As part of the Summer Banquet Blog Hop - here is my contribution to a festival of feasting:
Many of us like a good pirate yarn story. I wrote my Sea Witch Voyages because I wanted to produce something that was fun to research, write – and read. The stories are pirate-based historical adventure with a touch of fantasy – and I think (hope!) readers are enjoying the on-going escapades of my hero, Captain Jesamiah Acorne.
One area of interest that I came across while researching the background historical facts was the food served aboard ship. The provisions for sailors during the late eighteenth/early nineteenth century was, in general, far better than their land-counterparts in the army. Royal Navy ships were provisioned quite well – but long voyages, the lack of refrigeration and poor storage conditions took their toll on the quality of the food. It was all very well having butter, flour and meat stored in barrels in the hold, but heat, rats and weevils soon put paid to any notion of freshness.
These provisions included everything that was needed (especially when you consider that most voyages lasted at least a month – often a lot longer!). Water, food, clothing, candles, oil. Spare sails, spars, rope and nails. Tar, gunpowder, shot, medical supplies… All had to be loaded aboard and stored, and keep in mind these ships were not the great ocean-going liners of today space-wise!
Preventing food from going bad was a constant problem, so food that was salted or dried was a preference: salted pork, dried or salted fish, hard-tack - ship’s biscuit – and grain such as oats, barley and cornmeal. Cheese was part of the staple ship-board diet, while drinks included wine, rum and ‘grog’, which was watered-down rum. Water, of course, was also stored, although it soon went green and slimy.
Hard-tack was a sort of biscuit- (cookie) shaped bread, which was baked rock hard and therefore difficult to eat. Sailors sucked it or dunked it in their grog or the fatty gravy of their meals.
Before eating, however, it was wise to tap it on the table to knock the infested weevils out of it. On the other hand, any creepy-crawly was an extra bit of fresh meat!
Fresh food, such as vegetables and fruit were hard to keep on board and many sailors suffered from a disease called scurvy. It caused joints to ache and swell, gums to bleed, teeth to fall out - and death.
During the 18th century, scurvy killed more British sailors than enemy action. One report by the Royal Navy was that 184,899 sailors were conscripted and 133,708 died of disease – scurvy being the principal cause.
It was understood that fresh fruit would prevent the disease, but the difficulty came in keeping the fruit fresh. In 1740 lemon or more usually, lime juice was added to the daily ration of watered-down rum (grog) to eliminate the water's foulness. Admiral Edward Vernon's sailors were healthier than the rest of the navy, due to the daily dose of vitamin C.
It was not until 1747 that James Lind proved that scurvy could be treated and prevented by supplementing the diet with citrus fruit. For this reason, British sailors were called Limeys and German sailors, who ate plenty of sauerkraut became Krauts.
James Cook circumnavigated the world (1768–71) without losing a single man to scurvy, but the shipboard diet, which included sauerkraut, was of limited value. Sauerkraut was the only vegetable food that retained a reasonable amount of ascorbic acid in its pickled form, but it was boiled to reduce it for preservation and much of the vitamin C content was therefore lost.
The ship's cook was often selected from wounded or maimed seamen who were therefore unfit for other duties. Long John Silver in Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, as example. In the early days of explorers such as Magellan and Columbus, food was cooked 'barbecue' style on the open deck, but by the early 1800’s in Nelson's time, a ship had a kitchen area known as the 'galley', where the food was prepared by the ship's cook and hot meals were provided for the entire crew - which could be over 900 men and officers.
|where the men ate|
During action or rough weather the galley fire was put out which meant that it could be some hours - or even days - before another hot meal could be cooked.
The men ate in a mess group of 8-12, with each man taking his turn as 'mess cook' responsible for collecting the day's rations from the hold and taking it to be prepared for the noon-time meal. The Mess Cook was also to wash the utensils and clean up afterwards - for reward he was entitled to an extra ration of rum (hmm, I'll remember that next time I have to do the washing up!)
|Captain's Table, from the movie Master & Commander|
And the phrase “A square meal”?
Square wooden trencher plates were used on-board as they didn't slide around as easily as circular plates. Sailors would have looked forward to their square meal.
Rations per week per man, according to Navy Regulations of 1818 included:
1 gallon Beer
1 pt Wine (Watered 7:1)
2 lb Beef
1 lb Suet
or 1½ lbs of Flour + 4 ozs of Suet
or 1½ lbs of Flour + 4 ozs of Raisins + 2 ozs of Suet
1 lb of Bread
2 lbs of Potatoes or Yams
1 pt of Oatmeal
or ½ lb of Stockfish
or 1 pt of Wheat
2 ozs of Butter
2 ozs of Oil
In the event that neither the standard ration nor an equivalent were available then the ration would be reduced and a 'Short Ration Allowance' paid in addition to the seaman’s wages.
All members of the crew were able, where practical, to purchase extra provisions at their own expense, and many officers did just that – officers (as always, of course) ate with more enjoyment than the simple foremast jack.
You’ll find a couple of interesting recipes suitable for sending to sea with your beloved on the Historical Maritime Society’s webpage
and some interesting information about life aboard ship on author Julian Stockwin's nautical website
Some other interesting snippets :
Ever wondered why coffee is an all-American favourite, while tea is for us Brits?
Prior to the American War of Independence (and the famous Boston Tea Party) tea was a common drink in the American Colonies – but the British Government taxed tea heavily. This led to the commodity being highly prized as smuggled goods, but again the British Government intervened by sending the Royal Navy to intercept the smugglers. One of the most successful Navy Ships was HMS Rose – the replica of which is now moored at San Diego and is more widely known as HMS Surprise of novel and movie fame. (And the ship I base my Sea Witch on).
With the tea smuggling trade almost closed down, the Colonists retaliated by refusing to drink tea – and switched to untaxed coffee instead.
The early English settlers who landed in Virginia almost starved to death because their crops failed – little did they realise that the highly nutritious, and now luxury food, lobster, abounded in the clear waters of the Chesapeake Bay.
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My thanks to Seymour Hamilton Facebook Link for the following interesting information:
"I just visited your blog on food in RN ships in the days of sail. A footnote: Captain Cook recorded in his log that when he got to the Haida Gwai (which used to be called the Queen Charlotte Islands) he landed and made spruce beer for the health of his crew. How he knew that spruce had long been used by native people throughout Canada as a source of Vitamin C, I don't know. My information comes from my father, who commanded a Canadian Navy frigate in the late 50s, and who travelled up and down the West Coast with a copy of Cook's log open beside him. Incidentally, he told me that the modern charts he used had undergone only minor corrections since Cook first surveyed the coastline."