5/30/13 Leading from the Front

Captain James Cook was a British Royal Navy Captain, navigator, explorer, cartographer, and world traveler. Reading his journals is fascinating, with many, many mundane entries about longitude, latitude, depth soundings, and wind and weather, interspersed with glimpses of terror, mayhem, and death at sea, or the same on the shores of some distant island at the hands of hostile natives. Captain Cook himself met his demise at the hands of hostile locals in the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) in 1779. Prior to his death, he had seen as much of the world as any man had theretofore seen, naming many islands which still bear the names he gave them to this day. He was a remarkable man, and a remarkable leader: a lesson for all who would lead.

Scurvy, caused by a deficiency of vitamin C, was a common ailment of sailors. It can be fatal. Captain Cook and his ships surgeons had run experiments on feeding daily rations of sauerkraut and a wheat wort to the sailors. Wort is the soured mash that is later fermented into beer. I have never eaten wort, but it sounds nasty, and apparently it is nasty, since the sailors mostly refused to eat it, even when knowing it would prevent them from getting scurvy.

At first, Captain Cook had ordered the men to eat their daily rations, but this wasn’t working out to his satisfaction due to their refusal. He then developed a unique idea, setting a fine example of leadership and showing that he knew more than a little about human nature.

…the man at first would not eat it, until I put it practice – a method I never Knew once to fail with seamen – and this was to have some of it dressed every day for the Captain table…I found it necessary to put every one on an allowance; for such are the Templars and disposition of Seamen in general that whatever you give them out of the common way — altho’ it be ever so much for their good — it will not go down, and you will hear nothing but murmurings against the Man that first invented it; but the moment they see their superiors set a value upon it, it becomes the finest stuff in the world and the inventor an honest fellow.

His sailors thought that they were being provided swill for their food, since the officers had not previously been required to eat the wort or sauerkraut. Hearing these murmurings and knowing that he needed neither them nor a crew with scurvy, Captain Cook set forth a bold new plan. He would eat the daily ration of the sauerkraut and wort himself, requiring his officers to do the same. I’m sure that, human nature being what it is, there were those who tried to shovel their ration over the side, but no doubt the Captain could not have the sailors see this being done. Everyone ate, including himself.

When the sailors saw the the Captain valued this food, they began to consume it with a relish . . . thus, for the first time in the history of long naval voyages, though signs of scurvy were diligently searched out by the ship’s surgeons and the Captain, not a single drew member became ill.

Later on, when it was discovered that citrus fruits were filled with vitamin C, the sailors were allowed limes to eat, thus, sailors became known as “Limeys.” I suspect sucking on a lime is better than eating wort, and while there are those who have a taste for sauerkraut, I am not among them . . . though, I’d eat a bait of it in lieu of getting the scurvy.

The example here is that until Captain Cook showed the value of these foods to the men by consuming it himself on a daily basis, they had no taste for it. When the crew learned that it was fit for the Captain, and that he apparently liked it, they decided that it was fit for them, too. He may have even acted like he was going to cut back on their rations in order to consume it himself.

“The bloody Captain . . . eating all that bloody wort ‘isself, ‘e is, leeavin’ none for us seamen what works so hard and apt to take the scurvy,” said an able-bodied seaman to the chief bosun’s mate on the main deck, as the ship slid forward under full sail on a fresh gale off the port stern on a warm, tropical night, the new moon overhead, and dark as dark could be, except for the glint of the Southern stars and the orange glow from the clay pipe of the bosun’s mate..

“You’d better eat it up when they serve it,” said the bosun’s mate, “Thar’s no need in letting the officers get it all when we can have our share.”

Overhearing this conversation, normally administering discipline to anyone who dared use the word “Captain” in any sort of derogatory manner, Captain Cook smiled to himself, went below, and retired to his quarters.

“Eight bells,” said the officer of the watch, followed by, “Two hundred-forty fathoms, no bottom!”

A fair wind, a soft, deep sea, a ship’s larder full of scurvy-less foods, and a Captain to be respected, “It could be worse,” the sailor said to himself, as he stood tall, erect, and straight-of-spine, facing the bow of the ship, peering off into the limitless distance of a tropical night, the Southern Cross blazing overhead. “It could be worse . . .”

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