Life at sea in the age of sail

Over a period of hundreds of years, seafarers from the age of the early explorers to the beginning of the 19th century shared many common experiences. Men working at sea had much to endure. Cut off from normal life on shore for months, even years, they had to accept cramped conditions, disease and poor food and pay. Above all, they faced the daily dangers of sea and weather.

A seaman’s life was hard, and he had to be tough to survive, so ship’s officers kept strict discipline on board. In this way they hoped to keep morale high and prevent mutiny.  Punishments at sea were designed as warnings to others. Of course some captains were more cruel than others but even Admiral Nelson, who cared for his men, found it necessary to condemn sailors to harsh floggings. However, these punishments must be compared with those on shore at the same time. For centuries, a criminal could be hanged for stealing something worth five pence.  Seamen could be ‘tarred and feathered’, tied to a rope, swung overboard and ducked or ‘keel-hauled’ (dragged round the underneath of the ship). Flogging was the most common, though, with the whole crew often being made to watch. A rope’s end was used, or the infamous ‘cat o’ nine tails’. A seaman found guilty of mutiny or murder would be hanged from the yard arm.

For the sailors the main rations were salt beef or pork, cheese, fish, ale and some form of ship’s biscuit. The quality of the food deteriorated because of storage problems, lack of ventilation, and poor drainage. It was also affected by the presence of rats and other vermin on board. Biscuits were often filled with maggots and weevils, a type of beetle. Many ships’ suppliers were dishonest and sent stores that were already rotten before they were taken on board.  The ship’s cook was often selected from seamen who were wounded or maimed and therefore unfit for other duties. In the days of the early explorers such as Magellan and Columbus, food was cooked ‘barbecue’ style on the open deck, but by Nelson’s time, a ship had its own kitchen, known as a ‘galley’.

Jobs on-board depended on whether the vessel was a warship or a merchantman, although in earlier times the need to defend cargo meant that the latter would have to be armed.  As well as the cook, special jobs were carried out by the parson, surgeon, master gunner, boatswain (in charge of the sails), carpenter and quartermaster. Other members of the crew would, of course, carry out all the duties, including keeping watch, handling sails, and cleaning decks.

For British vessels it was not always possible to fill ships’ crews with volunteers, especially in wartime, so the Law allowed gangs to seize men and force them to join a ship. Officially, only men who were already seafarers were supposed to be taken, but in practice gangs grabbed many others, such as apprentices or labourers. Pressing peaked in the 18th century but it was still going on as late as 1850. The grief and anger of pressed men at being torn from their families was another reason why on-board discipline had to be tough.

There was a great deal of sickness at sea. Seamen were often cold and wet, rats carried disease, and the poor diet not only caused malnutrition but specific illnesses such as scurvy. Scurvy was caused by a lack of vitamin C in the diet. Not everyone recognised the discovery made by Sir Richard Hawkins in the late 16th century that daily doses of orange or lemon juice could prevent this terrible disease which rotted the skin and gums and caused teeth to fall out.  Illness too came from eating too much salt with the ship’s meat. As well as injury from shipboard accidents, there was risk of death or maiming in times of battle. Ships’ surgeons worked in cramped and filthy conditions with no anesthetic for patients having amputations. Infection and gangrene was commonplace.

Throughout the centuries, seamen’s pay has been poor, even when compared with the small wages earned by – for example – common labourers, on shore. By the end of the 1700s, pay on a Naval ship was less than that on a merchant ship. However, as well as their basic wages, sailors would expect to have a share of prize money or booty from captured enemy vessels.

The hard conditions on board ship often created a good sense of comradeship, and sailors enjoyed each others’ company off duty. Traditionally hard-drinking and tough, seamen made the best of their cramped living quarters, enjoying games of dice and cards, telling tales, playing musical instruments, carving, drawing, practising knots or model making.


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