Life at sea in the age of sail

Heaving a leadHeaving a lead by John Augustus Atkinson, 1 January 1807. Repro ID: PU7765 ©National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, LondonOver a period of hundreds of years, seafarers from the age of the early explorers to the time of the Battle of Trafalgar 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.

Were there laws to improve conditions for seamen?

There have been many attempts by Governments, both to improve the seaman's lot and to increase his efficiency. One of the earliest was a charter of Richard I (the Lionheart) which set out rates of pay, conditions of service and levels of punishment for sailors. Five centuries later, one of the greatest reformers was Samuel Pepys, Secretary to the Navy Office.

Why were punishments so harsh at sea?

Cat-o'-nine-tailsCat-o'-nine-tails, 1866–1879. Repro ID: D3920 ©National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, LondonA 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. When the Mary Rose sank while Henry VIII watched, her commander, Sir George Carew, (perhaps looking for an excuse for the disaster), called the crew the sort of knaves that he could not rule.

His uncle, Sir Peter Carew, later added that:

they so maligned and disdained one the other that, refusing to do that which they should do, they were careless to do that which they ought to do, and so contending in spite, perished in frowardness

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.

What were typical punishments?

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.

What food was there on board ship?

Ship's biscuitShip's biscuit inscribed 'This biscuit was given – Miss Blacket at Berwick on Tuesday 13 April 1784, Berwick'. Repro ID: D4001 ©National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, LondonOver the centuries this changed little for seamen, whether they were crews of Drake or Nelson. 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.

Who cooked the food?

The ship's cook was often selected from seamen who were wounded or maimed and therefore unfit for other duties. In Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, Long John Silver with his crutch is typical. 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'.

What were the other sorts of jobs on board?

Reefing a sailArgonaut (Reefing a sail) by A. J. V. Chodzco [artist], 1876. Repro ID: PU6484 ©National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, LondonThese 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. For example, Drake carried a crew of 80 men on The Golden Hind.

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.

It is interesting to notice that the names for jobs of men responsible for working a ship (boatswain, coxswain – even seamen) are of Anglo-Saxon origin whilst those of officers (Captain, Lieutenant, Admiral) are of Norman-French origin. This is an indication of a class distinction between roles on board.

What were press gangs?

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.

What happened to sick seamen?

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 anaesthetic for patients having amputations. Infection and gangrene was commonplace.

In 1694, Queen Mary was so horrified at the amount of suffering caused to men in the Navy by the battles of the time that she persuaded her husband, King William, to found a hospital for seamen. The Greenwich Hospital, present home of the University of Greenwich and Trinity School of Music, was therefore built. The Navy later provided hospital ships as well.

What sort of pay did seamen get?

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.

What did seamen do off duty?

Earthenware mess plateEarthenware mess plate, 1857–1865. Before 1907 naval messes had to buy their own crockery and such items were manufactured for this market. Repro ID: D0852-24 ©National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, LondonThe 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.

What were 'sea-shanties'?

These were rhythmic worksongs ('chanty' comes from 'chanter' – the French for 'to sing') sung on board to help repetitive tasks such as hauling on ropes. In Nelson's Navy, shanties were banned, men's labours being accompanied instead by calling out numbers or the rhythmic playing of a fiddle or fife.