Key inquiry questions
• What food did sailors eat on board ship?
• How was the food stored and prepared?
A Sailors Rations
Life at sea for ordinary sailors was difficult. Living conditions were cramped, the work was hard and at times tedious, disobedience was met with swift and harsh punishment and the risk of death from disease or misadventure was high. The sailors received a hot meal every day with meat four times a week, a pound of bread and a gallon of beer each day. Although the food was unappetising, these rations provided more than what most people had in England at the time.
Food, called 'victuals', was rationed daily.
Each day a sailor would receive:
• approximately 450 grams of biscuit
• a gallon of beer
In addition, weekly rations included:
• 2 kilograms of salt beef
• 1 kilogram of salt pork
• a litre of peas
• 1.5 litres of oatmeal and wheat
• 170 grams of butter
• 340 grams of cheese.
Ship's biscuit was the staple item in the diet of a sailor. It was a bread supplement and was called 'hard tack' due to it being very coarse and hard. It was often infested with weevils and could be used years after it was baked. Hard tack came to mean food that was unappetising and almost too bad to eat.
A typical day's food
Hot porridge with potable soup (beef stock) and scurvy grass.
Boiled salt meat, sauerkraut and vegetables when available.
Anything a man saved from his dinner.
Three days a week pease pudding or dried fish or cheese was substituted instead of meat.
Once a week a boiled raisin pudding was added.
In winter a cup of hot chocolate made with water was also offered.
Cook took on board fresh food and water at every port. Although this provided variety and a healthy addition to the rations, the men often grumbled preferring their usual fare. Fresh food traded in ports included breadfruit, bananas, taro, pandanus nuts, coconuts, fish, including stingrays, sea birds, turtles, shellfish (including oysters) and even kangaroo. In the longer-term ports sets of trading guidelines were sometimes established; a spike nail for a small pig, a hatchet for a hog, a small spike nail for a chicken, and twenty coconuts or breadfruit for a forty-penny nail. While at sea sailors shot birds and caught rats and fish.
Food was always an important subject in Cook's extensive journal with the discovery of new foods and plants well documented.
“As I intend to sail in the morning some hands were employ'd picking of Sellery to take to sea with us, this is found here (New Zealand) in great plenty and I have caused it to be boild with Portable Soup and Oatmeal every morning for the Peoples breakfast, and this I design to continue as long as it will last or any is to be got, because I look upon it to be very wholesome and a great Antiscorbutick (antidote to scurvy).”
(Cook, Journals I, 28th October 1769)
“This day all hands feasted upon turtle for the first time.” “At 4 oClock in the pm the boats return'd from the reef with about 240 pounds of the Meat of shell fish most of Cockles, some of which are as large as 2 men can move and contain about 20lbs. of good meat.”
(Cook, Journals I, 9th July & 18th July 1770)
Cook believed that the use of chou croute or sauerkraut, cabbage preserved in brine and rich in potassium, phosphorous and vitamins preserved by fermentation, preserved food. Scurvy, the result of lack of vitamin C, was common amongst sailors who did not have enough fruit and vegetables. Cabbage was one vegetable that purportedly helped prevent the disease, as did potable soup, a preparation of dried vegetables, beef stock and malt. Cook also used a fruit juice concentrate called rob (a bit like jam). Unfortunately, these foods were boiled to help preserve them for the voyage, eliminating most of the vitamin content.
A farm on board
Goats, sheep, pigs, chickens, ducks and geese were kept in pens at the stern on the upper deck. Live bullocks and sheep did not survive well and were killed quickly for fresh meat. Pigs fared better and bred during the voyage.
The goat on board Endeavour had previously sailed around the world with Samuel Wallis on the Dolphin. She provided fresh milk and cheese for the officers and gentlemen and for sailors when they fell ill.
Engage with the book The Goat Who Sailed The World by Jackie French 2006 to look at life on board the Endeavour from the perspective of the goat. Access the literature pack at HMB Endeavour Teacher Resources.
Endeavour carried large supplies of water, beer, wine, brandy and rum. The daily allowance of alcohol was one gallon of beer (over 3 litres) or one and a half pints (3 cups) of wine (less than a litre) watered down or half a pint (1 cup) of spirits watered down. When Endeavour reached Madeira just one month into her journey Cook purchased 3000 gallons (13 650 litres) of local wine, as it was known to keep well. Officers could keep extra supplies of alcohol. Pilfering from supplies was common and drunkenness was tolerated when sailors were not on duty.
The officers and gentlemen
In addition to the fresh goat's milk and cheese, the officers and gentlemen were provided with freshly baked bread and pies, prepared by the one-handed cook, John Thompson. They were able to take on board their own special meat, fine wine and cheeses and supplemented their supplies when visiting ports.
How has our understanding of health changed?
Food storage and preparation
Most stores were kept in wooden barrels or casks, including water, beer, spirits, salted beef and pork, wheat, oatmeal and sauerkraut in the hold. However, food could quickly spoil and be infested with weevils, maggots, cockroaches and rat droppings. Beer and water spoiled from the oily casks and slime and algae.
All meals were cooked on the huge iron stove called a fire hearth. Wood was used as fuel. The fire hearth sits on a stone hearth set on tin and sand to protect the deck. The cook, John Thompson, and his mates cooked a hot breakfast and midday dinner for 94 people most days for three years.
Most food was boiled in the large coppers and liquid was run out via taps. There was an open fire at the back for spit-roasting and seamen could apply to use it if they caught a fish or rat. Three-legged pots were stood in the embers. There was a small oven on the port (left) side for baking the officers and gentlemen's bread and pies. After the midday meal the fires were put out and the coppers were cleaned. A small open fire could be kept alight at the back to heat water for the captain, gentleman or surgeon.
How has technology changed the way we transport, store and prepare food?
Main image: HMB Endeavour Mess Deck. The tasselled knotted ropes were used for wiping hands.