Revisiting sailors' diets during the Age of Sail illuminates the challenges faced by seafarers in procuring, preserving, and consuming food at sea. Ship's biscuits, salted meat, peas, fish, oatmeal, cheese, butter, and beer formed the foundation of their nutrition as they traversed the oceans.
BEGINNING in the mid-15th century and lasting a few thousand years till the mid-19th century, history witnessed an era we now know as the “Age of Sail”, when oceanic trade routes were forged and — for better or worse — entire cultures, peoples and continents shaped.
Sailors of course were the foot-soldiers of the Age of Sail, and their sustenance therefore was of no small consequence. Samuel Pepys, the renowned British diarist and naval administrator, aptly remarked, "Englishmen, and more specifically seamen, treasure their bellies above all else." Sailors' diets were instrumental in maintaining their physical well-being and bolstering their morale, shaping their experiences on the vast seas.
To gain insights into sailors' diets, we turn to the historical records of the British Royal Navy. Samuel Pepys, as the secretary to the Admiralty, formulated contracts with victuallers, defining predetermined rations for each sailor. These rations would primarily consist of ship's biscuits, salted pork or beef, dried fish, peas, cheese, butter, and beer. Pepys meticulously accounted for possible substitutions, ensuring that sailors received essential rations to provide for the journey. Although minor adjustments were made over time, such as replacing fish with oatmeal in 1731, these budgets remained relatively consistent.
OF (SALTED) BEEF & (SHIP’S) BISCUITS
The sailors' diet was prominently anchored by ship's biscuits, also known as "biskets", which constituted a significant portion of their nourishment. Bakers crafted these unleavened biscuits using coarser wheat flour to economise, resulting in plate-sized biscuits often stored in bags. The ingredients were limited to flour and water, devoid of yeast or salt. However, unscrupulous victuallers sometimes resorted to inferior substitutes, leading to the production of low-quality biscuits that easily crumbled. On occasions when sailors had access to a baker in port, they were fortunate enough to savour fresh bread or rusk.
Beef and pork served as the primary protein sources for sailors, with a preference for beef prevalent among mariners. Given the challenges of preserving fresh meat for extended voyages, salted meat emerged as the norm. The process of salting and pickling involved dry-rubbing the meat with salt, followed by brining and storage in casks. At times, the unethical ways of the victuallers would result in less desirable cuts in the barrels, compromising the overall quality of the meat. The Navy instituted regulations to maintain the quality of supplied meat, ensuring compliance with specific standards.
Sailors frequently supplemented their diets with peas, often consumed alongside pork. Dried peas, readily available in England and other northern European countries, were the most commonly utilised variety. In addition, designated days saw the provision of salted fish, such as North Sea Cod and stockfish, presenting an additional protein source. However, due to preservation challenges associated with fish, oatmeal gradually replaced salted fish in sailors' rations. Oatmeal was preferred not only as a non-salted alternative but also due to the belief that it counteracted the effects of a high-sodium diet, contributing to the seamen’s overall health.
STAPLES ON BOARD
Cheese and butter constituted valuable sources of fat and protein in sailors' diets. These dairy products were primarily sourced from various regions in England, including Suffolk, Cheshire, Wiltshire, Gloucestershire, and Warwickshire. Among the available options, Cheshire and Suffolk cheeses were the most prevalent, with sailors favouring the former due to its higher fat content derived from full-fat milk. However, some victuallers opted for cheaper alternatives, producing Suffolk cheese from skimmed milk. Butter, hailing from Suffolk, the eastern counties of England, and Ireland, offered an additional means of supplementing the sailors' calorie intake.
Beer held a pivotal role in sailors' diets, serving as a fundamental source of hydration. Brewed from malt, hops, and water, it offered a safer alternative to potentially contaminated water supplies. The navy carefully regulated the beer's production to maintain its quality, and sailors often diluted their daily beer ration with water to stretch its supply and mitigate the risk of intoxication. However, access to fresh water was available when necessary, ensuring sailors' hydration during long voyages.
When it comes to the rations aboard civilian vessels, there exist both similarities and intriguing differences compared to their naval counterparts. Foundational staples like biscuits, peas, salted pork, salted beef, butter, flour, cheese, and salted fish served as the common fare throughout the vast Atlantic expanse. These provisions, widely available in numerous ports, boasted an extended shelf life, making them ideal for long-duration voyages undertaken by whalers, privateers, merchant vessels, fishing craft, and even slave ships. However, it is worth noting that civilian vessels held certain distinct provisions that set them apart from their naval counterparts.
LIFE & LIVESTOCK
A notable departure was the inclusion of livestock for crew consumption. While the Navy occasionally managed to accommodate significant quantities of live animals for their vast crews, such endeavours posed numerous challenges. Naval vessels, burdened by hundreds of crew members, required ample space for provisions, equipment, and armament, leaving little room for housing and feeding animals. The presence of livestock aboard naval ships was primarily reserved for the ship's captain and officers, with these animals often sharing the same food as the sailors — an arrangement that frequently irked the crew.
In contrast, civilian vessels, particularly those with smaller crews numbering below a dozen men, had more flexibility in carrying live animals. On occasion, larger civilian vessels with crews ranging from one to three dozen men, such as larger East Indian privateering vessels, and certain slave ships primed for potential combat scenarios, also embraced the option of housing livestock. However, the challenges associated with procuring, accommodating, and feeding animals for such large crews proved less viable than the practice aboard civilian vessels.
In New England, vessels embarking on short local trading voyages or heading to the northern fishing grounds augmented their provisions with beans, chicken, Indian corn, and other live animals, alongside the customary naval rations. Fishing vessels, while their catch served as a source of nutrition, faced the predicament of consuming potential profits. Some resourceful fishermen even distilled oil from the fish they caught, employing it for cooking purposes. Ship owners within the fishing fleet perfidiously sold additional food, beverages, clothing, and supplies to their crews, deducting the costs from their earnings at the voyage's end. This practice often left the fishermen with meagre or nonexistent wages, entangling them in debt servitude. The fishing industry was notorious for plunging its men into considerable indebtedness, a consequence of their extensive provision sales.
On slave ships, provisions diverged from the standard naval rations due to the large quantities of inexpensive food required to sustain the enslaved individuals during the gruelling middle passage across the Atlantic. For their two daily meals at 10 AM and 5 PM, groups of ten slaves received tubs of food accompanied by several spoons. A common meal for slaves consisted of horse beans boiled with Muscovy lard sourced from Holland. In the absence of beans, boiled peas seasoned with lard, suet, or salted herring formed an alternative. Occasionally, maize or cassava substituted the peas. Additional elements to these meals might include small amounts of palm oil and Guinea pepper. Infrequently, slaves were allocated rations of salted beef or pork, often cooked without adequately removing the meat's salt. Mealtimes were complemented by modest amounts of water, typically equivalent to a coconut shell's capacity. In rare instances, a dram of brandy or other strong alcohol was provided for health purposes.
(SOME) REGULATION & REFORM
While the Navy enjoyed an advantage concerning provisions, courtesy of government funding, ensuring their quality and sufficiency presented persistent challenges. It was only after the implementation of reforms spearheaded by Samuel Pepys in the late seventeenth century that the quantity and quality of rations improved for sailors. Civilian vessels, driven by profit-oriented objectives, operated under more stringent budgetary constraints. Consequently, their crews sometimes endured reduced rations compared to their naval counterparts.
Regional variations in sea provisions emerged, dictated by geographical locales and the availability of local produce. Voyages traversing warmer climates closer to the equator or further south unveiled an array of additional options, including turtle meat and indigenous fruits like plantains. In sparsely populated regions, ships were beholden to the provisions that locals could offer — be it surplus crops, freshly caught fish, or imported supplies.
In dire circumstances, such as voyages conducted far from friendly ports or within remote waters, resourceful mariners resorted to seizing provisions from enemy vessels, a practice rooted in historical naval tradition.
In the realm of maritime voyages, the provisioning of rations and diet proved both an art and a science, as ship commanders strived to strike a delicate balance between nutritional requirements, budgetary constraints, and the realities of life at sea. It is through an exploration of the provisions aboard both civilian vessels and naval ships that we gain insight into the trials and triumphs of those who braved the open waters, girded by the provisions that assisted their nautical pursuits.