Harsh Life Aboard Navy Sailing Ships

by RupertTaylor

Terrible food, miserable living conditions, brutal discipline, and the strong possibility of dying were the lot of 18th century sailors.

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. So dreadful that, as Mr. Johnson suggested, prison was a more appealing option.

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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 choice at that moment was to join the Navy.

"Come along lad. It's a great life in 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 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 Nelson noted there had been 42,000 desertions from the Royal Navy in the previous ten years.

Navy Ships were Cramped and Verminous

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.

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).

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 wrote 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 tudorplace.com, “The punishment was to nail the offender’s hand to the mast and cut it off. The stump would be dipped in oil.”

Cat-O'-Nine-TailsFlogging was a regular penalty for less serious transgressions. The 1830 book, “The Life of a Sea Officer,” describes 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.

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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 hmsrichmond.org: “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.


“All You Wanted to Know about 18th Century Royal Navy.” Rex Hickox, Hickox Publishing, 2005.

“Story: Seafarers.” Neill Atkinson, Encyclopedia of New   Zealand, July 13, 2012.

“Life at Sea in the Royal Navy of the 18th Century.” Andrew Lambert, BBC History, February 17, 2011.

“Sir Walter Raleigh, Knight.” Tudorplace.com, undated.

“The Life of a Sea Officer.” Jeffrey Raigersfeld, 1830.

“Royal Navy & Marine Customs and Traditions.” Craig V. Fisher, HMS Richmond.org, undated.


Updated: 03/26/2013, RupertTaylor
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