Dr Johnson famously described life at sea as 'like going to prison, but with the added danger of drowning', but for most it was not a bad life. Recently, research has done much to cast light on the daily diet of at least some seafarers in the eighteenth century. The typical stereotype of ill-fed mariners surviving on weevil infested, hard, ship's biscuits and salted beef washed down with 'grog' appears to be inaccurate, certainly in the British Royal Navy. Conditions for merchant seamen could be poor though, as owners tried to keep their costs down by providing poor quality food.
Records for the Royal Navy in the eighteenth century show that its crews were fed a high calorie diet far superior to that experienced by ordinary men ashore. In a typical week, an average crewman's food included 7 lbs of bread, 7 gallons of beer, 4 lbs of beef, 2 lbs of pork (of necessity, meats would be salted to preserve them), 2 pints of peas, 3 pints of oatmeal, 6 ozs of butter and 12 ozs of cheese. One hot meal per day was the usual expectation, a luxury not enjoyed by many of the poor ashore.
As well as the above, records survive of entire victualling suppies put aboard R.N. Naval vessels in the later eighteenth century. The lists detail bread, wine, spirits, flour, suet, raisins, peas, oatmeal, sugar, butter, cheese, vinegar, tobacco, and sugar. Although Scurvy, caused by a lack of Vitamin C, was a problem on long voyages and killed many sailors early on in the eighteenth century, eventually a preventative was found.
Scotsman James Lind carried out research which finally convinced him that the juice of citrus fruits was effective at preventing Scurvy, a potentially fatal disease which affected poor people ashore as well as sailors. Lind's work was known to the great British explorer Captain James Cook. On his first voyage circumnavigating the globe, from 1768 to 1771, Cook made all his crewmen drink lime juice and did not lose a single one to Scurvy. Subsequently, by the 1790s the Royal Navy had ordered lime juice to be carried aboard all vessels and issued daily, and the British had begun their long career as 'Limeys'!
Royal Naval vessels spent long periods of the eighteenth century locked in combat with the navies of France, Holland or Spain and the fitness of crews was given high priority by the Admiralty and by individual Captains. Outside Home Waters, revictualling was carried out as often as possible, with fresh water, fruit and vegetables being priorities, although the latter were not always popular with sailors. Rum was substituted for Beer in the Caribbean and the daily 'tot' of rum (half a gill?) continued to be issued to British sailors right up until the 1980s. Even today, on special days such as the Queen's birthday, the order may be given to 'splice the mainbrace', meaning issue a rum ration to each sailor.
During the eighteenth century the diet of merchant sailors was much more variable in amount and quality and was often probably closer to that popularly imagined. Despite this, sailors probably ate better than the poor back home, many of whom could afford meat, even salted, only rarely. Seafaring was a hard, physically demanding, way of life and fit crews were essential to a ship's safety. It therefore was necessary to provide enough nourishment to sustain strength, even if it was of poor quality or monotonous.