The Unicorn and The Lamprey

On the 16th may 1619 two ships, the Unicorn and the Lamprey, set sail from Copenhagen searching for the fabled North West Passage. On board there were 65 men, led by their captain, the Danish explorer Jens Munk. A year and a half later, the Lamprey limped back into Bergen (Norway) with just 3 men, including Munk, on board.

Almost all of the other crew members had died of scurvy in Hudson Bay .

The story of this terrible voyage, their sailing round Iceland, Greenland, Baffin Bay and into Hudson Bay is outlined in this wonderful atmospheric podcast from DR.

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A Map, hand-drawn by Jens Munk in 1624 of the area between Cape Farewell and Hudson Bay, seen from the north; (Source: Tromsø University library)

The UK has similarly many tales of Arctic and Antarctic suffering, listening to the podcast I was put in mind of Coleridge’s famous “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, but we rarely hear of the similar stories from other nations, a clear benefit of learning other languages is being able to access these archives and stories*.

The podcast contains a wonderful description by a Greenland pilot of the sea ice and how tricky navigating it can be along with interviews and inputs from many others. If you are at all familiar with Danish – I really recommend the series.

However, the description by a nutritionist of the terrible effects of scurvy had me wondering. I learn (via Dutch family and confirmed by the OED) that the name of the disease, caused of course by a lack of vitamin C in the diet, is probably from the Dutch Scheurbuik – rip belly – an eloquent description of one of the notable later stages of the disease.

Rip here is less a description of enhanced musculature and much more a description of what it feels like when your internal organs start to bleed and your muscles and bones are weak from lack of nutrition.

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Photo of chest cage with pectus excavatum and scorbutic rosaries – from this paper

Upon looking it up (Thankyou Wikipedia), I learn that the causes of scurvy had been repeatedly identified, forgotten and mistaken since at least the middle Ages. There is an estimate that around 2 million sailors died as a result of scurvy between 1500 and 1800.

2 Million almost entirely preventable deaths and 2 million men who died in appalling agony.

And this happened in spite of what appears to be the first recorded medical trial by James Lind in the 1750s, it still took the Royal Navy 40 years to start giving out fresh citrus fruits as a standard on their ships. Vitamin C itself was only finally recognised and extracted in 1932.

This story is an outrage in many ways, but a clear example also of how science and medicine, properly conducted, can help to improve and save lives. It is also a clear warning to conduct thoughtful experiments with care and to listen to those warnings when they have been issued.

It might also be a recommendation that learning foreign languages is not only fun and useful but can be it’s own reward.

*I should also mention here that the rather awesome Danish Arctic Institute are currently producing a very well written series on Danish exploration in the Arctic in English, based on their own very comprehensive podcast series. These are published online in the Arctic Journal. Both the series of historical accounts and the newspaper in general are absolute top recommends for those interested in the subject of the Arctic environmentally , socially and politically.

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The lure of the poles (Svalbard in Spring, the coldest time of year)

Extract from “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

…With sloping masts and dipping prow,
As who pursued with yell and blow
Still treads the shadow of his foe,
And forward bends his head,
The ship drove fast, loud roared the blast,
And southward aye we fled.
And now there came both mist and snow,
And it grew wondrous cold:
And ice, mast-high, came floating by,
As green as emerald.
And through the drifts the snowy clifts
Did send a dismal sheen:
Nor shapes of men nor beasts we ken—
The ice was all between.
The ice was here, the ice was there,
The ice was all around:
It cracked and growled, and roared and howled,
Like noises in a swound! …”

 

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