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Nutrition During the Heroic Age
During the heroic age the two key components of the polar diet were pemmican and ships biscuits. Pemmican was a high energy food made up of around 60% fat with pieces of beef or pork embedded within it. Ships biscuits were often eaten in place of bread, they were a large unsweetened biscuit which was baked until very hard. They were ideal to take on expeditions as they could withstand changes in temperatures, were difficult to break and would last indefinitely.
In addition diets were complemented with the local wildlife providing a fresh source of meat. There are many accounts of explorers developing a liking or distaste for penguin (which was said to taste fishy) and seal (which is said to be very oily). Often penguin or seal would be mixed with some of the other rations to produce a stew like meal called hoosh which could be made in one pan over a primus stove.
There are two recurrent themes in the nutrition of exploration from during the heroic age, these are scurvy and hunger.
Scurvy had been the blight of the British navy for many years and was also to pose a problem during the heroic age of exploration. Today we know scurvy is the result of a deficiency of vitamin C in the body, as our bodies are unable to produce vitamin C we must get it from our diet. If a person’s diet is deficient in vitamin C they will start to show signs of scurvy, such as spongy gums, loose teeth, opening of old wounds, spots on the skin, paleness, and depression. Scurvy is treatable by giving a person vitamin C, but if this does not happen scurvy will ultimately result in death.
As we now know the cause of scurvy and its cure it is not a problem in the modern world, however, the situation was very different during the heroic age of exploration.
One primary problem was the poor diet of the general population; many already had scurvy or very low reserves of vitamin C before they started their voyage. Once put on a low vitamin C diet reserves were quickly used up allowing scurvy to set in.
In fact, Lind, a British naval surgeon had discovered a cure for scurvy in 1747. He had fed sailors suffering from scurvy different diets, finding that a diet rich in citrus fruits was the most successful. However, as vitamins had not been discovered he could not explain why this worked. His theory was taken on board by the British navy, however as it was difficult to carry large amounts of citrus fruits and keep them fresh during the voyage, a concentrated citrus juice was taken instead.
Unfortunately the distillation of the concentrate reduced the effectiveness of the juice as Vitamin C is easily destroyed by heating. In addition much of this distillation was done in kettles and pans made from copper, which reacts with Vitamin C destroying it. Therefore, as this concentrate was so low in Vitamin C it could not cure the effects of scurvy and Lind’s theory was discredited, even though he had in fact discovered the cure.
During the heroic age the British Navy were still investigating cures for scurvy. Poor hygiene, depression, lack of exercise, and ptomaine poisoning were seen as possible causes and so actions to overcome these problems were taken:
- Ships were thoroughly scrubbed, Scott for example was a believer that wholesome living conditions would prevent scurvy; whilst this would not have prevented scurvy it will have prevented the spread of other diseases.
- There was concern that over wintering crews would become depressed due to homesickness and lack of sunlight. A range of initiatives were put in place to keep the men occupied, this included daily tasks but also things to do in their free time. A number of ways to spend leisure time were introduced including writing for the expedition’s newspaper (for example the South Polar Times on Scott and Shackleton’s expeditions) or becoming a member of an acting troupe. Whilst these activities would have had no effect on preventing scurvy they certainly worked to keep up morale.
- The men were also encouraged to take exercise, many learnt to ski or ice-skate but also games of football were held on the ice. Such exercise would have helped the men keep their fitness for the summer sledging journeys but would have done little to prevent scurvy.
- Ptomaine poising was also believed to be a cause of scurvy; it was believed this came from eating toxins produced by bacteria found in decaying meat. Today we would call such a poisoning food poisoning. Scott was very concerned that ptomaine poisoning was all around and was especially wary of meat in tin cans as he was concerned canning may cover up bad smells and taste (Feeney 1998:128). There was a fear little could be done to prevent this. Whilst it was possible for a crew to get food poisoning from eating decaying meat, it was not possible for them to get ptomaine poising or develop scurvy.
Expeditions Blighted by Scurvy(top)
British Arctic Expedition 1875-76(top)
The 1875-76 British Arctic Expedition led by Nares was so badly blighted by scurvy that an investigation was launched on their return. Whilst out on sledging trips the men began to complain of swollen joints, the leaders could not understand why the men had developed scurvy as they had plenty of lemon juice on their ship and limited amounts on the sledging trip. A sledging party led by Commander Albert Markham took his sledge party to the furthest north of 83°20′26”N where he was forced to turn back as five of the men had severe scurvy. On the return things got worse as the:
“… men were in a very precarious condition, utterly unable to move, and consequently had to be carried on the sledges, five others nearly as bad, but nobly persisted in hobbling after the sledges” (Markham 1878:357)
One man died before they were rescued. Another sledging party led by Lieutenant Pelham Aldrich was suffering a similar fate with four men on their feet and four being pulled on sledges. Whereas Lieutenant Beaumont had sledged eastwards, during this two of his men had died of scurvy. Things were not much better back at the ship, the Alert had nine scurvy free men out of 53. The expedition was aborted and the men sailed home, thus averting a major disaster.
From 10 January to 3 March 1877 seven admirals sat for six days a week listening to statements from fifty expert witnesses. Principally they could not understand why when they had found a cure that was successful on other expeditions this same cure had not worked for Nares and his men.
At the time Nares was blamed but today we know the Navy’s attempts at efficiency caused the problem. Bottles of lemon and lime juice had been found to freeze and smash in the Arctic and so using copper kettles the juice was distilled into a concentrate and so allowing smaller bottles. Unfortunately copper leaches vitamin C and heat destroys it, therefore the concentrate was missing the properties required. Even worse the bottles still froze, the men would use their bodies to warm the bottles, however, as the essence would sink to the bottom the men were only drinking water. Therefore, whilst a cure for scurvy had been found many did not believe lemon and lime juice to be effective.
British National Antarctic Expedition 1901-04(top)
The British National Antarctic Expedition 1901-04 led by Captain Scott also suffered from scurvy. On their attempt to reach the South Pole Scott, Shackleton and Wilson suffered from the effects of scurvy. Shackleton was the first to succumb and was unable to man-haul the sledges. He became so ill that when they did reach a depot of food he was unable to eat much. On their return to the ship Scott decided that Shackleton should be invalided out, as he believed him too ill to spend another winter in the Antarctic. Shackleton was not happy to leave and some have suggested he was never able to fully forgive Scott for sending him home.
British Antarctic Expedition 1910-13(top)
The British Antarctic Expedition 1910-13 led by Scott has similar problems with scurvy. A diet lacking in vitamin C is seen as one of the causes for the failure of the expedition and ultimately the deaths of the party on their return voyage from the south pole. In comparison Amundson’s party had no problems with scurvy, preferring their seal and penguin meat almost raw, this retained more vitamin C than the meat the British overcooked.
It is thought be some that scurvy may have been a contributing factor to the early death of Evans. It is generally believed that he died as a result of a head injury from falling into a crevasse, however, it is possible that scurvy played a role in this. One of the side effects from scurvy is haemorrhaging, is it possible that Evans did suffer an internal injury to his head which was exacerbated due to the effects scurvy (Feeney 1998).
Hunger and Starvation(top)
During the heroic age of exploration hunger and ultimately starvation was a real threat. We know today that a person on a polar expedition needs to consume between 4000 and 6000 calories per day to remain fit and healthy. However, during the heroic age nutritional knowledge was gathered by trial and error. There were two main reasons for hunger during this period:
- Lack of nutritional knowledge
- Unexpected disasters
Lack of Nutritional Knowledge(top)
Today we know a person taking part in a polar expedition needs between 4000 and 6000 calories per day. These calories should come from a balanced diet of 20-25% protein, 25-30% fat and 50% carbohydrates (Gunn 1988). We also know that we need a range of vitamins and minerals to keep healthy and prevent diseases of deficiency. However, explorers during the heroic age of exploration were not privileged to such knowledge.
British National Antarctic Expedition 1901-04(top)
We know that in the heroic age of exploration the recommended calorie intake was rarely met, for example Scott’s 1901-04 rations were 3500 calories per day made up of 30% protein, 15% fat and 55% carbohydrate. Therefore his diet was low in calories and was lacking in fat, vital to provide enough warmth and energy on a polar expedition. In addition, when sledging trips lasted longer than expected these rations needed to be stretched further often making food for seven days last ten. Food intended to last the men seven days was already insufficient in calories, but when this food was stretched to ten days the insufficiencies grew.
Food was so short that not a scrap of food could be wasted, when Shackleton split the pot containing that night’s hoosh there was silence during which Shackleton collected up all the bits he had spilt!
All the men could think about was food and what they would like to eat. They were often tortured by food dreams, as Shackleton recounts:
‘we always dream of something to eat when asleep… My general dream is that fine three-cornered tarts are flying past me upstairs, but I never seem able to stop them. Billy [Edward Wilson] dreams that he is cutting up huge sandwiches, for somebody else always. The captain-lucky-man [Scott] thinks he is eating the stuff, but the joy only lasts in the dreams for he is hungry when he wakes up’
There were short periods of respite such as Christmas Day which they celebrated with full rations, at the end of which Shackleton pulled out a small plum pudding that he had been hidings in a sock with a crumpled piece of holly. Scott wrote ‘ we shall sleep well tonight - no dreams, no tightening of the belt.’
Ultimately the men were forced to turn back, suffering from the effects of scurvy and hunger they were unable to reach the south pole but had reached the furthest south for the time. Had they had sufficient food and a knowledge of how this should be balanced it is unlikely Shackleton would have had such a breakdown and they may have made it to the pole.
British Antarctic Expedition 1907-09(top)
On the British Antarctic Expedition 1907-09 Shackleton had learnt from some of the mistakes made during the 1901-04 British National Antarctic Expedition. He took rations to give the men 34 ounces or 4300 calories per day; this was more than his previous expedition but was only just within the daily-recommended allowance. This became more problematic when on sledging trips supplies ran low and had to be stretched, at one point daily rations were reduced to 20 ounces further reducing their calorie intake to around 2500 calories.
On his march furthest south Shackleton had taken ponies, these were intended to be used for transport but ultimately became a source of food. The ponies found the going very difficult and as each one became exhausted it was shot, and its remains and rations added to the men’s ration with some being depoted for the return journey. Shackleton speaks of the joy on returning to one of these depots to find a frozen cube of pony blood. They were able to mix the blood into a hoosh giving them a thick and nutritious meal.
This pony meat helped the men to keep going when their meagre supplies were insufficient. Unfortunately, as well as trying to conserve food the men were also trying to save fuel. As they did not have enough fuel to stew the pony meat until it was tender they decided to only warm it through. Every man who ate this semi-cooked pony meat became ill with dysentery, further slowing their journey.
Short of food and with an ill party Shackleton calculated he would have enough food to make it to the pole but not enough to cover his return. He later wrote to his wife explaining his decision saying that he thought it better to be a live donkey than a dead lion. Shackleton calculated how long he could make their food last and decided how far south this would allow them to go. Even so food was scarce, and carefully divided. When dividing up the evenings hoosh one member would turn their backs and as the hoosh was evenly dished out they would shout the person who should have that bowl. This ensured that any slight discrepancies in the amount of food were down to chance. Once they had finished their hoosh the men would eat their biscuits as slowly as possible to prolong their dinner, if one of them dropped a crumb the others would let them know, not a scrap was wasted.
Whilst no one joked about food, it was discussed at length what they would like to eat. Wild’s Roll was considered the ideal culinary delight, this imaginary meal consisted of well-seasoned minced meat, wrapped in thick slabs of bacon with plenty of fat and covered with buttery pastry layers, this would then be fried in lard and eaten steaming hot. Finally when they made it to their last depot their dreams of culinary delights came true. Here they found biscuits, plum pudding, eggs, cakes, mutton, the men enjoyed a feast but were careful not to make themselves ill by gorging.
Again an expedition had been cut short and failed to meet its goal due to poor nutritional health, the next time this was to happen was to bring serious consequences.
British Antarctic Expedition 1910-13(top)
There is much debate as to why Scott’s final expedition the 1910-13 British Antarctic Expedition ended so disastrously. We know that a terrible blizzard trapped the men in their tent with little food and that this is where they died having run out of food. But what caused them to find themselves in such a terrible situation? One of the causes is thought to be a lack of a nutritionally balanced diet.
Much comparison has been made between Scott and Amundsen, why was Amundsen successful when Scott was not? As Scott’s party man-hauled their sledges they would have certainly required more calories that Amundsen’s whose sledges were pulled by dogs. In addition it is thought Amundsen had a more balanced diet, for example his biscuits were enriched with oatmeal and yeast and his pemmican with oats and pea flour. Scott’s poorly balanced diet was not entirely his fault; he had based it upon knowledge of the time, but this was to have disastrous consequences.
Their major problem was that delayed by unusually bad weather their food supplies needed to be stretched. This meant they were not getting enough calories per day to give them enough energy to haul and to produce heat to keep them warm, and as the food was stretched to last longer their hunger increased. As they increasingly felt tired and drained this slowed them down which put a further pressure on their supplies of food. We can see from Scott’s diary’s how on the return journey they struggled to make enough miles each day, drawing them into a vicious cycle of less food giving less energy leading to an increased time for the return journey.
Evans was the first of the five to die; as he was the largest of the group he possibly felt the effects of lack of food most acutely. Oates died due to the effects of frostbite, leaving Scott, Wilson and Bowers trapped by a blizzard in their tent with very little food.
Whilst it cannot be said that nutrition was solely to blame for the tragic outcome of Scott’s expedition, it certainly did play a significant role.
Disaster Situations and Hunger(top)
Even with the best planning things can go wrong, when things go wrong in the Arctic or Antarctic the consequences can be disastrous. Some disasters we can look back on and know that today such a situation can be avoided, others are quite simply bad luck. When disaster strikes food is a prime concern, both the Arctic or Antarctic struggle to support large groups of people concentrated in a small space.
British Naval Northwest Passage(top)
We still do not know the exact fate of Franklin’s expedition to the Northwest Passage. What we do know is that both his ships were beset in the ice and at some point sank. This left the men unintentionally stranded on the ice with no means of escape they needed to raise the alarm.
They did not know how long this would take them, and it was unlikely their supplies would last them long enough. Ultimately the men did not have enough food to ward of starvation or sufficient amounts of vitamin C to prevent the onset of scurvy. Whilst mammals and sea life can be found in the Arctic there tends not to be enough to support a group as large as the crews from the Erebus and Terror in such a concentrated space. Evidence gathered including Inuit testimonies suggests that eventually all the men died from a combination of scurvy, starvation and exposure.
The outcome of the Franklin’s expedition contains two controversies regarding nutrition. The first is that members of the expedition developed lead poisoning from the canned food they ate, lead was typically used to solder the cans shut. This stems from high levels of lead found in two bodies known to have been sailors on the expedition. However, we cannot be conclusive about this, lead was commonly used at the time and so we cannot know if this is significantly above the average amount for the time, or if the rest of the crew had similar levels. If the sailors did have lead poisoning the consequences would have been severe.
The fate of Franklin’s expedition has long been associated with the question of cannibalism. Raising the question, what extremes will people go to when starving? The explorer Rae met a group of Inuit who told him that the white men had been reduced to cannibalism and had eaten members of their party, Rae wrote that:
“From the mutilated state of many of the corpses and the contents of the kettles, it is evident that our wretched countrymen had been driven to the last resource - cannibalism - as a means of prolonging existence” (Rae 1854).
This caused outcry at the time and Rae was derided in the press who could not imagine the British navy being reduced to cannibalism. Franklin’s wife, Lade Jane Franklin could not imagine such a thing and funded further expeditions to gather more detail as to the fate of her husband and his men. As a result Rae never gained much recognition for his polar work. Scientists today have uncovered striation marks on the bones which suggest cannibalism was likely, this is still a contentious topic and hotly debated today. However, it is difficult for us to contemplate the lengths a starving person will go to in the hope of surviving.
Ultimately we do not know what happened to the ships or their crews, but it is thought that all the men died through a mixture of scurvy, starvation and exposure.
British Antarctic Expedition 1910-13(top)
The fate of the Northern Party of Scott’s 1910-13 British Antarctic Expedition is not as well known as the fate of their leader. In February 1911 they had been dropped off by the Terra Nova to undertake a six week exploration of the area 200 miles north of McMurdo Sound, unfortunately due to heavy pack ice the Terra Nova was not able to return to pick them up and they were unexpectedly forced to over winter waiting for the summer in which they could sledge down to Cape Evans. The men were not prepared for such an event and only had enough food to last them a few weeks.
The men managed to construct themselves an ice cave to wait the winter out. They hunted seals at every opportunity so they would have enough to last them throughout the winter and also to supplement the sledging journey they would need to undertake at the end of winter. They succeeded in catching enough to see them through, although at some points they were reduced to half rations.
In addition they eked out their sledging rations, putting some aside for their sledge trip they calculated very precisely what to eat and when. Breakfast was one mug of penguin and seal hoosh and one biscuit, dinner was one and a half mugs of seal and one biscuit. On five nights this was followed by thin cocoa, one night fresh tea and the last re-boiled tea. In addition the men were given one stick of chocolate on a Saturday and eight lumps of sugar on a Sunday and raisins on someone’s birthday. Interestingly none of these men developed scurvy and survived the winter in relatively good health considering their situation. The men were always hungry but it was a lack of satisfaction and a craving for variation that was the problem. They tried being inventive with their food and flavoured it with what they had available. Citric acid tablets were found to work well in water, but ginger tablets did not work so well and a mustard plaster proved disastrously to merely taste of linseed.
Their only health problem was food poisoning through unhygienic cooking equipment, their biscuit tin oven was being used to thaw frozen seal, this resulted in a mixing of raw and cooked meats and bacterial growth. Luckily all the men recovered, however, at times were slowed down on their journey due to the effects of food poisoning.
Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition 1914-16(top)
Unlike Franklin’s party who all died when their ship was crushed, the 28 men of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition 1914-16 all survived after their ship was crushed. Amazingly at no point during their time stranded on Antarctica were the men near starvation. The men were able to hunt enough seal and penguin meat to last them through their stay. Having said this food was strictly rationed and rather scarce - one man spent an hour in the snow looking for a piece of cheese he had dropped the previous day. When Shackleton returned to collect his men from Elephant Island he arrived just in time as their stocks of seal meat had dwindled and they were now gathering limpets, seaweed and seal bones to boil into a stew.
Their bigger issue was water, they needed fuel to melt ice into water but needed to be careful about how much fuel was used. Often the men would sleep with bottles of water in their sleeping bags so that in the morning some of the ice would have melted.
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