“Plague of the Sea, and the Spoyle of Mariners”—A brief history of fermented cabbage as antiscorbutic

Richard de Grijs
Sydney, Australia

 

Germans eating sauerkraut
Germans eating sauerkraut. Hand-colored etching by James Gillray (1756–1815), published 7 May 1803. (© National Portrait Gallery, London: NPG D12809; CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

“. . . those affected have skin as black as ink, ulcers, difficult respiration, rictus of the limbs, teeth falling out and, perhaps most revolting of all, a strange plethora of gum tissue sprouting out of the mouth, which immediately rotted and lent the victim’s breath an abominable odour.” – Chaplain Richard Walter, aboard Commodore George Anson’s “Voyage Round the World” (1740–1744).1,2

Scurvy, caused by extreme ascorbic acid or Vitamin C deficiency, is never a pretty sight. Notorious for ravaging both body and mind, the “plague of the Sea, and the Spoyle of Mariners”3 was fatal to more than two million sailors during the Age of Sail. In fact, scurvy alone caused more fatalities at sea than all other diseases, battles, storms, disasters, and shipwrecks combined.4

In 1747 James Lind (1716–1794), the Scottish naval surgeon of H.M.S. Salisbury, initiated the first controlled therapeutic trial to find a cure. He subsequently published his conclusions in his Treatise of the Scurvy (1753).5 In the 1760s, the British Admiralty sponsored four voyages to the Pacific, led by Commodore John Byron (1723–1786) and Captains Samuel Wallis (1728–1795), Philip Carteret (1733–1796), and James Cook (1728–1779). Each commanding officer was provided with prophylactic remedies with known or suspected antiscorbutic properties:6 portable broth (hard cakes made from cattle offal), salep (dried orchid root powder), barley malt, vinegar, mustard, “rob” (concentrated citrus juice), carrot marmalade, sauerkraut, congealed juice of wort or beer, molasses, and beans.

On Cook’s first voyage of 1768–1771, H.M. Bark Endeavour’s supplies included forty bushels of malt, one thousand pounds of portable broth, vinegar, mustard, wheat, and “proper Quantities of sauer Kraut and Rob.”7 Cook is often credited with leading the first long-distance voyages without any scurvy-induced fatalities. He was convinced that “sweet wort” combined with orange and lemon juice had preserved the health of his men:

This is without doubt one of the best antiscorbutic sea-medicines yet found out; and if given in time will, with proper attention to other things, I am persuaded, prevent the scurvy from making any great progress for a considerable time.8

However, it was sauerkraut (Figure 1)—cabbage fermented in its own natural juices by lactic acid bacteria—that changed the world in the eighteenth century. While fresh fruit and vegetables are a primary source of Vitamin C, sauerkraut is also remarkably rich in ascorbic acid. Fermentation increases the Vitamin C concentration by twenty-fold or more compared with raw cabbage.

At the time of her departure, the Endeavour’s stores contained 7,860 pounds of “Sour Kroutt,” enough to serve two pounds a week to each member of her crew. Upon their return, Cook reported to the Victualling Board that no “dangerous” cases of scurvy had occurred. He implied that sauerkraut had played an important role:

After such a long continuance at Sea in a high Southern Latitude it is but reasonable to think that many of my people would be ill of the Scurvy, the contrary however happened; . . . we had only one man on board that could be call’d very ill of this disease, occasion’d chiefly by a bad habit of body, and a complication of other disorders: we are not to attribute the general good state of health of the crew, wholy [sic] to the sweet wort & Marmalade, this last was only given to one Man, we must allow Portable Broth and Sour Krout to have had some share in it, this last article can never be enough recommended.9 (my emphasis)

Cook’s success had not come naturally, however. His sailors were initially reluctant to embrace the sour fermented cabbage as a new addition to their diet. However, when Cook ordered daily sauerkraut servings at the officers’ dining table, the sailors’ objections abated:

The sour Kraut the men at first would not eat until I put in practice a method I never once knew to fail with seamen, and this was to have some of it dress’d every day for the Cabbin [sic] table and permitted all the officers to make use of it. The moment they see their superiors set a value upon it, it becomes the finest stuff in the world and the inventer [sic] of an honest fellow.10

Nevertheless, instances of scurvy did happen on Cook’s voyages, but contemporary records imply that none of those afflicted succumbed to the disease. That may not be completely truthful, however. Three of the deaths on Cook’s first voyage may have been caused by scurvy. Tupaia (ca. 1725–1770), a priest from the French Polynesian island of Ra’iatea, died in Batavia (present-day Jakarta, Indonesia) from “the long want of a Vegetable Diet which he had all his life before been used to, and brought upon him all the Disorders attending a Sea life.”11 Meanwhile, the expedition’s astronomer, Charles Green (1734–1771), “had long been in a bad state of hilth, which he took no care to repair but on the contrary lived in such a manner as greatly promoted the disorders he had had long upon him.”12 Indeed, Green’s battle with his alcohol addiction exacerbated his scorbutic symptoms. The third suspicious death was that of Cook’s second-in-command, Lieutenant Zachary Hicks (1739–1771), who suffered from poor health “occasioned by long continuance at sea.”13 Still, Cook’s track record of successful scurvy prevention on long-distance voyages was remarkable for the times. And so his antiscorbutic measures became legendary.

However, the positive health effects of fermented cabbage had long been known in many cultures and civilizations and well before Cook’s voyages. Early references to the preservation of cabbages and turnips using salt—popular among Roman soldiers on extended journeys, taken to protect against intestinal infections—are found in Cato’s De Agri Cultura, in Columella’s De Re Rustica, and also in Pliny the Elder’s letters and manuscripts. Hippocrates (ca. 460–370 BCE), the ancient Greek physician, recommended sauerkraut as a remedy against obesity.

Meanwhile, suan cai—cabbage fermented in rice wine—was a diet staple for construction workers of China’s Great Wall. Similarly, Korean kimchi has been consumed for thousands of years to survive the long winters between fruit seasons and prevent Vitamin C deficiency.14 Chinese cabbage as a main ingredient was introduced during the Koryeo Dynasty (918–1392):

Preserved in soybean paste, kimchi tastes good in the summer. Whereas kimchi pickled in brine is served as a good side dish during the winter. When the root of the Chinese cabbage grows larger in the ground, it tastes like a pear, especially after the first frost in the autumn harvest season.15 (Lee Kyu-Bo, poet; my emphasis)

Meanwhile, the Russian national dish, kapusta (literally, “cabbage”), combines lacto-fermented cabbage, tomatoes, carrots, apples, pears, cucumbers, and herbs. The principles and practice of fermentation were likely exported to central and Eastern Europe by Ghenghis Khan’s (1167–1227) Tatar (Mongol) army, following their conquest of China.16

Lactic acid fermentation has long been a tried and trusted method of food preservation, while simultaneously offering a boost to one’s immune system—from China, Korea, and Japan in the far East to central Asia and India, extending as far as the North Sea coast, where the traditional Dutch zuurkool is a beloved local sauerkraut variant.

 

End Notes

  1. Rodger NAM, 1996. The Wooden World: An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy. New York, Norton.
  2. Walter R, Robins B (eds), 1748. Voyage Round the World in the Years MDCCXL, I, II, III, IV by George Anson, Esq.; Commander in Chief of a Squadron of His Majesty’s Ships, sent upon an Expedition to the South-Seas. London, Knapton.
  3. Hawkins R., 1622. The Observations of Sir Richard Hawkins, Knt in his Voyage into the South Sea in the Year 1593. Drinkwater Bethune CR (ed). London, Richards. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/57502/57502-h/57502-h.htm [accessed 1 June 2021].
  4. Bown S., 2003, Scurvy: How a Surgeon, a Mariner, and a Gentleman Solved the Greatest Medical Mystery of the Age of Sail. Chichester, Summersdale Publishers.
  5. Lind J, 1753. A Treatise of the Scurvy in Three Parts. Containing an Inquiry into the Nature, Causes, and Cure, of that Disease; Together with A Critical and Chronological View of what has been published on the Subject (1st ed). Edinburgh, Kincaid and Donaldson.
  6. Cook J, 1776. The Method Taken for Preserving the Health of the Crew of His Majesty’s Ship the Resolution during Her Late Voyage Round the World. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, 66, 402–406.
  7. Lamb J, 2018. Scurvy: The Disease of Discovery. Princeton, Princeton University Press.
  8. Cook 1776. Op. cit.
  9. Cook J, 1774. Log, H.M.S. Resolution.
  10. Cook J, 1769. Cook’s Journal. Tahiti, 13 April 1769.
  11. Wharton WJL (ed), 1893. Captain Cook’s Journal during his First Voyage Round the World made in H.M. Bark “Endeavour” 1768–71. London, Stock. http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks/e00043.html [accessed 2 June 2021].
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid.
  14. ZenKimchi, 2006. Kimchi: A Short History. https://zenkimchi.com/top-posts/kimchi-1-short-history/ [accessed 2 June 2021].
  15. Ibid.
  16. Wacher C, Díaz-Ruiz G, Tamang JP, 2010. Fermented vegetable products. In: Tamang JP, Kailasapathi K (eds). Fermented Foods and Beverages of the World. Boca Raton FL, CRC Press. 151–190.

 


 

RICHARD DE GRIJS, PhD, is a professor of astrophysics at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. He has a keen interest in the history of science. Richard is also a volunteer guide on Captain Cook’s H.M.B. Endeavour replica at the Australian National Maritime Museum.

 

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