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Harsh Life Aboard Navy Sailing Ships

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

A hazardous occupation

A hazardous occupation

Life on a Ship in the 18th Century

In 1773, Samuel Johnson made an observation about the seafaring life, as recorded by James Boswell: “No man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself into a jail; for being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned.”

From the vantage point of the 21st century, life for ordinary seamen on a British naval vessel of 300 years ago sounds unspeakably awful.

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Because of the possibility of drowning, dying of disease, or being shot through with a cannonball, England’s Royal Navy often found itself short-staffed. When this happened, a press-gang was sent ashore to round up some able-bodied men. Sometimes, a whack over the head with a cudgel was needed to persuade reluctant recruits that their best option at that moment was to join the Navy.

In All You Wanted to Know About 18th Century Royal Navy, Rex Hickox writes that as much as half a ship’s crew would be pressed men. They were paid less than volunteers; a system that encouraged many pressed men to become volunteers.

However, life aboard a ship was so challenging that it was often necessary to shackle pressed men when a ship was in port to prevent desertion. Despite the precautions, running away was still a major problem. In an 1803 report on reforming the Navy, Lord Horatio Nelson noted there had been 42,000 desertions from the Royal Navy in the previous ten years.

"Come along lad. You'll enjoy being a seafarer. Or would you rather I whack you senseless with this stick?"

"Come along lad. You'll enjoy being a seafarer. Or would you rather I whack you senseless with this stick?"

Sailors' living quarters were primitive. Officers had cabins, albeit tiny, that offered a little privacy; the crew lived communally. The Encyclopedia of New Zealand describes the accommodation as “a dark, cramped space frequently awash with sea water and infested with vermin.”

All sailors were, and still are, a superstitious lot. One of their beliefs was that it was unlucky to bathe while at sea. The stench below decks, particularly in the tropics, must have been nauseating.

And, here’s another lovely little snippet that suggests the pong was close to overpowering, according to the Mary Rose Museum in England, 18th century British sailors washed their clothes in urine.

Sailing Ship Food

A ship only had to be a few days out of port for all the fresh food to be gone. From then on, the diet was salted meat (beef, pork, or horse) and sea biscuits (hard as wood and filled with weevils). Regulations insisted 12 ounces of cheese be served each week to every sailor, although one shudders to consider its condition after a few weeks at sea.

There seems to be some debate about how horrible this menu was. The Encyclopedia of New Zealand writes that, “Of all the hardships and discomforts endured by seafarers, none has aroused such strong feelings as food.”

However, historian Andrew Lambert sailed on a recreation voyage to Australia on a replica of Cook’s ship Endeavour. He writes for BBC History that, “A diet of salt meat, hard biscuit, and sauerkraut was a shock to us, but our predecessors would have considered it superior to anything available on shore. For them such regular, hot, protein-rich meals, together with a nearly limitless supply of beer, would have been a luxury.”

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Sailing Ship Discipline Was Ferocious

Despite the apparently boring and unappetizing meals, stealing food was a serious crime. According to Tudor Place, “The punishment was to nail the offender’s hand to the mast and cut it off. The stump would be dipped in oil.”

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Flogging was a regular penalty for less serious transgressions. In his 1830 book, The Life of a Sea Officer, Rear Admiral Jeffrey Baron De Raigersfeld described the consequences of breaking regulations aboard HMS Mediator in the 1780s: “Four of us were tied up one after the other to the breech of one of the guns, and flogged upon our bare bottoms with a cat-o’-nine-tails, by the boatswain of the ship; some received six lashes, some seven, and myself three. No doubt we all deserved it, and were thankful that we were punished in the cabin instead of upon deck, which was not uncommon in other ships of the fleet.”

These men got off lightly. A typical flogging involved several dozen lashes on the back, turning the offender’s skin into a bloody pulp.

Sailor punishment

Sailor punishment

Keelhauling and Execution

Keelhauling was not officially allowed in the Royal Navy after 1720, but it took place occasionally. The offender was tied to a rope that was passed under the ship. He was then thrown overboard and pulled under the keel and up the other side. Barnacles attached to the hull did a good job of lacerating the skin, but this was not a permanent worry for the offender, because he often drowned during the hauling.

Falling asleep on watch was a serious offence. After a fourth such transgression, a particularly nasty punishment was devised as described by H.M.S. Richmond: “The offender was slung in a covered basket below the bowsprit. Within this prison he had a loaf of bread, a mug of ale, and a sharp knife. An armed sentry ensured that he did not return aboard if he managed to escape from the basket. Two alternatives remained―starve to death or cut himself adrift to drown at sea.”

Mutiny was punished by hanging from the yardarm, a slow death by strangulation. All in all, it seems Dr. Johnson had it right.

Bonus Factoids

  • In 1847, the Royal Navy started using canning food so the diet of sailors did get a bit less boring.
  • In 1655, Vice-Admiral William Penn (his son founded Pennsylvania) captured the island of Jamaica from the Spanish. There wasn’t much of value to be plundered except rum, so the resourceful officer decided to issue a daily tot of liquor to his crew. Actually, “tot” doesn’t really do justice to the ration which was half a pint of neat liquor twice a day. On some vessels, suspicions arose that captains might be watering down the grog. So, the sailors took to spilling a little over a small sample of gunpowder and applying a match. A nice flame proved the rum was the genuine stuff and the practice is thought to have given rise to the term “proof.”
  • “There is no cannibalism in the British navy, absolutely none, and when I say none, I mean there is a certain amount.” Monty Python cast member Graham Chapman.


  • “All You Wanted to Know about 18th Century Royal Navy.” Rex Hickox, Rex Publishing, 2005.
  • “Life at Sea in the Royal Navy of the 18th Century.” Andrew Lambert, BBC History, November 5, 2009.
  • “Sir Walter Raleigh.”, undated.
  • “Seafarers.” Neill Atkinson, Encyclopedia of New Zealand, June 12, 2006.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: Is there a list of the names of men pressed into service 19th century? My great-grandfather was press-ganged and I'd like to research this.

Answer: As press-ganging was on the wrong side of legality, although winked at, I doubt if accurate records were kept. I don't know of any such list.

However, there are a couple of places you might want to look at:

The Royal Navy Research Archive here

And, The National Archive here

© 2017 Rupert Taylor


Jessie Watson from Wenatchee Washington on November 19, 2017:

How did you come about a career in writing? Did you go through the appropriate schooling? I'm a student of psychology but I love writing and find it to be a medium that comes naturally to me. Every time I write something, I get a little bit better and more articulate. At some point I need something to prove my skills.

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on November 19, 2017:

Hi Jessie

I'm not sure about that. The standards are quite high so I suppose being featured here, or better yet, being selected for a niche site, counts for something.

Jessie Watson from Wenatchee Washington on November 18, 2017:

I like your style. Do you find HubPages to be a good place to develop a writing portfolio?

Kari Poulsen from Ohio on October 26, 2017:

The navy sounds horrible. Washing clothes in urine, not taking a bath and communal living, yuk! Terrible food, strict discipline, no wonder 42,000 deserted in 10 years. And no wonder they had to press people into service. LOL, I love Monty Python. :)

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