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Brutal Facts About Sailor Life During The Age Of Exploration

From the 15th century onwards, explorers such as Ferdinand Magellan and Christopher Columbus set out to discover parts of the world that were almost entirely unknown to Europeans. Their epic journeys were made aboard surprisingly frail timber vessels powered only by sails. The mariners who made these perilous journeys faced many mortal dangers, ranging from disease to piracy and shipwreck. Read on to find out just how tough life was for those brave sailors.

1. Navy rations

Famous 17th-century diarist Samuel Pepys worked as a senior official with England’s Royal Navy and in that capacity he wrote, “Englishmen, and more especially seamen, love their bellies above anything else.” No doubt that was true, but when you take a close look at some of the food sailors habitually ate, they were far from being gourmet diners.

The Royal Navy sailors’ diet was incontestably substantial, but it could not be described as dainty. Their weekly intake was set out in a document created by Pepys, and it included 2 pounds of salt pork, 4 pounds of beef, 8 to 12 ounces of cheese, and 2 pints of peas. This was washed down with the daily beer allowance of 1 gallon.


You’ll notice that this meat-heavy diet lacks anything in the way of fresh fruit and vegetables, and so it is distinctly lacking in vitamin C. Unfortunately this meant that sailors were often victims of an extremely unpleasant disease: scurvy. The Health.Mil website notes an astonishing estimate that as many as 2 million sailors died from scurvy from the 16th to the 18th centuries.

Thanks to the insights of a surgeon called James Lind, the Royal Navy cracked the problem of scurvy in the 18th century. The simple answer was to ensure that ships sailed with a supply of citrus fruits, so that sailors could be provided with regular doses of lime or lemon juice. The vitamin-C-rich juices ensured that the affliction was kept at bay.

2. Weevils, maggots, cockroaches and rat droppings

When Royal Navy vessels set out to sea they were well stocked with food such as salted pork and beef, cheese, dried fish, and ship’s biscuits. But especially on long voyages, food often became horribly contaminated. The cause of this, the Australian National Maritime Museum tells us, was an unappetizing cocktail of “weevils, maggots, cockroaches, and rat droppings.”

Drinking water and beer, meanwhile, could be spoiled by “oily casks and slime and algae.” During the Age of Discovery the preferred method of preserving meat was to salt it and store it in barrels filled with brine. This prevented the growth of toxic bacteria and meant that the meat was fit for consumption for many months, if not especially palatable.

Fresh victuals

Still, sailors did sometimes have access to fresh food. Quite often livestock would be taken aboard so that fresh meat, milk, and eggs would be available, at least until all the animals had been slaughtered. Some ships had a quite the menagerie on board, including everything from sheep and goats to geese, ducks, and chickens.

When a ship called at port there were also opportunities to purchase fresh food. The sailors’ diets might be varied with the addition of items ranging from coconuts to bananas, oysters, and sea birds. Another obvious option for a vessel sailing the high seas was for the mariners to cast a line over the side. All kinds of marine wildlife might be hooked, including dolphins, sharks, and turtles.