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3 June 2013

A Sailor’s Life For Me – at least until Dinner is Served

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!

Hard Tack
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.

Captain's Table
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 
½ Rice 
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."


  1. Brilliant post, Helen. I really enjoyed reading about sailors rations. Thank you for the chance to win one of your books.

  2. There are also a lot of British people (I am ex-English) who dislike tea. This is probably due to my German coffee drinking family. This food may not be healthy but at least the food doesn't contain the corn syrup and other syrups which are so bad for you of today's food

    meikleblog at gmail dot com

  3. Fascinating! I didn't know anything about sauerkraut in that context; pity they boiled it down. The rations list for a week doesn't sound too inspiring, from a cook's point of view. t2heath at sbcglobal dot net

  4. I love Age of Sail stories so this post on the shipboard diet was fascinating. Thanks for sharing and for the giveaway opportunity.

    sophiarose1816 at gmail dot com

  5. Thanks for the information, Helen. I have been considering a story where a "gentleman" is impressed into the British Navy, but I have not gotten this far in my research. I will bookmark this piece for later reference.

  6. Thank you everyone for leaving a comment - hope you've had a chance to look at some of the other articles on the Banquet Blog Hop some are very interesting

  7. i've often wondered why in the movies, the sailors would knock their biscuits on the i know, & EWWWWWW!!!!!

    cyn209 at juno dot com

    1. I suppose they didn't worry about the weevils - but how many were left with teeth after gnawing through brick-like bread!

  8. Helen, I love your blogs and your books are wonderful. Just shared your website with my friend. I would love to win one of your books.

  9. Excellent post, Helen. It's a marvel the world was forever explored. The power of human curiosity and discovering can overcome all I suppose. donna at donna russo

    1. especially when you realise that the early sailors who circumnavigated the Globe had no idea where they were going, how long it would take - whether they would ever be coming back - as, of course, a lot didn't. We only know of the ones who did. Truly brave men.

  10. Helen, what about the chickens one sometimes sees onboard a ship in movies? Did ships really have chickens aboard? They would have happily eaten weevils and their eggs would have been made the diet much more palatable.

    ShaunaRoberts [at] nasw [dot] org

    1. Yes Shauna they had chickens - and often pigs, cows and goats as well (the hold must have been very smelly!)

      I have a scene in Sea Witch where they are having a chicken race - the winning chicken had been trained to run to the sound of weevils being shaken in a tin mug!

  11. This has been one of my favourite posts from the hop so far. Somehow I never really gave thought on how people used to eat on ships that used to be on the sea for longer periods of time. And the fact about tea taxation was unknown to me.


    1. Thank you Riv - how kind of you to say so.
      The Tea information (and the lobsters!) was told to me by a good friend who runs a B & B in Williamsburg, Virginia - and he also happens to be the man who designed and built the replica of the Rose/Surprise (and a few other vessels)

  12. Thank you for the great giveaway and the fun information on pirate food!
    Susan Heim
    smhparent [at] hotmail [dot] com

  13. Thank you Susan - hope you're enjoying all the Blog Hop!

  14. Thank you for the interesting and informative post on sailor's rations, Helen ~ Loving this blog hop and all the lovely blogs~ Thank you for the opportunity to win one of your Wonderful novels!!! Happy Reading and Writing~ Cheers~ Elizabeth MacGregor

  15. This was fascinating... and also a tad disgusting! I always wondered what hard tack looked like. Now I know, and I never want to try it!

  16. Having discovered weevils in an old bag of flour, I have no wish to encounter them in a biscuit! Urgh.
    Your books look intriguing.
    Grace x

  17. Thank you Elizabeth - and Sharon and Grace - I agree with you!

  18. The list of weekly rations was fascinating. I'm not sure my boys would appreciate it if I based my weekly shopping off it though. LOL

  19. I don't think any of us would eat it Maria!

  20. Never knew that at one time they cooked "barbecue style" with fire on the open deck. How dangerous! Thank You for the giveaway!

    1. I assume they used a barrel or something - possibly up on bricks? I agree though - fire hazard!

  21. Pirates are something I have not generally been interested in! I am willing to give them a shot now! Thanks for the post.

    1. Pirates were the terrorists of their day - but the pirate i write about (Jesamiah Acorne) is a nice chap. Well, nice-ish! LOL

  22. The giveaway winner, chosen at random, is Grace Elliot - well done Grace (I've e-mailed you)

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