Scurvy dogs

Tomorrow I start the usual diaspora, and this year promises to be busier than most. It’ll take me to various parts of Europe, sub-saharan Africa, back to the Far East, and to the Americas. Next week is just a short hop to Belgium, but for some fairly complex discussions. Other journeys will bring new ideas, and some will show up here. As Abraham the astronomer says in The India Road, “ideas are the fuel of life”. And ideas can start from a trivial observation, such as the fact that dogs don’t eat fruit. My own dog exhibits a preference for rice and chicken, which might be partly due to African roots, since her mother is a Rhodesian Ridgeback. Or in a politically correct world, is that Zimbabwean Zigzag? In any case it got me wondering about the expression “scurvy dogs”, a well worn insult used by pirates of the Anglo-Saxon persuasion, and made popular in many a cartoon and children’s book.

…as in: “Hoist that scurvy dog from the yardarm!”

Many expressions have parallels in various languages, and many insults too, such as those which focus on uncertain paternity. But other words and expressions are particular to one country. An oyster, for instance, is variously called ostra in Spain and Portugal, huître in France, auster in German and ostrica in Italy. In all the words you can see a common thread. I’d easily spot it on a menu and order a dozen immediately! But what about ameijoa, almeja, palourde, venusmuscheln, and vongole? Well, they all mean clam, itself a very different word from the others (the German word means Venus mussel).

…So scurvy dog, the insult of pirates, why? Do dogs get scurvy? Clearly not, and neither do most vertebrates. A short hop on the net reveals that most mammals synthesize their own vitamin C in the liver, whereas for instance reptiles exclusively use the kidney. Only the primates, and in particular most monkeys and all anthropoid apes (yup, that’s us!) have no capacity to manufacture this vitamin, essencial for prevention of scurvy. So it seems that if dogs were adept at naval construction, they would have had great success in long voyages of maritime discovery, were it not for the fact that they lack the opposable thumb required for hoisting the mainsail or loading the hold with kegs of spices.

No similar expression to “scurvy dog” exists in other languages, to my knowledge, and I can only imagine the dog in the insult contracts from sea dog, which does occur with variations elsewhere, the Portuguese version being lobo do mar, or sea wolf.

But today is for celebration, since the very last issues for the Portuguese edition of The India Road are being resolved. The local edition has a preface to it, written by the foremost living expert on the Portuguese voyages of discovery. He makes the point that in the XVth and XVIth centuries Portugal revolutionized the western view of the world. My reason for writing the book in the first place was to tell that story in a way which might appeal broadly to those who speak and read English, and who are taught through a historical looking glass that places Columbus as the centerpiece of the age of maritime discovery. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The paradigm shift brought about by the Portuguese in that epic period revolved around the methods used to develop and apply science to navigation, and the discovery of new routes which showed an understanding of global wind and current patterns. For a small country, with a chronic shortage of people for such a monumental task as the eastern adventure, two other factors were paramount: the first was the insight that a clear political agreement with the elephant in the room, otherwise known as Spain, was required; this was done through two treaties, Alcáçovas in 1479 and particularly Tordesillas in 1494. This last treaty, signed the year before the death of the Perfect Prince, divided the unexplored world between Portugal and Spain along a meridian line 370 leagues west of Cape Verde. After ratification by the pope (who was Spanish, and close to Isabella of Castille), the French king was so incensed that he demanded to see the clause in the testament of Adam excluding him from the division.

There is no expression in Portuguese which mirrors the English blood is thicker than water, but the final factor was of course the enthusiastic development of mixed communities everywhere the mariners established themselves. In India, and probably other places, special dispensations were issued to sailors by the priesthood allowing for second marriages (essentially polygamy), and the evidence is clear to this day.

The photograph above is from 1960, and shows my mother and brother on the balcony of a fourth floor apartment in Lisbon. The street below is called Rodrigo da Fonseca, named after a XIXth  century Portuguese politician. The recently defeated candidate to the Sri Lankan presidential election is called Sarath Fonseka.


One Response to “Scurvy dogs”

  1. slivka Says:

    That photo brings back many wonderful memories;and so recognizable!

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