Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Captain Cook and his Tenerife Lemons

As we prepare for this New Year’s Eve celebrations, with hope for better tides glistening on the horizon, I can’t help wondering what Mr Mackay or even the valiant Captain James Cook might think were they able to take a peep beyond the 18th century. 

You see, there is a magnificent, restored property, hidden now beneath a mass of modern, cement urbanisations, which hosts one of the most attractive and indulgent of New Year’s Eve parties for Canary Island revellers. It is known as Finca Mackay, after a Scottish merchant who settled on the Atlantic island of Tenerife two hundred and fifty years ago. He owned the splendid 16th century Canary Island mansion overlooking the bay and port of Santa Cruz and Captain Cook, Britain’s most famous navigator, maritime explorer and cartographer, was once his honoured guest.

Mackay's country mansion as it is today

Local records show that on 1st August, 1776 lookouts on the San Cristóbal fortress signalled that sails were approaching from the horizon.  It wasn’t long before two splendid ships boasting the British fleet’s red ensign sailed silently into the bay of Santa Cruz and anchored within rowing distance of the waves lapping the shore.  It was Cook on his third and last voyage of discovery, and it is remarkable to think how it was in this same arena, almost exactly twenty one years later, that Horatio Nelson lost his arm and suffered his only defeat when he decided to attack Tenerife.   
Nelson attacking Santa Cruz in July 1797

But who knows exactly why Cook, the great English hero, chose to accept Mackay’s hospitality. One might imagine Cook felt the need to drift inland, away from the monotonous blue, for one last chance to savour the offerings of a fellow gentleman before confronting his third great voyage of discovery. Some historians suggest Mackay was already a friend of Cook’s. Others believe there were in fact two logical reasons. One was because the house was blessed with a perfect view of the bay where his ships, HMS Resolution and HMS Discovery, commanded by Charles Clerke, lay anchored. The other was that Mackay’s house, which local pronunciation gradually modified to Macario’s house, was surrounded by lemon groves.

HMS Resolution and HMS Discovery

Both explanations coincide with the idea that Captain James Cook, a quiet and thoughtful gentleman known for his common sense and meticulous planning also possessed extraordinary humanity, especially in trying to improve conditions for his seamen. Indeed it is difficult to imagine the hardships faced by seamen of the Royal and Merchant navies of the 18th and 19th centuries, but filth aboard ships and resultant infections were responsible for more deaths than battles or shipwrecks. Cook, more than any other, insisted upon cleanliness and a healthy environment upon his ships. He was often more interested in preventing sickness than in sighting a new shore. Unfortunately, long voyages like the ones he was commissioned to embark upon often meant a lack of fresh food and constant threat from the dreaded Skurvy, the seamen’s illness which Cook feared more than any foreign enemy.

Captain James Cook

That is why, when he arrived at Santa Cruz in August, 1776, Cook despatched men to purchase as many fresh greens as possible, especially from landowners in the town of Tacoronte and beyond. These would be preserved by sandwiching them between layers of salt. James Cook took some of his men up the slopes to just below the town of San Cristobal de La Laguna, the island’s original administrative and religious capital after the Spanish final conquest in 1496. That was where he gratefully accepted Mr MacKay’s invitation. I suspect the great navigator was not so much interested in the private comforts of a grand house but rather in what the Scotsman could provide for the wellbeing of his seamen and they returned to the port with cartloads of lemons from Mackay’s land.

Early medical studies proved that the consumption of ascorbic acid or Vitamin C, found in lemons and oranges, led to the prevention of scurvy. James Lind, an Edinburgh surgeon, conducted numerous experiments in 1747 using six sailors who were sick with scurvy. He treated them individually with cider, sulphuric acid, vinegar, purging with sea water and with a paste containing garlic, dried mustard seed, dried radish root, balsam of Peru and gum myrrh. Only two of the six patients survived. Luckily for them Lind had also given them lemons and oranges. Although the Edinburgh surgeon never scientifically explained why citrus juices were so effective, his four hundred page work, Treatise on Scurvy, published in 1753, led to the Admiralty recommending that ships stock not only wort of malt, the preferred antiscorbutic agent and more popular with the crew, but also lemons and oranges.

James Lind administering lemon juice to a sick mariner

It was already a custom for British seamen to be allowed regular gulps of fermented liquor, and ale was the standard ration as early as the 14th century. By the late 18th century beer was considered a staple beverage and essential to soothe the hardships of sea life, as well as a medicine, like wort and malt, to help prevent scurvy. Captain Cook administered an infusion of malt in his attempts to prevent scurvy although it seems his own experiments to determine whether wort was in fact a cure were inconclusive. So, persevering in his regime of cleanliness, fresh air and an antiscorbutic diet he encouraged naturalists who accompanied him on his voyages to identify any edible plant which might help fight scurvy. He also eagerly adopted other remedies like carrot marmalade and concentrated lemon juice. Thus his main objective upon landing on Tenerife was to obtain Mr Mackay’s lemons.

Forcing his seamen to take concentrated lemon juice as well as sauerkraut on a daily basis was not popular, as one can imagine, and it was only after he ordered that his officers should set an example and take the same medicine that the murmurings amongst the crew ceased. Whether his preference for Tenerife lemons resulted or not in maintaining a healthy crew, what is certain is that Captain Cook won the battle against scurvy aboard his ships. Not a single member of Cook’s crews perished as a result of scurvy and The Royal Society awarded him the Copley Gold Medal in recognition of his efforts to improve the health of British seamen. 

(Certain images have been reproduced from internet with no personal financial gain intended.)

By John Reid Young
Author of The Skipping Verger and Other Tales

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