Could You Survive on a 18th Century Seaman’s Diet?

My wife often says people tend to either favor sweet or savory foods.  This may be true for many twenty-first century Americans. However, while today many of us are obsessed with food (is it locally grown, organic, gluten-free, vegan, etc.) sailors in the Age of Sail rarely had the opportunity to choose between eating sweet or savory foods.  More to the point, their diets rarely varied and sailors had little say regarding the food they ate.

What was an 18th seamen’s diet like? A quick look at Royal Navy (“RN”) victualling regulations provides a sense of the food sailors ate. The regulations required the following foods be served to naval crews on a weekly basis:

                Biscuit         Beer          Beef           Pork            Pease        Oatmeal   Butter        Cheese

                Pounds   Gallons       Pounds    Pounds       Pint            Pint            Ounces      Ounces

 Sun. 1 1 1 ½
 Mon. 1 1 1 2 4
 Tues. 1 1 2
 Wed. 1 1 ½ 1 2 4
 Thurs. 1 1 1 ½
 Fri. 1 1 ½ 1 2 4
 Sat. 1 1 2
 Total 7 7 4 2 2 3 6 12

Janet McDonald, Feeding Nelson’s Navy (2006), 9-10

This diet remained largely unchanged until 1847 when the Navy began to utilize canning. Seamen on 18th century American whaling vessels were served a similarly unappetizing selection of food with corn and beans occasionally providing some variety to their meals.

A couple of observations about a sailor’s diet in the 18th century:

  •      Grog, rum mixed with water, was considered “sacrosant” by naval crew. Officers occasionally drank wine but it was rare that the crew did so, unless, as they sometimes did, they opened up a cask without permission.
  •      Fruit was not a regular staple for sailors. Not until 1795 did the Admiralty Board sanction the issue of lemon juice for naval crews. When crews had an opportunity to obtain fruit, they had, as the American seaman Thomas Beale observed, “good reason to be well satisfied.”
  • Vegetables were provided to seamen but in much smaller quantities than most Americans today would be used to. During the American Revolution when vegetables were no longer regularly provided Royal Navy seamen large numbers of naval crewmen became ill (of the approximately 100,000 RN seamen serving in the war 23,000 landed on the navy’s sick list).  As Gabriel Bray’s “Four Marines Eating Pease” illustrates, unlike many contemporary school children, eighteenth-century seamen did not have to be urged to “eat your peas.”  Cooks who obtained vegetables or fruits were favorably viewed as enabling crews to “live high for some time.”

large-1

Gabriel Bray, “Four Marines Eating Pease,”  http://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/127866.html

  •  Fresh meat rarely was provided to the crew. To vary the steady diet of salted meats some naval vessels were issued fishing tackle. For example, in 1712 H.M. Yacht Charlotte received “trawl nett, peter net, oyster drudges, mackerrell lines and mackerrell hooks.” As the two below illustrations by Lieutenant Gabriel Bray indicate, it was not unusual for sailors and marines to use tackle to obtain fish in order to break the monotony of a salted meat diet.

Marine & Seaman Fishing off the anchor, HMS Pallas, NMM PAJ 2013

http://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/200881.html

A sailor fishing off a gun. PAF2016

http://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/200881.htm

  • Rats, which were present in most sailing ships, although not part of any ship’s official diet, were known to make their way into many a seaman’s mess. (Anyone know of a recipe for rat that might appeal to present-day American tastes?)
  • Contrary to the impression given in Thomas McLean’s caricature of a black cook and steward, it was very unlikely for a ship’s cook to be plucking a fresh chicken. It was more likely he would be cooking salted meat.

Naval Scenes, Steward and Cook copy

http://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/127866.html

However, McLean’s illustration does neatly capture the centrality of food to seamen’s shipboard lives.

So this raises the question, could you survive on the diet of an 18th century sailor?  Hint, colorful salads such as the one depicted below, which my friend Diane and I recently shared, would NOT be what 18th century ship cooks provided to crews.

Montmartre Beet Salad

After my next posting on turtles and turtle soup I’ll post  a poll regarding food choices for seamen. Spend few moments to answer it and I’ll discuss the poll results in a later blog.

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