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Friday, March 9, 2012

Weevils anyone? Food on board a ship.

Sailing on an 18th century tall ship wasn't always as romantic and adventurous as the movies portray. Even if you love the sea, even if you drool over the gorgeous sunsets, and even if you were just a passenger with no work to do, the food alone would have put you on a permanent diet! Especially if you were on a long voyage such as the crossing to England which could take well over a month depending on the weather and the type of ship.

Let's face it, without refrigeration or a fresh source of water, there wasn't much the cook could do after the fresh meat and vegetables ran out.  Hence the staple food for seaman throughout the western hemisphere was the sea biscuit or ship's bread, sometimes also called hard tack. Made with flour, a little salt and just enough water to make a stiff dough, it was then baked so hard that sailors had to soak it to make it edible. Weevils and maggots often made their home in the biscuits and sailors would either pick them out or eat them if they were hungry enough.

When the ship first set off from port, they would carry a supply of fresh beef and vegetables, sufficient to last the crew for two days.  After that, it was back to the normal sea rations. You may remember the famous book and movie, Mutiny on the Bounty, which was based on true events.  Here's a list of food items brought on board for their 18 month journey:


  • Sea biscuits
  • Casks of salt port and beef
  • dried peas
  • malt, barley, wheat, and oatmeal
  • sauerkraut,
  • rum, beer, wine and water. 
  • Hard cheese

Hmmm, Sounds delicious!

Some ships, however, were able to carry life stock which was a huge plus. Cages and stalls were built below decks to house chickens and pigs and sheep.

Of course all this only lasted so long and when the fresh meat, veggies and livestock ran out. . . well

Here's a list of the normal weekly ration for a seamen  
1 1/2 pounds of biscuit per day
One pint of beans three times a week
3/4 of a pound of rice twice a week
a gill each of molasses and vinegar twice a week
a daily allowance of either coffee, tea, or cocoa
a half gill of grog twice a day (rum and water) 

Speaking of grog, the 2nd biggest problem on board ship was fresh water. Bounty took 42 tons of drinking water in its tanks below deck . Of course you can imagine how nasty that water became after only a few days in these casks. Which is why seaman would add rum to the water to kill the germs and make it drinkable. Hence, where we get Grog from.  All this water had to serve not only for drinking but for bathing and cooking as well!

Scurvy, however, was the biggest problem. Without fresh fruits and vegetables for a long period of time, the seamen became deathly ill and many of them died. It was a terribly debilitating disease that ate away your muscles and rotted the gums in your mouth.  Not until well into the 19th century did mariners  understand that the problem was a lack of vitamin C found in fruits and veggies. Many experiments were preformed in the mid-eighteenth century and it was discovered that men who ate lemons or potatoes while at sea never got the disease and the British Navy henceforth ordered that lemons be brought on every voyage.

So the next time you go on a cruise in the Caribbean and you're piling food on your plate from the all-you-can-eat buffet, remember how there poor sailors suffered in the olden days!



10 comments:

  1. Fantastic post, MaryLu! You probably have seen the movie "Master and Commander" and the scene at the dinner table when the captain asks the doctor to look at the weevils crawling around on the biscuits and asks him to select one. The doctor selects the largest,hardiest looking weevil. Then the captain says, "not a good choice, you must choose the lesser of two weevils." They were so casual about finding the bugs in their biscuits, that it had to have been an everyday occurence. Ee-yew!

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  2. Yes... I have seen that scene! LOL Can you imagine sitting at dinner having bugs crawling around your rolls! What amazed me about that entire movie was the accuracy of historical detail. Great film.

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  3. MaryLu thanks for the post, I needed to give up biscuits so thanks for the visual effects! LOL! Thank God mine DO NOT have "creepy crawlies". :)

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  4. MaryLu I shared this with my husband! He was a merchant mariner. NO servile wanted with his lunch!

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    1. Weevils not servile. Kindle fire did that change

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  5. LOl, Ladies.. like I said, sailing on one of these ships would be a great diet plan to help lose those extra unwanted pounds really fast!! It would be the water that would get me. Stale, putrid, smelly water. Gag me. And the rum would make it worse for me.
    I have the greatest respect for these pioneers who sailed the seas!

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  6. Have seen actual engravings of some of our colonial soldiers, Native Americans and seamen....and their builds (very muscular) never cease to amaze me! We don't come close today! Weevils or no--they were not a bunch of wimps! Great post, MaryLu!

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  7. A far cry from a Holland America or Celebrity Cruise! You were right on according to my research. Thanks for the great post.

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  8. Weevils, hmmm... tastes like chicken? *gag* Glad we don't have to pick crawlies out of our food today.

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  9. Yes.. they were a tough lot to be sure, Pat! Janet.. a VERY far cry from our cruises today. Though that would make a funny story.. a time travel story that transports one of these ancient sailors onto a Carnial Cruise ship!

    Well, they may have tasted like chicken cause some sailors ate them for the protein! I did find a bug once in my food at a restaurant.. ruined my appetite. :-)

    Thanks for dropping by, Ladies!

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