Irina Ridzuan

Lemon & scurvy

An ironic antidote

Imagine a state whereby every sensory experience you came to offended your senses. Trees smelling of fecal matter. The taste of poultry almost poisons you. Greenery from vegetation is so disagreeably coloured and hideous.


Still Life with a Wine Glass, Lemon Peel, Peaches, Grapes and Cherries on the Corner of a Partly Draped Wooden Table - Jan Davidszoon de Heem , also called   Johannes de Heem   or   Johannes van Antwerpen   or   Jan Davidsz de Hem   (c. 17 April 1606 in   Utrecht   – before 26 April 1684 in   Antwerp ), was a   still life   painter   who was active in Utrecht and Antwerp. He is a major representative of that genre in both   Dutch   and   Flemish Baroque painting .

These were the exact experience of French naturalist, Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre when he arrived in Mauritius. Similar to his noted experience was that of a sailor, aboard with Henry Melville. The man caught a whiff of flowering shrubs and the sheer aroma sent him shrieking in a whirlwind of pain. These were men toughened and aged by the hardships at sea, yet somehow horrified by texture of sea snakes (Lamb, 2016).  Another story accounted a sailor, entrapped in a sensory overload, during a hunt: “The blood from these warm birds which were dying in my hands, running over my fingers, excited me to a degree I had never previously experienced. ... This filled me with amazement, but the next moment I felt frightened” (Lamb, 2016). In a way, this particular sensorial affliction gives a new context to mariner tales like the kraken or mermaids. And no different was this experience to Dutch seamen.

Naturally, these gripping accounts are countless from all countries who participated in the seafaring race to political power during the early modern period. Neither are these stories different from one another—save for the details of what mundane experience left them in a state of agony. But medically, these men also suffered from other symptoms: swollen gums and eventual loss of teeth, skin discolouration, and contorted limbs. This affliction was known as the “scourge of long-distance voyaging”, or scurvy (Burnby, 1996). Today, we know that lack of Vitamin C, an antioxidant agent, creates havoc on our brain. Due to the lack of antioxidants, the brain’s neuronal pathways are littered with free radicals, a waste product of neuronal activity. This results in spasmodic bursts of nervous energy in the synapses (Lamb, 2016). Thus, despite the equally terrifying physical state of these victims, the sensorial symptoms appear to be most pertinent in most sailor stories.

To add on to the sensorial cumber, the cure ironically lies in the incredibly fragrant citrus fruits:  of “that which I have seene most fruitful for the sickness is sower [sour] lemons and oranges” (Burnby, 1996). Specifically, for seamen, scurvy was common due to the lack of fruits and vegetables in their diet as produce ingredients did not keep for long at all.  By late 16th century, it appears that the Dutch knew of the value of citrus fruits. In fact, the earliest medical writers on the affliction were Dutch; and diagnosis, cure, and prevention were already recognized and understood by Dutch doctors and ship crew.

It was noted by English sailors that the Dutchmen were not plagued by scurvy on their long journeys due to their Spanish supply of lemons (Thomas, 1997). In the voyage of 1598, Van Neck and Van Warwyck carried lemon juice as a part of their dietary inventory but soon had to stop in Madagascar to refresh their cabin supplies (Burnby, 1996). Similarly, on their 1614 journey to the East, the crew made a stop at Sierra Leone due to an outbreak of scurvy on the ship; and there, bartered for a supply of 28000 lemons in total (Burnby, 1996).

Of course, as fresh vegetables and fruits are impossible to keep for long, harbouring supplies from the Netherlands was far from sustainable. Then rose new ways of battling scurvy. The Dutch power began establishing gardens and orchards along their route. The colonization of Mauritius and St. Helena in 1652 quickly also saw establishment of gardens and orchards to supply fresh provisions. By 1661, at least 1000 citrus trees were growing there (Burnby, 1996). In fact, the famous Lemon Valley on St. Helena was named so due to the large amounts of lemon trees planted on the upper slopes. However, these lemon orchards are no longer extant. Even then, some crews decided to even have a small garden onboard and such practice became widely popular. So much so that the Company imposed a ban against these gardens due to the damage done on the ships—though the practice remained to a certain extent regardless.