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If humans ever venture on long interstellar journeys, will they pine away for the Earth? The first European circumnavigators certainly did. “Earth” in their case was the land from which they’d been long separated. Going against the reigning Hippocratic tradition, which postulated people were uniquely suited to the particular “airs, waters, places” in which they grew up, circumnavigating mariners thought of themselves as globally terrestrial beings who got sick because of their separation from the land itself. Any land.

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What they suffered from was actually scurvy, a debilitating lack of ascorbic acid (vitamin C) in their diet. Without fresh fruit or vegetables, crews of long-distance voyages were particularly, even inevitably, subject to the disease—and could die from it via associated infections and bleeding. Mariners explained this earthsickness or mal de terre by saying that their bodies were unequipped to live at sea. As historian Joyce E. Chaplin writes, “from the 1500s into the early 1800s, circumnavigators offered up their scorbutic bodies as proof that humans were terrestrial creatures, physically suited to the earthly parts of a terraqueous globe.”

Chaplin examines earthsickness as “an early manifestation of planetary consciousness.” Most historians assign “humanity’s secular self-awareness on a planetary scale” as a development of the nineteenth century. Chaplin argues that circumnavigators from the sixteenth century on “conceived of themselves as actors on a planetary scale, as creatures adapted to all of the land on earth, not just their places of origin.” A version of planetary consciousness thus emerged from those “with partial or informal educations, rather than in learned circles.”

Chaplin stresses how dangerous circumnavigation was in the age of sail, noting that “before the 1770s, a circumnavigation was usually done as a sneak attack on someone else’s empire. It was a desperate strategy, quite expensive, and uncommon.” Trips took years, during which crew members died, deserted, or were abandoned, all at high rates.

For example, the attrition rates of six circumnavigations between 1519 and 1706 were never better than Francis Drake’s 1577–1580 expedition: 66 percent, meaning only fifty-six of the original 164 men made it back. Of Drake’s five ships, only one returned. Ferdinand Magellan’s earlier 1519–1522 expedition saw 39 of the original 275 men return, on one of the five original ships. Three circumnavigation expeditions lost all their ships and only saw handfuls of crew members return, sometimes more than a decade after departure.

Conditions were grim. During the first circumnavigation, led by Magellan, the crew subsisted on “ship’s biscuit soaked with rat’s urine” before eating the rats themselves during the months it took to cross the Pacific. (Needless to say, Magellan’s crew was hard hit by scurvy.)

It’s little wonder that “sailors might become weary of the sea.” In the early 1600s, Richard Hawkins, whose attempted circumnavigation included ten years as a prisoner of the Spanish, thought it possible scurvy might be cured by oranges, but he believed that the surest cure was the “air of the land.” The ample air of the ocean, so good for propelling ships, was definitely not the same.

Of particular note, the “polyglot, multiethnic, and racially composite” character of ship crews showed that every sailor was prone to fall sick at sea. This countered the emerging racial hierarchy that postulated entirely different bodies of humans around the world. George Anson’s “Indian and Negro” prisoners developed scurvy first on his 1740–1744 circumnavigation during the War of Jenkins’s Ear, but that was because he cut their rations first.

One of Anson’s officers wrote that humans have a terrestrial “Je ne sais quois…or in plain English, the land is man’s proper element, and vegetables and fruit his only physic.” Land in this belief system, writes Chaplin, was “tonic for the mind, as well as the body.” Scurvy American sailors were even buried to their hips in the Earth, to reported good effect, during the Columbia’s 17901793 voyage.

Chaplin, who has also written a book-length study of the circumnavigators, notes that the word “nostalgia” was originally coined by Johannes Hofer, a Swiss physician, in 1678. It described a desire for home.

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Bulletin of the History of Medicine, Vol. 86, No. 4, Special Issue: Modern Airs, Waters, and Places (Winter 2012), pp. 515–542
The Johns Hopkins University Press