Let Them Eat Salt Beef and Scurvy Grass.


If yer’ve read Part 2 of me Serf Under _ ground Journal, peut-etre, or Patrick O’Brian’s ‘Master and Commander,’ you’ll appreciate something of the wonder of the British Navy in the Age of Napoleon, the organization, the feats of navigation, the battles against French, Spanish and Dutch fleets ter rule the waves.

What a difference a day can make, both in life and fiction. In the opening chapter of Master and Commander, an anxious Lieutenant Jack Aubrey awaits the letter that will promote him to Commander of his own ship. Finally it arrives:

‘By the Right Honourable Lord Keith, Knight of the Bath, Admiral of the Blue and Commander in Chief of his Majesty’s Ships and Vessels employed and to be employed
in the Mediterranean, etc, etc, etc.

… You are hereby required and directed to proceed on board the Sophie and take upon you the Charge and Command of her; willing and requiring all the Officers and Company belonging to the said sloop to behave themselves in their several Employments with all due Respect and Obedience to you their Commander; and you likewise to observe as well the General Printed Instructions as what Orders and Directions you may from time to time receive from any of your superior Officers for His Majesty’s Service. Hereof nor you nor any of you may fail as you will answer the contrary at your Peril.

To John Aubrey, Esqr,
Hereby appointed Commander of
His Majesty’s Sloop Sophie
By command of the Admiral Thos Walker.’

‘Printed Instructions, ‘Orders and Directions.’ A fact not known to some serfs, the routines on board ship, the battle victories we witness in the Master and Commander series, based on Patrick O’Brian’s research of naval records, ships’ logs and maritime museum data, are largely attributed to the naval reforms carried out by Samuel Pepys, the first Secretary of the Admiralty. Samuel Pepys, famous diarist of London’s Outbreak of Plague in 1665, and The Great Fire of 1666 and sometimes in his diary mentioning his career in naval administration, has also been described as the father of the modern Royal Navy.

History and Serendipity.

In the reign of Elizabeth1st, England had no standing army. Britain’s escape from invasion by the Spanish Armada in 1588 is a celebrated victory in British naval history. It was also a fortuitous victory. When the Spanish Armada of 160 galleons attempted their invasion, a few royal ships and many more privately owned and merchant vessels combined to fight the Spanish. The English smaller, faster ships gained a tactical advantage and decimated the larger, slower Spanish fleet.


Neither of the Stewart kings Charles 1st nor James 1st were willing to put money into developing a stronger navy. The English navy was so weak that it could not even protect the Channel Coast from raiding Barbary pirates. After the execution of Charles 1st, with the build up of rival Spanish and Dutch navies, recognizing the threat to the overseas trade that was so vital to British prosperity, Oliver Cromwell’s government improved the navy. Cromwell’s efforts, with the help of experienced naval commanders, were successful in building up the navy to thirty ships of the line. But it was Samuel Pepys under the reinstated Stewarts, who introduced the major reforms that gave Britain’s Royal Navy its long ascendancy in the world’s seas.


The son of a tailor, Samuel Pepys, gained his first post with the Navy Board through a high ranking relative, Edward Viscount Montague. When Pepys started his first employment as Clerk of the Acts to the King’s Ships, he knew nothing about ships and seamanship, but set about learning, studying the prices of naval stores and attending lectures on ship building.

In 1673, in the middle of Britain’s third Dutch War, Pepys was appointed Secretary to the new Commission of the Admiralty, and as such, became the administrative head of the Royal Navy. Perhaps his greatest achievement as Secretary was carrying through Parliament a program, that in laying down thirty new ships of the line, restored the balance of sea power upset by the ship building programs of France and the Netherlands. When Pepys first became associated with the navy in 1660, the fleet consisted of thirty battle ships carrying 1730 guns. When he retired from office he left a battle line of fifty-nine ships carrying 4,920 guns.

Samuel Pepys also left a legacy of improved administrative organization and of professional development of marine officers.

Officers and Crew.

Pepys was determined that naval commanders should have more experience of the sea. In 1677 he created the first exams for would be lieutenants, including some mathematics and navigation. Directions for promotion to lieutenant required that an officer actually served three years at sea, was at least twenty years of age, produced ‘good certificates’ from the commanders under whom he served, showed diligent practice of the art of navigation and attained three further certificates. ( Ref. ‘Samuel Pepys and the Royal Navy.’ Lees Knowles, Lecturer in Military History, Trinity College, Cambridge 2019.}

Pepys’ efforts to stamp out corrupt practices endemic to the navy were less successful. Solving the problems of seamen’s wages was an ongoing problem. In the time of Charles11’s Restoration to the throne, government money was so short that sailors were owed three years back pay. Shortage of funds for the Restoration Admiralty was a chronic problem. The Restoration Board had to live on such money as Parliament would grant and the Commonwealth Government had left a massive debt of over three quarters of a million pounds for its successors. (‘Samuel Pepys and the Royal Navy,’ cited above, Dr J Tanner. ) Samuel Pepys mentions in his Diary, June 1661, that ‘seamen contractors, even the barber surgeons who supplied the medicine chests, were all clamoring for their money.’

The problem of shortage of funds was compounded for seamen, by the navy’s practice of payment to seamen by ‘pay tickets’ signed by captains in lieu of money. The system of pay tickets was used by Treasury in place of large sums of money being carried on board ships. When money was owed to them by the Treasury, seamen were often forced to sell on their pay tickets at a heavy discount. (Ref. Tanner.) It wasn’t until Victorian times that the lot of mariners started to progress with improvements in pay.

Poor food for seamen was another problem. Pepys tried to solve the corruption involved in the victualling of ships in the Royal Navy. After the third Dutch War sailors had complained that their food was so bad that it included mouldy bread and diseased meat. To prevent swindling the seamen, Pepys set up an independent system of muster masters returning accounts to the navy office as an independent check on the figures supplied by ships’ pursers who might seek to profit from buying sub-standard stores, sometime in compliance with a ship’s captain. Pepys met with suppliers and established agreed rules about the standards of food purchased from them to make up crews’ rations. Every day sailors were to get one gallon of beer, 500 gram of biscuit, 100 gram of salt beef or fish, butter and cheese.

But provisioning the Navy continued something of a problem right into the 19th century. In O’Brian’s novel, ‘The Far Side of the World,’ in Malta, coming abroad his ship, Captain Aubrey is greeted by

‘a more than usually distracted Mowett; the purser had refused to accept a large number of casks of beef that had twice made the voyage to the West Indies and back; he said they were short in weight and far, far too old for human consumption, and Pullings had gone to the Victualling Board to see what could be done: Dr Maturin had flung his slabs of portable soup into the sea, on the grounds that they were nothing but common glue, an imposture and a vile job …’ (P 77.)

Portable Soup, what is it?

Soup of the Evening, Portable Soup.

Stephen Maturin, surgeon accompanying Aubrey on his voyages, served portable soup to his patients. Portable soup, also known as pocket soup, was dehydrated food used in the 18th and 19th centuries, a precursor to later meat extracts and bouillon cubes.
Portable Soup was used as a staple for seamen and explorers because it would keep fresh for months.

In the Master and Commander books, Stephen Maturin would mix with it his own dried herbs as a protection against scurvy.

The Scourge of Scurvy.

In maritime history enthusiasts are drawn to feats of exploration and naval battles. But ‘arguably,’ says, Stewart Dunne, a past commander in the Royal Australian Navy, ‘the greatest determining factor in naval warfare and exploration for a great period of nautical history was disease, and in particular scurvy.’ ( Ref. ‘Scurvy, medical adventure, bureaucratic folly.’ Australian Naval Institute article.)

Scurvy a disease caused by severe Vitamin C deficiency causes body swelling, ulcerated gums and loss of teeth. If not treated early it is fatal. In the Age of Sail, scurvy was responsible for more deaths at sea than storms, shipwreck, combat and all other diseases combined. While its causes were unknown, it was recognized that fresh fruit and vegetables added to the staple diet at sea of salt beef and sea biscuit, kept it at bay.

The history of Admiralty treatment of scurvy, as Steward Dunne argues, was a bureaucratic bungle that allowed its proliferation much longer than necessary, due to the Admiralty Board’s intransigence in dismissing evidence of successful treatments at sea. As far back as 1497, Vasco da Gama had treated the disease with citrus fruits. Surgeon-General John Woodall Surgeon General of the East India Company, 1556-1643, averred that ‘The use of Lemmons is a precious medicine and well tried, being sound and good; let it have chief place, for it will deserve it.’ The Dutch East India Company planted fruit trees along The Cape of Good Hope where its ships stopped to re-provision.

In 1774, James Lind, a Scottish physician and surgeon on board the HMS Salisbury, conducted a trial when scurvy broke out among the crew, that showed the efficacy of citrus fruit in its treatment. Dividing sufferers into six groups of twos, each with the same diet, Lind gave Group One a quart of cider daily and Group Five, two oranges and one lemon daily. Other groups received vinegar, elixir of vitriol, barley water and one group was given salt water. Only Groups One and Five improved, with Group Five completely cured.

Lind published his results in 1753, Unfortunately, James Lind, like the Admiralty Board, still believed that scurvy was essentially a result of putrification of food within the body and although recognizing the benefit of citrus fruits, weakened the effect by advocating a boiled concentrate or ‘rob,’ which destroyed the Vitamin C.

Whereas Lind was on the right track, other better placed interlocuters in the scurvy debate were not, and as a result, the Admiralty Board recommended ‘cures’ such as ‘MacBrides’ Malt.’ Even as late as the voyages of Captain Cook into the South Pacific the Admiralty failed to appreciate the efficacy of citrus fruits.

On Cook’s first voyage of 1768-71, there were three outbreaks of scurvy, Cook’s astronomer, Charles Green, died from it. Even Joseph Banks showed symptoms of the disease, white spots on the skin and ulcerated gums. But Banks cured himself by using his personal supply of lemon juice after taking the advice of Naval Surgeon Nathanial Hulme to take his own supply on the voyage.

It took the influence of Gilbert Blane employed as personal physician to an admiral of the West India Station and exposed to the scourge of scurvy on a voyage to the West Indies, who wrote to the Admiralty calling for the provision of all naval vessels with lemons and limes. Blane, later employed as surgeon at a London hospital, continued to lobby via influential friends, reiterating Lind’s earlier findings. Finally, in 1795 the Admiralty agreed to support the use of citrus juice as a preventative of scurvy.

By 1799 all naval ships on foreign service, as well as all ships on the British coast were issued with supplies. A later official Act passed in 1867 stipulated that the master of every ship of the Royal Navy and Merchant Navy was to serve out an ounce of lime or lemon juice to all members of the crew as soon as they had been at sea ten days and during the remainder of the voyage, except when they were in harbour and supplied with fresh provisions.

Foraging for Scurvy Grass.


Foraging for fresh produce at stops on long voyages was a way of controlling the dreaded scourge. Captain Cook’s arrival at Tolaga Bay in New Zealand was an example. Cook himself collected ‘scurvy grass’ and oversaw that it was boiled with portable soup and oatmeal every morning for everyone’s breakfast, looking upon it as an effective anti-scorbutic. Wild celery and cranberries were also brought on board for the same purpose.

Common Scurvy-Grass, Cochlearia officinalis, also called spoon-wort, is a genus of about thirty species of annual and perennial herbs in the cabbage family Brassicaceae. They form low, rounded or creeping plants typically 5-20 cm tall with rounded or spoon-shaped leaves. Scurvy- grass can be found around the world mostly in coastal regions, on cliff tops and in salt marshes where this plant’s high tolerance of salt enables it to avoid competition from larger, less salt-tolerant plants. As the name suggests, scurvy-grass is rich in Vitamin C and makes it into the foraging books because it was harvested by sailors to be salted down by the vat-load to help stave off the disease on long sea voyages.

Back to ship’s surgeon Stephen Maturin in ‘Desolation Island.’ When HMS Leopard, sailing The Roaring Forties to Australia was forced to land on an isolated island for repairs, fresh food was near at hand The island was populated by herds of sea lions, seals and vast colonies of penguins, petrels, albatross and skuas. There was also wild cabbage to be gathered against the scurvy, ‘the most wholesome cabbage I have come across in my whole career,‘ says Maturin. ‘Even its boldest detractors, ready to make the most hellish declarations and to swear through a nine inch plank that the cabbage makes them fart and rumble, cannot deny that it cured their purpurae.’ (312.)

… Ter let yr know, Captain Aubrey, surgeon Maturin and noisy crew make it safely ter Botany Bay without loss of ship or crew. Interesting, though doubtless futile ter surmise the future of Britain’s history, the Industrial Revolution and evolution of political liberty, without the likes of Samuel Pepys and a strong British Navy.


  1. Another good read. Do a bit of wild scavenging myself.

    Navies are interesting things. I recently read or heard that the massive Punic fleet was prefabricated, with all parts standardised.

    Mowett’s objections to supplies remind me Australia’s own Second Fleet. Contractors were villains, encouraged by Grenville’s penny-pinching. Pleased to say that Tommy Townshend did a much more responsible job with the equipping of the First Fleet. Just saying.

    An entertaining SuG for a winter’s eve.

  2. Thx for comment, moso. Youre response raises
    a couple of questions for me if you’d care to say
    more regarding yr foraging and the Townshend
    connection. Gracious, not Lord Sydney? I was
    very surprised a couple of weeks back when you
    mentioned yr elevated navy connection and there’s
    me rambling on about sea captains and commanders.
    Curious about yr family’s arrival in Australia.

    Foraging! Found the foraging bits in yr Locusta
    fascinating, thought of that in my piece on scurvy
    grass. Off to Flinders today to see if a plant I saw
    growing on the sea cliffs is the same.

    • Foraging around here has mostly been for wild sarsparilla (the “sweet tea” found by the early Europeans, which was commercial for a while in Oz), and also mushrooms. Our local pine plantation doesn’t seem to yield saffron caps and slippery jacks, but I’ll keep looking. Handy things about the yard are petty spurge (v powerful skin growth remover), fresh olive leaf (not promoted for fungus much, but I use a strong tea of it for things fungal and find it better than over-the-counter pharma).

      Tommy Townshend, Lord Sydney, was a bit of a numbers man but seems to have been a good, conscientious sort. Grenville was an eager progressive type – result, Second Fleet. Those mediocrities Townshend-Phillip-Macquarie may be the reason we became a nation rather than a plantation, serfs and all. Maybe not so mediocre.

      Townshend ended up skewered by Goldsmith (writing of Burke):
      ‘Though fraught with all learning, yet straining his throat,
      To persuade Tommy Townshend to lend him a vote.’

      Seems he got on well with Johnson and Burke, but resisted a pension to Johnson, hence Goldsmith’s still remembered skewering.

  3. Thx for informative comment moso. Say, I suspected
    u were a forager. I imagine u could write a fascinatin’
    story with a twist about the Townshend family. Lots of
    masters and commanders ain’t there?

    Re the plant I mentioned on the cliffs at Flinders, I found
    it and have a sample here now. I went searching the
    internet and found it there too. It’s Bower Spinach, eaten
    by aboriginal people and by sailors. I will plant some in
    a pot and see what happens.


  4. Well, I thought the McGuffins, the piece of paper and the box, were a bit weak. But I was so pleased to see a healthy Hilda. Tough old bird, Miss Pierce, almost a match for F. Almost.

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