Scurvy Plagued Columbus’ Crew, Even After the Sailors Left the Sea

Severe scurvy and malnutrition set the stage for the fall of La Isabela

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Skeletal remains being dug up at La Isabela, the first European settlement in the New World, founded by Christopher Columbus is 1493. Jim Sugar/Corbis

When early explorers first made their way across the Atlantic Ocean to the New World, their arrival on terra firma was not nearly the end of their difficult journey. Early European settlements in the Americas were plagued by drought, disease, and difficult conditions. In the first European town, La Isabela in the Dominican Republic, the crew of Christopher Columbus, having been weakened by severe scurvy, eventually succumbed to a range of diseases, says National Geographic reporting on a new study.

Scurvy, the consequence of a prolonged vitamin C deficiency, was not an uncommon ailment of seafarers. The problem faced by the residents of La Isabela, however, says National Geographic, is that even once they settled in the Caribbean, the European colonialists failed to incorporate any of the local, vitamin C-rich foods into their diets. Severe scurvy left the Spanish explorers weakened, and other diseases, such as smallpox and influenza, finished them off.

The identification that many of the La Isabela residents had severe scurvy, say the scientists in their study, changes how we think about the severity of new world diseases on old world immune systems:

Scurvy probably contributed significantly to the outbreak of sickness and collective death within the first months of La Isabela's settlement, an aspect that inflects the current discussion about the degree of virulence of New World infections that decimated the European newcomers, who we conclude to have been already debilitated and exhausted by scurvy and general malnutrition.

Wrought by disease, La Isabela stood occupied for just four years.

New World colonialists' struggles didn't end with La Isabela, of course. More than a century later, during Virginia's Jamestown Colony's “Starving Time,” residents turned to cannibalism to survive the harsh winter.

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