During the early times of navigation, most deaths aboard were due to accidents and diseases. On the ships of the Spanish Navy, the surgeon was no more than a plain bone-fixer who knew where to amputate a leg or an arm and how to stop hemorrhages. He was more like a butcher that cuts up than a surgeon.

As regards diseases, if on land they were already a mystery, on board, it was even worse. It took centuries to know the cause of scurvy and how to fight against it. James Cook, who never had a man with scurvy, kept lime juice a State secret as he used it to defeated this illness. This was a key factor for discovery voyages and one of his major findings. Besides, Cook sailed around the Antarctic continent and verified that there was no link with another continent.

In order to understand this era better, we are going to resort to the analysis carried out by Rodolfo R. Poletti Formoso about the Beagle’s expedition to the south extreme of America between 1826 and 1830.

In this voyage, each ship had a “Surgeon” and an “Assistant surgeon” among the hands of the crew.

Let us think that a fracture, either simple or compound, could end up in amputation. The “Royal College of Surgeons” had been opened in 1745 and it had succeeded in separating surgeons from barber surgeons.

Aboard the Beagle traveled assistant Bynoe, who filled the position for five years of campaign.


Let us follow with the analysis by Captain Rodolfo R. Poletti of Fitz Roy’s book Narrative of the Surveying Voyages of His Majesty´s Ships Adventure and Beagle Describing their Examination of the Southern Shores of South America and the Beagle´s Circumnavigation of the Globe. This disease, known in the past as the “sea pest” stems from a deficiency of vitamin C (ascorbic acid) in the system as a consequence of a diet poor in it. Scurvy devastated the Adventure’s crew (Captain King’s) and, to a lesser extent (thanks to an efficient preventive care), to the Beagle’s, commanded by Stokes.

In 1720, a physician called Kramer wrote, “... if fresh vegetables can be obtained, if oranges, lemons, or their pulp or juice are available and doses of 3 to 4 ounces of juice (85 to 110 g) are given, there is no need of nothing else to cure this dreadful disease.”

In 1804, the Admiralty made it compulsory the daily provision of a ration of lime juice (Citrus aurantifolia) for each hand of the ships of the Royal Navy; little by little, this calamity was definitely defeated.

In several texts of the 800s, we can see how, with great ignorance, the causes of scurvy were listed and, sometimes, the real motives were outlined but they did not know how to account for them. They also explained the symptoms and the proper treatment.

“Its cause is a deficient assimilation, whichever the environment and the conditions in which it develops, or stacking associated with a persistence of disassimilation under the influence of continuous work.” They also assured that “It has no specific cause and it is not contagious. Cold dampness is its main predisposing cause; [...] because of this, it appears suddenly after great tempests in the open sea [...] Voluntary or forced laziness; working in excess, moral depression, homesickness are complementary causes [...]. Most people think that the lack of fresh vegetables is practically the only cause of this disease, both on land and at sea.”

Symptoms, “... toward the first month of navigation the whole crew suffers from an unusual laziness; the characteristic yellow complexion [...]. Soon after this, the ones with these looks [...] stay in bed, with an extraordinary laxity, invincible prostration, [...] teeth fall; then joint pains come, insufferable [...] hemorrhages of one or the other mucosae that may cause death [...] ulcers that spread quickly; hair recedes, [...] there is often moral depression, despair, homesickness, suicidal tendencies, deep sorrow, aversion to food.”

Treatment, “... it will be hygienic in most cases: a good diet, fresh air, exercise, passing from a cold and wet temperature to a warm and dry [...], external local application should also be used, the bitter ones and the antiscorbutic particularly (gentian and quinine). It is advisable to consume all fresh vegetables, especially potatoes, acid fruits, lemon, or lime juice, which use is prescribed by regulations in England and France.”

It is worth transcribing the following “heroic” treatment, as Don Poletti calls it. It was used during the long and troubled cruise of Hipólito Bouchard on the frigate La Argentina (1817); after a voyage from Madagascar to New Island, in Java, “Scurvy invaded all crews and devastated those lives devoted to such a noble cause. There were days when we counted eighty-four patients; over half of them were buried in those waters. After eight days staying on the island, the disease did not weaken; it was then when the surgeon of the expedition was ordered to use the extraordinary proceeding of burying the ill alive in pits four feet deep covering them with soil up to the neck.” The only thing Bouchard mentions about the outcome of such a treatment is that “the ones who were in a serious condition died after an hour of being in that position, and the rest recovered; the operation being repeated over and over again.” (From Campañas Navales de la República Argentina,” Vol. II.)

Captain King mentions that, “... as species of wild celery (...) would be very useful as antiscorbutic” (Vol. I). “The severity of weather brought a most disagreeable accompaniment. Scurvy appeared, and increased (...) The monotony of their occupations, the chilling and gloomy appearance of the country, and the severity of the climate, all tended to increase the number of the sick, as well as the unfavourable symptoms of their disease.” (Vol. I)

“Our sick-list, particularly of cases of scurvy, increased so much during this damp, trying weather, that I determined upon sending the Adelaide to the northward, to procure a supply of fresh meat from the Patagonians.” (Vol. I)

Among the cares he took: “... fresh provisions, bread baked on board, pickles, cranberries, large quantities of wild celery, preserved meats and soups; the decks were kept well-aired, dry, and warm, but all to no purpose.” (Vol. I)

In fact, some days later he states: “... three new cases of scurvy appeared, one being the assistant-surgeon, which increased our sick-list to fourteen.”
King is confident that, with fresh guanaco meat, “... our sick, at least those affected by scurvy, would recover (...) ... but all to no purpose, the list increases... (Vol. I). However, he later assures that “the timely supply of guanaco meat had certainly checked the scurvy, for we had no new cases added to the number of the sick, now amounting to twenty.” (Vol. I, p. 186)

On arriving in Montevideo, he is helped by a Juanico “...who supplied us plentifully with bitter (Seville) oranges, we might have been much distressed. The free use, however, of this fruit alone caused a rapid change in the health of those affected by scurvy, and in less than a week every man was at his duty.” (Vol. I)

“Monday 7th April [1829]. Several of our men were employed in gathering cranberries, and preserving them for future use; they are antiscorbutic, as well as wild celery, much of which has been used with our guanaco soup.” (Vol. I, p. 214)

Captain Stokes comments “... fortunately (mussels and clams), we found an abundance and they proved useful in removing symptoms of scurvy.” (Vol. I, p. 181)


As we will see, officers and also hands used to suffer from depression and nervous disorders. This happened to two members of the crew under Luis Piedra Buena when he wrecked and with Magellan’s stay in San Julián, when several sailors threw themselves overboard.

In this particular case, Don Poletti analyses what happened to Captain Stokes, whose fate was to commit suicide in a place near Puerto Hambre (Port Famine), on the Strait.

The Admiralty had assigned this Captain specially difficult missions because of their duration and the hostile environment in which they took place. On returning from the exhausting campaign to the western mouth of the Strait of Magellan, he immediately goes to fetch the wreckers of the sealer Prince of Saxe-Cobourg. The sight of that “shattered schooner and with large openings,” his own difficulties, and the penuries suffered by the rescued must have hurt his spirit deeply. The true hardships of the Second Campaign sailing up the rough Chilean western coast with almost seventy per cent of the crew sick “...and in the worst weather conditions,” sealed his tragic fate. As Captain King says, apparently informed by Lieutenant Skyring, on leaving Port Otway, “Captain Stokes now began to show symptoms of a malady, that had evidently been brought on by the dreadful state of anxiety he had gone through during the survey of the Gulf of Peñas. He shut himself up in his cabin, becoming quite listless, and inattentive to what was going on; and after entering the Strait of Magalhaens, on his return to Port Famine, he delayed at several places without any apparent reason.” (Vol. I)

King meets him on the Beagle and finds him “... very ill, and in low spirits. He expressed himself much distressed by the hardships of the officers and crew under him had suffered; and I was alarmed at the desponding tone of his conversation.” (Vol. I). After this conversation, King says: “... suspicions arose in my mind that all was not quite right with him (Vol.I). King goes on: “... and it was owing to a hint given to me, that I desired Mr. Tarn [Adventure’s surgeon] to communicate with Mr. Bynoe [Beagle’s surgeon], and report to me wether Captain Stokes’ health was sufficiently restored to enable him to commence another cruize (sic.)”

After examining Stokes, both physicians were preparing a report “... which was, as I afterwards found, very unfavourable...,” King gets to know that Stokes, “... in a momentary fit of despondency, had shot himself.” (Vol. I).

He died twelve days after this, on 12 August 1828, and “His remains were interred at our burial-ground, with the honours due to his rank.” (Vol. I)

In fact, it was not usual for a captain to commit suicide. It is true that the suffered from nervous disorders of different kinds that, at this distance, are difficult to determine; such is the case of the disease suffered by Captain Blight of the Bounty.


Captain Stokes writes: “The health of the ship’s company had been seriously affected, particularly with pulmone complaints, catarrhal, and rheumatic affections.” (Vol. I, p. 181). In chaos, “... I ordered some canvas to be given to each man for a frock and trousers, to be painted at the first opportunity, as a protection against rain and spray.” (Vol. I, p. 179). This measure was imitated by Fitz Roy some years later, as we mention below. Responding to a request by Fitz Roy, the surgeon on board informs that “... in consequence of great exposure to a long-continued succession of incessant heavy rain, accompanied by strong gales, the health of the ship’s company had been seriously affected.” (Vol. I, p. 180). As a result, the Beagle winters for fourteen days. As Stokes puts it: “I ordered the yards and topmasts to be struck, and the ship covered over with sails. Precaution was used to prevent the people from being subjected to frequent exposure...” (Vol. I, p. 181).

As for the Adventure and the Beagle, King says: “... the Beagle was not so sickly; but, during the last cruise, upwards of forty cases, principally pulmonic, had occurred, and several were not yet recovered.” (Vol. I, p. 186).

Fitz Roy adopted special measures to prevent the high percentage of sick men Stokes had had. In Volume I (p. 221 ), he writes: “During the wet weather of these regions, we derived great benefit from awning, painted for this purpose, while refitting at Rio de Janeiro and Maldonado: they kept the lower, and a great part of the upper deck, quite dry even in heavy rain.” Below, he insists: “Each man had his clothes covered with canvas, or duck, well painted; and instead of hat, every one had a ‘south-wester’ (like a coal-heaver’s cap).” (Vol. I, p. 222) This is a sort of hat used in former times by the navy, which has a wing and a back part that covers the nape making water run along the cape or the coat (made waterproof with wax or paint).

He then points out: “Each officer and man, when detached from the Beagle during a night, carried a blanket, or large poncho (sewed up, and with a drawing-string, like a large bag), in which they slept, and found much comfort and warmth.” (Volume I, p. 223) In his last phrases about the Expedition, Fitz Roy admits an alarming percentage of sick men: “During the last part of our stay at Christmas Cove and up to the moment, our sick-list had been long; this is why I desired to be in a sheltered place for men to recover. The main maladies have been colds and rheumatism from chilly wind and dampness. This has been the only time, from the setting off of the Beagle from Rio de Janeiro, that the sick-list has not been worrying.”


Stokes records that “During the last few days he [sergeant I. M. Lindsay] had suffered from inflammation of the bowels, which brought his existence to a close.” (Vol. I, p. 176) Mr. Skyring puts down that “... we unfortunately lost Mr. Alexander Millar, as a consequence of a serious bowels inflammation that made him pass away only three days later.”

On meeting the Beagle, Mr. King has news about “... the death of Lieutenant Robert H. Sholl, after an illness of ten days.” (Vol. I, p. 121)

Skyring records “I have been down in bed since early January suffering from a stubborn and tiresome malady.” Robert Fitz Roy attributes it to “... strain and the fact that he has been sitting drawing charts for too long.” As many ailments, it was attributed to the only visible explanation that could be found.



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