Diet - Food

The most common ailment amongst seamen aboard ship was constipation and most medical chests contained various-sized syringes and potions to enable enemas. ‘Scurvy’ was caused by a badly-designed diet and hence well-known at sea but the causes of scurvy were not fully understood  - caused by a lack of vitamin C - however it was understood that eating vegetables and fruit kept scurvy away longer than men eating only salted or dried ships’ food. Captains in the East India Company employed anti-scorbutics on board their ship - such as a daily spoonful of vinegar or lime-juice - but these were rare aboard other ships before the middle of the 18th Century ; East-Indiamen in the early 18th Century enjoyed the advantage and benefits of having had John Woodall for thirty years as Surgeon-General of the East India Company, whose book The Surgeons Mate was penned in the previous century and was the very first textbook for doctors and surgeons at sea aboard ships, and contained comprehensive advice on how to stock a surgeon’s chest, treat shipboard wounds and emergencies and discussed the causes and treatment of scurvy. Admiral Anson’s long voyage around the world in 1740 was a sea-faring epic and he was welcomed back to England as a hero - but only 500 of the 1,900 seamen involved in the voyage as crews died mainly through disease and starvation or accidents at sea caused by ill-health. 






A wooden trencher and a pewter dinnerplate. The items (left) are a pepper shaker, a small salt horn and a horn spoon. The cutlery shown is large by modern standards - note the fork has only two tines and the swelled curved portion of the knife blade is used as a spoon to transfer food to the mouth.



Awful stories exist of men at sea ‘becalmed’, shipwrecked or lost and having to resort to cutting up and eating their leather belts and shoes - and in several extreme cases, resorting to eating each other. Seamen in the early 18
th Century on a voyage - perhaps west across the Atlantic - expected not to enjoy fresh food and drink after a few weeks at sea in an age where the terms airtight and refrigeration - and tin cans - were almost non-existent ashore and unknown aboard sailing ships. A seaman before engaging on a cruise or voyage would be told what his allowance of food and drink might be, but this could change once at sea through unexpected events or the whim of the captain with the crew having no recourse for complaint. Privateers or pirates - during their ‘short life but a merry one’ - expected a lot better and pirates aboard what was essentially a property-owning democracy had the means to ensure they could demand and receive a high standard.

Meat generally came inboard ship dried or salted and shipped in a cask unless coming aboard alive in the form of pigs, cattle, sheep, goats or chickens to be kept on deck or in the ships’ manger to be killed and cooked when required. As space aboard a sailing ship was at a premium, taking live animals aboard - along with the food and water to keep them alive - took up valuable capacity in cubic feet. In many cases the ordinary seamen weren’t permitted, didn’t have the space or didn’t have the necessary cash to lay in a personal store of live animals. Meat could be preserved by being salted or dried, and taken in the cask and looked after carefully could keep almost indefinitely : a set of buttons made for his coat by a sailor in the early 1800’s were discovered in the 1960’s and the kind of wood they were made from defied identification until a scientist placed a button under the microscope and though ‘looking like black oak’ identified the material as salt beef - but nobody volunteered to cook and eat it to find out if it was still edible or digestible !   Many accounts from Royal Navy sailors 1760-1815 note that to enjoy fresh meat aboard ship for a change - perhaps during a year at sea - catching rats and feeding them pieces of ships’ biscuit to fatten them up for eating was a well-known practice aboard larger ships. Seabirds (such as noddy’s or booby’s) were largely ignored outside a real emergency as they gave little meat but their flesh would be eaten and their blood would be drunk by any hungry seaman marooned, shipwrecked or cast adrift in a boat.

Cheese of various kinds kept for a long time and was a regular ship-board staple, mentioned in many ration allowances aboard ship right through the Georgian period. Dried vegetables were stored and used when supplies of fresh peas, beans, turnips or onions ran out. Bread could be bought from a baker ashore with a request that it be ‘twice-baked’. Loaves baked this way were tough to cut up except with a saw, but the loaves would remain eatable for a long time. Bread was shipped aboard in the form of ‘hard-tack’ or ‘biscuit’ but most often known as ‘ships bread’. These were rough three inch-square or diameter cakes of dough made with flour and water only, with an added pinch of salt. These would then be baked in batches until hard and packed in casks or sacks. They could be handled several times and unless they got damp, they might keep for a very long time. Seamen would not try to bite these iron-hard cakes but would soak them in their water, ale or broth until they were soft enough to break off a corner. These ‘biscuits’ were often flavoured at sea by being dipped in bacon or pork fat and lightly fried. The old sea-going habit of rapping a ships’ biscuit on the table to encourage the weevils inside the biscuit to leave or be eaten is well-known ; less well-known is the seaman’s habit of collecting a handful of maggots, lightly browning them in pork fat or beef dripping and then spreading them like meat-paste onto a biscuit (very tasty, by the way). A ships bread-room would make these small cakes from maize, wheat or perhaps even cassava flour.

Before 1720 - with the execution of many notorious pirates such as Vane and Blackbeard - and the growing suppression of piracy by the British Government and their Colonial Governors, pirate ships in the Caribbean could put into many islands and harbours and go ashore to trade or reap from local natives coconuts, mango, oranges, lemons and other fruits in addition to fresh meat from turtles, goats, deer, pigs and of course, collecting shellfish from the shoreline and netting or hooking many different kinds of fish. A beach-barbeque is not a recent innovation - such barbeques and boucans are where the term ‘buccaneer’ originated - ‘boucanier’ - as pirates and privateers are recorded enjoying such feasts in the mid-1670’s. Pirates dried lots of meat and fish such as eels ashore for storage aboard ship by the same process - but - they would still have to lay in dry stores for emergencies and in order to undertake voyages around Cape Horn to reach the Pacific Ocean from the Caribbean or to reach the Cape Verde or Canary Islands on the east side of the Atlantic before restocking to head south-east for the Guinea coast. ‘Island-hopping’ around the Caribbean would enable a ship to put in at many ports to restock with food, water and firewood - but many of these ports would not be open to visiting pirate ships and after 1720 none were. Without a good base, a pirate would eventually resort to robbing prizes not just of their money but also of their food and drink, spare parts, replacement men and wood for the galley fire. Pirates in the Indian Ocean used several places at and around Madagascar to refit and restock with food and water, notably Ranter Bay and the islands of Saint Mary and Johanna.

After a spell eating salt or dried food, seamen had an obvious appetite for fresh food, but to suit a palate ruined by salt and alcohol, even when fresh this food was often pickled or highly spiced. Salmagundy - the word comes from an old French culinary term, salamine meaning salted or seasoned - is said to be the favourite pirate dish, eaten not just aboard ship but when they were ashore too. This popular dish came with local variations on Jamaica, Hispaniola, Trinidad or Nassau but was basically a highly spiced and flavoured concoction of meat, fish, vegetables and fruit. A modern recipe for Salamagundi or ‘Solomon Grundy’  is :

Take four pickled herrings ; scrape out the flesh and add to chicken, apples, onions, pepper and salt. Pack this mixture back into the herring-skins and bake in the oven. Serve with a fresh green salad, radishes, tomatoes and hard-boiled eggs.

… but a period Pirate recipe of 1712 and before the earthquake of 1692 once prepared in a Port Royal tavern was :

Chop into small chunks turtle meat, chicken, pork, beef, ham, pigeon and fish. Marinate with spiced wine and roast. Add the meats to boiled chopped cabbage, anchovies, pickled herring, mango, hard-boiled eggs, palm-hearts, onions, olives and grapes. Add pickled chopped vegetables and garlic, chili pepper, mustard, salt and pepper and serve in a mound upon a large dish.

Both these recipes ‘suggest’ plentiful servings of cold beer, ale or rum punch to accompany the meal. The author has tried both the above recipes and if the reader wishes to indulge heartily recommends a supply of drink within easy reach to extinguish the fire on your tongue - or the cook could amend both the ingredients and the quantities of the spices with a bit of kitchen-sense as Pirate Salmagundi is not a dish to be consumed by the faint-hearted !

Most pirates and privateers who left memoirs mention turtle-meat as being the finest food available. The calipash and calipee from the lining of the turtle shell is still highly sought-after to make delicious soup, and many a pirate likened properly cooked turtle-meat to the finest beef. Other pirates mention eating seal and dolphin, again likening both when well-cooked as an equivalent to roast mutton or best roast beef. As I did for ‘Robinson Crusoe’ with the langosta of Juan Fernandes, in recreating these maritime dishes, consult your local butcher and fishmonger about the availability of raw materials as they can often suggest a reasonable alternative.

All text & photos © Copyright of Richard Rutherford Moore