The Brave Sailors on Wooden Fighting Ships
Early Modern English History (16th & 17th Century)
Many with British ancestors count sailors amongst their family members. My sixth great grandfather Joseph Dashwood served on a ship at the Battle of Cape Finisterre during the Austrian War of Succession in 1747. The Danish merchant marine trained my father as a radio operator, and it was how he visited multiple far flung places around the globe (it’s also why I know some ham radio call signs). Regardless of the time or place, sailors must be fully admired for their bravery. Living onboard a floating home, sometimes for months, can’t be easy. Regardless of the era, the weather, food, mechanics or cargo will always cause some hiccups. The best advice? Put the lure and romance of the high seas aside and be incredibly grateful you don’t live and work onboard a wooden battleship. In today’s blog post we’ll take a brief overview look at the conditions Western European sailors worked under back in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Long before the twenty first century’s satellites, motors and batteries, sailors lived in cramped quarters, ate sketchy food and led dangerous lives. Here’s why:
Joining a Ship's Crew
Many sailors did not join ships' crews by choice. Rather, they were ‘pressed into service’ or ‘pressed-ganged’, a genteel phrase for a stunning reality: tavern landlords and ships captains were in cahoots when a new crew needed to be gathered. The game was to get a sailor drunk, have him rack up a huge tavern bill he couldn’t pay, and then force him to agree to work onboard ship to pay off the debt. In another version of being ‘pressed into service’, ships’ recruiters would find inebriated souls in the streets and in the morning the unfortunate partier would wake up onboard ship, already well out of harbor.
Much of southern England’s oak forests were cleared to satisfy King Henry the Eighth’s insatiable appetite for fighting ships. Hulls were made of sturdy timbers, and the New World (Canada and USA) supplied straight poles for masts. Flagships, the prized vessels of the fleet, carried the monarch’s insignia and crest expertly carved in wood, usually gilded and painted in vivid colors. Gun ports were located on the broadsides of the ship, the largest ships boasting three decks carrying a total of 80-100 guns. Cannons were first made of brass and, when manufacturing techniques improved, they were cast in less-expensive iron. Warships, of course, carried stores of gunpowder and shot, making for a heavily laden vessel. With 500-1,500 ship tonnage weight, it was hard to keep larger ships stable and maneuverable. Stones were often used in the keel as ballast. In 1545, King Henry the Eighth was horrified when his prized (read large and expensive) ship 'The Mary Rose' lurched to her side and sank. While still a bit of a mystery as to why she disappeared into Neptune’s murky depths, one long-held explanation was a combination of uneven ballast, overloading and seawater pouring into opened gunports as the ship listed to one side.
Clothing and Food
Wives and children never knew when their husband or father was coming home, if at all. At the time, women were considered bad luck to have onboard a ship. Rough sailing life often led to catastrophe, so much so that later on various charities set up benevolent funds to help widows of sailors lost at sea. Many crews’ wages were not paid with regularity. A sailor’s clothes were known as ‘slops’, and were the responsibility of the wearer to purchase and mend. Sailors were allowed one small wooden chest in which they could bring their clothes and belongings for a long trip out at sea. Many carried some small tokens from home, and before the age of cameras, there weren’t many who could afford a miniature portrait of loved ones back on dry land. In fact, mostly-illiterate sailors were lucky if they had someone from home who could write them a love note to keep with them onboard ship. Entertainment was generally card games, music and drinking.
There wasn’t much to celebrate about the food onboard ship as victualing was a hit and miss affair. A large portion of a sailor’s diet consisted of ship’s biscuit (hardtack) and fortunate were the sailors who got theirs without weevils (bugs) baked inside. Salted beef and fish were stored in barrels; often times it disintegrated into an unpalatable mass. Worse yet, the docks were full of unscrupulous victualers who oversold their inventory, took bribes and delivered low quality food or simply not enough of it (shorted barrels). Rations of ale and liquor were provided to help keep the sailors’ spirits up. Butter and cheese was sometimes available. Vegetables and fruit were relative rarities and were not a focus of the diet. Sailors were lucky to be fed and certainly did not enjoy a healthy nor a balanced diet.
A ship’s surgeon accompanied the crew and always brought his medicine chest with him. It was sometimes a rough wooden chest, other times a fancier varnished cabinet, filled with hinged doors, small drawers and even fabric-lined compartments for various bottled herbs, tinctures, and salves. A ship’s surgeon’s instruments also included a metal pipe for enemas (unsurprising considering the sailors’ diet) plus a trepanning device, a crude hand drill used to bore holes in the skull to relieve pressure caused by intercranial bleeding. Some of the treatments did more harm than good. As an example: During shore leave, many sailors had a tendency to visit the seedier parts of town, and unfortunately many of them reboarded the ship with unpleasant, ‘lingering reminders’ of their recent night out. Medical treatment at the time involved a syringe filled with mercury, and we’ll just let your imaginations run wild with that imagery. The medical establishment hadn’t yet figured out the benefits of Vitamin C; scurvy afflicted many sailors who greeted friends with wide gaps in their grins.
It’s hard not to wonder how sailors survived these awful conditions including being pressed into service, little comforts from home, unreliable pay, poor diet and inadequate (often brutal) medical care. Yet we haven’t even discussed being at sea under attack. Fighting an enemy from the decks of a wooden hull warship was indeed a frightening experience. Creaky wooden ships were massive and sometimes slow to respond. This made nimble movement in close encounters with the enemy a challenging event. When engaging the enemy, ships turned broadside and fired their great guns, resulting in a huge cloud of white smoke lingering over the air between ships. The sound was deafening and in these times there were no health and safety regulations to protect hearing, eyesight or life and limb. Guns were placed on wooden, four-wheeled carriages and their powerful recoil action injured men working the gundecks. Guns themselves, long metal cannons, could split in the heat and explosion from battle. Guns were frightening instruments of war, often lobbing cannon shot that split masts, caused devastating injuries and after a few well-timed hits, sank a ship. One could argue, however, that something even more feared than a fierce gunbattle was the menacing fireship.
A fireship was typically an older, battle-weary vessel saved by the enemy for a deadly purpose. Imagine a windless day. Your ship’s tall sails are slack, and your travel is at the mercy of the sea. You wait. Then you see the enemy launch a single ship, bobbing towards your fleet with direct intent, yet moving slowly due to the windless conditions. The waves bring her closer and then you see it: the billows of black smoke. A Fireship. Everyone knows her cargo hold is packed full of gunpowder. She drifts closer. And closer. Then she makes contact. Something sparks and there is a horrifying sound as she explodes into pieces. Truly terrifying. This is what sailors of the sixteenth and seventeenth century encountered at sea and their bravery deserves respect.
It would be incorrect to think of historical life at sea as a romantic adventure. Research shows us that the crews of warships were brave, hardworking men who gave their all to defend their country and quite honestly, to survive. They worked in deplorable conditions and sailors did not earn a proper set of benefits until much later on in history. Today we have numerous artefacts from shipwrecks to educate us about life onboard ship. Some archives even contain paper records of what was said, commanded and sometimes drawn while serving onboard ship. Thanks to dedicated historians, researchers and salvage operators, we have brought back to the surface gold and silver ingots, coins and old bottles. King Henry the Eighth’s 'The Mary Rose' is now in a museum, and divers recovered an immense collection of clothing, footwear and daily living items such as bowls, spoons, inkpots, combs and a medicine chest. Imagine the curators’ delight when opening a tin of ointment and finding a perfect thumbprint inside, preserved for all these hundreds of years.
Interested in reading more? Entire books have been written on numerous subtopics of this article; you will find lots of fascinating, obscure rabbit holes during your reading. Here are two museums that are sure to fascinate. Both contain actual wooden ships recovered from the bottom of the ocean, restored and now on public display:
Reference Museum Websites:
The Mary Rose (England): https://maryrose.org/about-the-mary-rose/
The Vasa (Sweden): https://www.vasamuseet.se/en/vasa-history
Davies, J.D., “Pepys’s Navy, Ships, Men and Warfare 1649-1669”, Seaforth Publishing, Pen & Sword Books Ltd., Great Britain, 2008.
Konstam, A., “Warships of the Anglo-Dutch Wars 1652-74”, Osprey Publishing Ltd., Great Britain, 2011.