Supper at Sea in the Age of Sail

This summer I’ve had the pleasure of working with Fen Truitt.  Fen is a student at Trinity College in Dublin.  She’s interested in art, architecture, literature, music, hiking, and history–just for starters.  In short, she fits in well here on the Margins, as you’ll see in the guest blog post below.  (Please note that the drawing is not an eighteenth century-cartoon, as I originally assumed.  It’s Fen’s own work.  This may be the only time you see original art here.)

Fen, take it away:

Supper at Sea -- or -- the Food that Fights Back

Supper at Sea — or; — the Food that Fights Back. An entirely wholly authentic nineteenth-century depiction of seamen attempting to break hardtack.*

The success of the Royal Navy in the ‘age of sail’ relied on scrupulous organization. Along with most things naval, the victualling system of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was subject to rigorous discipline and regulation. On board, the purser had charge of provisions related to the basic welfare of the men. He inspected and recorded the status of victuals daily. Reporting directly to the purser, the steward(1) issued the standard food from the bread room to “mess cooks”, who readied it and sent it on to the ship’s cook in the gallery. After the food was cooked, the mess cook retrieved it and served it to his mess, typically composed of 4 to 6 men. They drank watered-down rum known as grog(2),“small” (diluted) beer, or wine.

Here is what the food of a typical day at sea would consist of:(3)

Breakfast: 8 am — oatmeal gruel, sometimes sweetened
Dinner: 12pm — for the entire ship, save the bare minimum of hands on deck for the watch
pork or beef with either oatmeal, peas, or other vegetables, grog
Supper: 4pm — ship’s biscuit with butter or cheese, grog

Ships typically departed from a port with around five months worth of food. As sailors were at sea for increasingly longer periods, due to the expansion of the empire and frequent battles with France, ships would then be supplied by provisioning vessels.

In addition to ensuring there was sufficient food and drink to go around, Captains worried about their crew contracting scurvy. Caused by vitamin deficiencies — predominately vitamin C — the infamous disease became apparent two to three months after setting sail. A scurvy-ridden sailor would first become fatigued and irritable, before more dire symptoms set in — including, among other things, breathing troubles, tooth loss, swollen rotting gums and skin, and heightened sensitivity in hearing, smell and taste leading to emotional disturbances. Ferdinand Magellan’s 1520 expedition, after 99 days without fresh food, lost more than 80% of the crew to scurvy while crossing what would become known as the Pacific ocean. The Royal Navy finally effectively rid itself of scurvy at the turn of the nineteenth century, after much agonising trial-in-error (the secret was limes and lemons!), involving sauerkraut, malt, and many other ineffective ‘remedies’. Scurvy also effected poor labourers on shore, but it was particularly dangerous to sailors, as they were less likely to have access to fresh foods while confined to what became wooden prisons of disease.

Despite scurvy, sustenance for seamen was generally of a higher quality than that available to their landlubber counterparts. Both the average farm worker and seaman required 4,500 – 5,000 calories a day, and although the English diet had been slowly changing from what had been largely a meat and bread-based regime(4), protein-filled, calorie-rich regular meals were more than the less-than-rich shore man could hope for(5). Although the diet on board was fairly unvarying, ships would take advantage of the nearest friendly port’s local cuisine, continuously seeking fresh produce to prevent scurvy.

Just like on shore, the more well-off you were, the better you ate. The commander of the ship had his own personal stores to dip into, as he was expected to hold feasts for his officers. High-ranking officers could also bring aboard some small personal provisions. There was a lot available in packaged form, especially after canning was invented in the early 1800s. A wealthy seaman could bring aboard such things as almonds, allspice, pepper, candy, capers, cayenne, chilli, vinegar, cloves, celery seeds, cinnamon, currants, curry powder, French olives, raisins, rice, side bacon, sugar leaves, tarragon, vinegar, Turkish coffee, truffles, and vermicelli.(6)

And finally, as the British Royal Navy, which largely created the empire, was obviously based on the labor of individuals who were sustained primarily by hardtack, one could argue that the British Empire was founded on hardtack. Or not — either way, hardtack certainly played some kind of role in helping the Royal Navy become and stay the most powerful navy in the world until the Second World War. So I tried out baking & eating some:

Homemade ship's biscuit

Homemade ship’s biscuit

Known as ‘ship’s biscuits’, or just simply ‘bread’, hardtack is made of flour, salt and water, cooked two to four times, until it is pretty much immortal. I cooked mine twice, for a half hour at 300ºF. It is impossible to break with your teeth, or indeed your hands (my brother was infuriated at being defeated by such a humble biscuit), so you must find a way of snapping it and kind of gnawing at the edges. Food that certainly fights back.

I leave you to ponder this 200-year-old ship’s biscuit currently residing at the British museum, still hale & hearty.

Hardtack (RMG)

*Okay, well, I tried.

1Since the steward lived next to the bread room (which contained flour), he was often nicknamed “Jack-of-the-Dust”, later “Jack Dusty”.

2Apparently, grog got its name from Admiral Edward Vernon, who standardised the issuing of watered-down rum in 1740. He wore a “grogram” coat, and was accordingly nicknamed “old grogram”.

3Nelson’s Men O’ War: The Illustrated Story of Life in Nelson’s Navy, Peter Goodwin

4And people were thankfully reconsidering the medieval belief that raw fruits and vegetables were the carriers of plague.

5Meanwhile, the people faring best were those with the means to take advantage of the developing Industrial Revolution, with its faster transportation facilitating importation of various fresh goods. The poor ate a lot of bread.

6Nelson’s Men O’ War: The Illustrated Story of Life in Nelson’s Navy, Peter Goodwin







  1. Lorraine on August 3, 2016 at 5:48 pm

    Fen, very interesting. Still can’t get my head around the sailors getting 4000-5000 calories a day on the typical food rations you described. Do you know how long the trial and error process took before stumbling upon lemons and limes as the solution for scurvy?

  2. Fen I. Truitt on August 4, 2016 at 3:26 pm

    It took quite a while — a few hundred years. Fruit was used as a cure relatively arbitrarily as early as the 1400s, but little was known about scurvy and there was neither an established cause or definition of the disease. Naval surgeon James Lind took a more empirical approach and did some tests which he described in his 1753 A Treatise of the Scurvy. He saw the speedy effects of oranges and lemons on scurvy-ridden sailors, but remained uncertain and did not believe that lack of fresh fruits and vegetables to be the primary cause. It wasn’t until 1795 that the Admiralty issued the order that sailors be given ¾ ounce of lemon juice daily. However, scurvy was still thought to have various causes — as late as 1862, The Queen’s Regulations and Admiralty Instructions for the Government of Her Majesty’s Naval Sevice states that “the skimmings of the boilers, in which salt meat has been boiled, be on no account given to the men, either to mix with their puddings, or to use in any other manner, as scarcely anything is more unwholesome or more likely to produce scurvy.” As to the rations, it looks like it was all about quantity. Each man received 7lbs a week of bread, along with 56 pints of beer, 4lbs of beef, and 2 of pork. A later account of rations can be found in the Regulations book mentioned above (conveniently on google books), and it shows the increased variety available to sailors in the 1800s. Additionally, all member​s​ of the crew were able to purchase food for themselves, or to share with their mess.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.