History Stories

It’s a familiar story, but that doesn’t make it any less remarkable: a forgotten shipwreck, long ago sunk to the bottom of the sea, holding once-edible treasures like honey, olive oil or wine. Just this summer, a Roman ship was discovered off the coast of Italy that held nearly 200 still-sealed amphorae (an early type of storage container, often ceramic) in its cargo bay. Though food on ships now only catches our attention in stories like these, it once drove the very act of exploration. Long before the days of modern preservation techniques, crewmen had to eat, and they couldn’t count on being able to stop at a friendly island to restock supplies. This week, we’ll take a look at preserved foods aboard ships, and find out how even a humble cabbage can change the course of human history.

In ancient times, like when this Roman ship sailed, voyages were short, and served mainly to take spices or other goods from place to place. Since trips weren’t long and ships often stopped at port, food didn’t have to be preserved to last an indefinite amount of time. Ship stewards kept kegs of salted beef, dried legumes and a fermented fish sauce called garum, which was a popular condiment of the time. These same preservation techniques – salting, drying and fermentation – all came into play during the Age of Exploration.

By the time Columbus’ ships set sail from Spain, for a voyage of indeterminate length, an average ship’s bay might contain honey, hard cheeses, olives, garlic, dried lentils, salted anchovies and barrels upon barrels of beer and wine. While this diet might seem delicious to some of us today, keep in mind what the vast majority of ships were not able to carry: Fresh meat and dairy spoiled easily, and could not be taken along. Likewise with fruit and vegetables, with the exception of dried fruits like raisins. And while it wasn’t unusual for a sailor’s daily ration of beer to be over a gallon, the beer was weak, and only brought because fresh water would grow algae in the wooden tanks below deck.

With a diet like this, it’s no wonder that malnutrition, in all its forms, was a huge problem aboard ships. Scurvy, a disease caused by vitamin C deficiency, killed over 2 million sailors between 1500 and 1800. In 1499, Vasco de Gama lost 116 members of his 170-man crew to the illness; Magellan lost 208 of 230 sailors 20 years later. While it was known to some that consumption of fresh citrus fruit would help the disease, lemons and limes weren’t often taken aboard ships. They were expensive, and, if spoiled, could contaminate the rest of the food supply. It wasn’t until Captain James Cook sailed in the 1760s that a reliable, affordable defense against scurvy was found: sauerkraut. The fermented cabbage could be kept at room temperature for months at a time, and naturally produced enough vitamin C to protect Cook’s crew from the disease. Eventually, lime juice became a daily ration for British sailors, leading to longer, more adventurous voyages and the nickname “Limey,” which endures to this day.

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