As we
prepare for this New Year’s Eve celebrations, with hope for better tides
glistening on the horizon, I can’t help wondering what Mr Mackay or even the
valiant Captain James Cook might think were they able to take a peep beyond the
18th century. 
You see, there
is a magnificent, restored property, hidden now beneath a mass of modern,
cement urbanisations, which hosts one of the most attractive and indulgent of New
Year’s Eve parties for Canary Island revellers. It is known as Finca Mackay, after
a Scottish merchant who settled on the Atlantic island of Tenerife two hundred
and fifty years ago. He owned the splendid 16th century Canary
Island mansion overlooking the bay and port of Santa Cruz and Captain Cook,
Britain’s most famous navigator, maritime explorer and cartographer, was once
his honoured guest.
Mackay’s country mansion as it is today

records show that on 1st August, 1776 lookouts on the San Cristóbal
fortress signalled that sails were approaching from the horizon.  It wasn’t long before two splendid ships boasting
the British fleet’s red ensign sailed silently into the bay of Santa Cruz and
anchored within rowing distance of the waves lapping the shore.  It was Cook on his third and last voyage of discovery,
and it is remarkable to think how it was in this same arena, almost exactly
twenty one years later, that Horatio Nelson lost his arm and suffered his only defeat when
he decided to attack Tenerife.   
Nelson attacking Santa Cruz in July 1797

But who
knows exactly why Cook, the great English hero, chose to accept Mackay’s
hospitality. One might imagine Cook felt the need to drift inland, away from
the monotonous blue, for one last chance to savour the offerings of a fellow
gentleman before confronting his third great voyage of discovery. Some historians
suggest Mackay was already a friend of Cook’s. Others believe there were in
fact two logical reasons. One was because the house was blessed with a perfect
view of the bay where his ships, HMS Resolution and HMS Discovery, commanded by
Charles Clerke, lay anchored. The other was that Mackay’s house, which local
pronunciation gradually modified to
house, was surrounded by lemon groves.
HMS Resolution and HMS Discovery

explanations coincide with the idea that Captain James Cook, a quiet and
thoughtful gentleman known for his common sense and meticulous planning also possessed
extraordinary humanity, especially in trying to improve conditions for his
seamen. Indeed it is difficult to imagine the hardships faced by seamen of the
Royal and Merchant navies of the 18th and 19th centuries,
but filth aboard ships and resultant infections were responsible for more
deaths than battles or shipwrecks. Cook, more than any other, insisted upon
cleanliness and a healthy environment upon his ships. He was often more
interested in preventing sickness than in sighting a new shore. Unfortunately,
long voyages like the ones he was commissioned to embark upon often meant a
lack of fresh food and constant threat from the dreaded Skurvy, the seamen’s illness which Cook feared more than any
foreign enemy.
Captain James Cook

That is why,
when he arrived at Santa Cruz in August, 1776, Cook despatched men to purchase
as many fresh greens as possible, especially from landowners in the town of
Tacoronte and beyond. These would be preserved by sandwiching them between
layers of salt. James Cook took some of his men up the slopes to just below the
town of San Cristobal de La Laguna, the island’s original administrative and
religious capital after the Spanish final conquest in 1496. That was where he gratefully
accepted Mr MacKay’s invitation. I suspect the great navigator was not so much
interested in the private comforts of a grand house but rather in what the
Scotsman could provide for the wellbeing of his seamen and they returned to the
port with cartloads of lemons from Mackay’s land.
medical studies proved that the consumption of ascorbic acid or Vitamin C, found
in lemons and oranges, led to the prevention of scurvy. James Lind, an
Edinburgh surgeon, conducted numerous experiments in 1747 using six sailors who
were sick with scurvy. He treated them individually with cider, sulphuric acid,
vinegar, purging with sea water and with a paste containing garlic, dried
mustard seed, dried radish root, balsam of Peru and gum myrrh. Only two of the
six patients survived. Luckily for them Lind had also given them lemons and
oranges. Although the Edinburgh surgeon never scientifically explained why citrus
juices were so effective, his four hundred page work, Treatise on Scurvy, published in 1753, led to the Admiralty
recommending that ships stock not only wort of malt, the preferred
antiscorbutic agent and more popular with the crew, but also lemons and
James Lind administering lemon juice to a sick mariner

It was
already a custom for British seamen to be allowed regular gulps of fermented
liquor, and ale was the standard ration as early as the 14th
century. By the late 18th century beer was considered a staple beverage
and essential to soothe the hardships of sea life, as well as a medicine, like
wort and malt, to help prevent scurvy. Captain Cook administered an infusion of
malt in his attempts to prevent scurvy although it seems his own experiments to
determine whether wort was in fact a cure were inconclusive. So, persevering in
his regime of cleanliness, fresh air and an antiscorbutic diet he encouraged
naturalists who accompanied him on his voyages to identify any edible plant
which might help fight scurvy. He also eagerly adopted other remedies like
carrot marmalade and concentrated lemon juice. Thus his main objective upon
landing on Tenerife was to obtain Mr Mackay’s lemons.

Forcing his
seamen to take concentrated lemon juice as well as sauerkraut on a daily basis
was not popular, as one can imagine, and it was only after he ordered that his
officers should set an example and take the same medicine that the murmurings
amongst the crew ceased. Whether his preference for Tenerife lemons resulted or
not in maintaining a healthy crew, what is certain is that Captain Cook won the
battle against scurvy aboard his ships. Not a single member of Cook’s crews perished
as a result of scurvy and The Royal Society awarded him the Copley Gold Medal in
recognition of his efforts to improve the health of British seamen. 
(Certain images have been reproduced from internet with no personal financial gain intended.)

By John Reid Young

Author of The Skipping Verger and Other Tales