorant of the causes of this debilitating deficiency disease as explorers of five hundred years earlier, but it’s true, and nothing else illustrates the resistance of modern society to ancient dietary lore as scurvy.

Long periods away from fresh food, particularly fruit and vegetables, depletes the body of its stores of Vitamin C. The vitamin is an important component of the protein collagen that binds connective tissue together. Skin, blood vessels, ligaments, tendons, and even bones must have Vitamin C or they will simply fall apart.

Ships set off for distant shores with crews of healthy men, and arrived with barely enough fit to furl a sail. Anson’s circumnavigation of the globe in 1740 for Britain was a disaster that fueled a search for a condition Shakespeare used as a foul curse. Of Anson’s combined crews of 1900, only 500 survived the long voyage.

Gums swelled, teeth loosened and fell out, and limbs blackened as blood vessels hemorrhaged. Worst of all, men lost all energy and could not work. They lay in their hammocks with putrid breath and could not be roused. Untreated, scurvy was always fatal.

This had gone on long enough and something had to be done.

Enter James Lind, a Scottish Naval surgeon, who conducted the first clinical trial on the disease in 1747. Twelve scorbutic (scurvy-ridden) sailors were divided into control groups and fed different remedies. Lind thought scurvy was a disease of putrefaction cured by acids so fed his groups cider, “elixir of vitriol” (sulfuric acid), vinegar, and a paste of nutmeg and other spices plus barley water. Although the cider group showed some improvement, it was another group given two oranges and a lemon every day that recovered rapidly.

Though clinging to his notion that cold and damp, clogged pores and putrefaction were the root cause of scurvy he had proven beyond a doubt that oranges and lemons would cure it. He published his findings in a 400-page treatise that should have blown away any doubts about managing the disease the way the tome blew dust when it thudded onto Admiralty desks in 1753.

Only it didn’t, and British crews went on suffering terribly until 1794 when the use of lemon juice on HMS Suffolk’s six-month, non-stop voyage to India prevented any serious outbreak. Only James Cook, charged with trialling the latest anti-scorbutic remedies on his three voyages between 1768 and 1780 kept scurvy completely at bay and did not lose a single man to it.

One of those voyages took him beyond the Antarctic Circle; he sailed right around the frozen continent without ever sighting it. Only the pack ice stopped him as he probed 300 miles beyond the Circle to within 75 miles of the coast. It is no irony that the British explorer who defeated scurvy was rewarded with a tantalizing glimpse towards the prize coveted by a future generation. As the ice-encrusted Resolution bumped against the floes Cook could see, beyond the towering ice bergs, solid ice stretching away. “It was quite my opinion that this ice extends to the Pole.” He was right. It lay 1250 miles away but to reach it and return home safely meant conquering the unknown, the unattainable, and not least the spectre of scurvy.

In 1795 the Admiralty issued lemon juice to the fleet. James Lind had been dead for a year. His cure had finally made it into the ship’s surgeon’s chest, but only as a treatment, not as a preventative. Nevertheless, scurvy was virtually eliminated from the Royal Navy by the start of the nineteenth century.

It would be back. Just as the genie was stuffed back in the bottle, the Admiralty turned away from fresh stores in favour of preserved and tinned foods. For the same reasons of economy, European lemons gave way to cheaper West Indian limes that provided only half the Vitamin C. To make matters worse, lime juice was bottled in a way that enfeebled much of its anti-scorbutic content.

By the time of the rival South Pole expeditions, the lessons provided by Lind and Cook had been forgotten and tinned foods ruled supreme.

The first obstacle in getting to the South Pole was transport. Amundsen, mentored by legendary Norwegian polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen, knew dogs and skis were the only option. Nansen had crossed Greenland by these methods and made his own attempt on the North Pole with Eskimo dogs, sledges and skis. In 1895 his party turned back and dug in at Franz Josef Land for winter and survived using Eskimo skills. They built a stone hut with walrus tusk tools, burned walrus blubber for heat and light, and hunted bears for food and clothing. This towering figure of polar exploration was clearly someone who should be taken seriously.

Despite meeting Nansen and hearing his declaration that dogs were the only realistic transport option, Scott chose a confused mix of dogs, Manchurian ponies and experimental motorized sledges. The first sledge winched ashore from the British ship Terra Nova fell through the ice to the sea floor fathoms below, and the other two broke down early and were left in the snow. The poor little Manchurian ponies were not suitable for the climate. They had to be rubbed down after working, sheltered from the wind and snow, and they needed tons of fodder.

The previous 1901 to 1904 Discovery expedition to Antarctica, also led by Scott, had attempted to reach the Pole but not with dogs for the final assault. Though ideal for the climate, Eskimo dogs require particular handling, and a high degree of skill – something never really acquired by the British. They were prejudiced against dogs as motive power for sledges based on their unsatisfactory Discovery experience.

Amundsen knew better. He had extensive experience driving dogs from his previous Arctic expeditions and knew that once their psychology was understood, their physiology would make them indispensable as swift transport. Arctic dogs sweat through their tongues, not their bodies, eat almost anything – even each other – and keep themselves warm curled up in the snow. Beyond that, they provide company and endless amusement for lonely men away from home.

When the motorized sledges, dogs and ponies had made their limited contributions to the British push south to the Pole, good old man-hauling would be used. The one resource the British had, and knew they could always rely upon was physical courage. Men straining in the traces, hauling improbable loads over impossible terrain was something that stirred the Victorian spirit but Antarctica was not the place for that tactic.

The Norwegians turned to the neolthic Arctic peoples again for their reindeer fur clothing and sleeping bags as well as their transportation. The British followed suit for gloves and boots but relied on Burberry windproof clothing made in England. This proved inadequate and caused sweat to accumulate in their woolen undergarments – a disaster in polar regions, because sweat can freeze, causing body temperature to drop dangerously when at rest. The two-piece construction also let the Antarctic wind whistle in. Amundsen’s outfits were worn just as the Greenlanders wore them, with the anorak worn loose over the pants for air circulation and the hood lined with wolf skin, protecting the face from frostbite.

So much literature has come out over the years since Huntford’s revision of the Scott legend to excuse Scott’s tragic failure. Much of it focuses on the weather. Scott’s party naturally struck colder weather because they were out later, weeks after the summer equinox and well into the change of season. Scott knew from his and Ernest Shackleton’s previous expeditions that to be out trekking to and from the Pole in February and March was to risk exposure to extreme cold but his cold-sensitive ponies required a later start in Spring, and to make matters worse, his party made agonizingly slow progress. It’s a credit to their physical courage that they clocked up an average of thirteen miles a day – just behind Amundsen’s fifteen miles a day – but they could not travel in harsh weather that Amundsen and his men and dogs could. The two parties actually came within one hundred miles of each other at one stage, but Amundsen was making his way back down from the Pole across the mountains prior to putting on speed on the Barrier below while Scott was trudging up out of the Beardmore Glacier, still on his way to the Pole.

Amundsen’s dog teams scampered at high speed over level terrain and provided climbing power when doubled up on sledges to get them over the forbidding Trans Antarctic mountain range. The men hissed along on skis, unladen, rather like cross-country skiers. Some of the five-strong party drove the sledges, which allowed them to rest a hand on them, while skiing alongside. This conserved a surprising amount of energy. The early part of their journey even allowed them to ride on the sledges or hitch along on a tow rope. Always out the front was Olav Bjaaland, a champion cross-country skier. The dogs pulled enthusiastically when there was a pathfinder to follow. It was, in Huntford’s words, “a triumph of skill, forethought and organization.”

Put aside all considerations of transport, clothing and planning for the moment. Yes, Scott was an inflexible martinet who made last-minute capricious decisions, like including an extra man in the final South Pole party when the tent and provisions were specifically designed for four. Yes, he made decisions on who would make up the final Pole assault party based on class and which branch of the service the men represented, not their fitness for the task. Oates, for instance, was a Boer War veteran who’d received a massive wound that shattered his thigh and left him with one leg shorter than the other but was needed to represent the Army. Yes, Scott issued a series of bewildering and contradictory orders regarding relief of the home-bound Polar party by dog teams (dogs were to be the final back-up after all).

Most importantly, he had failed to ensure adequate supplies were laid down in depots for the return leg from the Pole, and had failed to ensure the penultimate depot – One Ton Depot – was positioned far enough south.

It’s easy to sit in comfort and hindsight and pick apart the rash decisions made by a commander out of his depth. Scott rose to his position as leader of the British Antarctic Expedition because of the society he was from. Patronage led to promotion, not competence. Britain was a nation that mistrusted foreign ways, and paid the price of not adopting methods from other cultures that would have made survival in Antarctica more likely than the doom that seemed to hang over much of what they did down there.

In controlling the expedition, the Navy had triumphed over the Royal Society, who wanted a team based on civilian professionals; scientists, Swiss mountaineers, Norwegian sailors, and of paramount importance – speed, and dogs.

The Navy way meant muddling through, and putting men in harness to haul when all else failed. In the harsh extremes of the Antarctic continent, that could only lead to one thing – exhaustion. The British reached the Pole by heading south over the Ross Ice Barrier to the foot of the Trans Antarctic mountains, where Shackleton’s previous route in1907-1909 had shown the way up to the Antarctic Plateau via a plod up the Beardmore Glacier.

The South Pole is located on the Plateau, at a high elevation of around 10,000 feet. The Plateau is really a gigantic ice cap, flowing away to the mountains like a lake of slow-moving ice. When it reaches the mountains it becomes a river, forcing its way through and down the mountains via glaciers onto the level Barrier far below. Its movement throws up pressure waves as it flows over and around obstacles, creates crevasses, or deep cracks in the ice, and, most ominously for the nerves of early parties traveling across its unknown regions – eerie sound effects, ranging from creaks and groans to something like loud cannon fire.

Hauling a 1,000 lb sledge in these conditions, particularly in thin air at high altitude, asks too much of men. The British were not adept on skis, and when Bowers became the fifth man plucked from the forward support party to join the polar party, his skis had long been left behind. Another of Scott’s questionable orders had stripped the support party of their skis. Bowers was forced to put himself, ski-less, in harness with Oates, Evans, Wilson and Scott, who skimmed the surface on their skis while Bowers plunged through the crust up to his knees, trying to keep in time with the rhythm of the pull.

For hundreds of miles. Try to imagine the strain both on Bowers and the others, vainly trying to pull smoothly, to eke out their energy. Oates already had frostbitten feet when he was ordered into harness for the race to the Pole. He didn’t want to go, but when duty called, you answered. And kept your personal discomforts to yourself.

This snapshot of the life-sapping man-haulage by the British shows why Scott’s party were worn out by hauling, even before they reached the Pole, and they still had over half their journey to complete. This sort of work requires lots of energy – about 6,000 calories per man, per day, and Scott’s men were receiving 1,000 to 1,500 calories less than this. Worse was to come on the homeward leg when the depots provided too little food and were spaced too far apart. That’s when the real hunger and suffering set in.

So, the British did not have enough food, what about the quality?

(Please go to January 2014 archives for Part 3)