Seamen had no official uniform. A recruit had to buy clothes from the purser, or cloth from which he made his own, often with great skill. The cost was deducted from his pay, which was 23s 6d a month. He didn’t receive his pay until the end of a voyage, and often not even then, which was a great hardship. The seaman lived on the gundeck where he also fought in battle. He slept in a hammock slung between the deck beams. The hammocks were only about 20 inches apart, but as the crew was divided into two watches, each man had 40 inches to himself.
Seamen’s pay has always been poor, even when compared with the small wages earned by labourers, on shore. By the end of the 1700s, pay on a Naval ship was less than that on a merchant ship. However, as well as their basic wages, sailors would expect to have a share of prize money or booty from captured enemy vessels.
The confined and stark conditions on board ship often created a good sense of friendship and sailors enjoyed each others’ company off duty. Seamen made the best of their cramped living quarters, enjoying games of dice and cards, telling tales, playing musical instruments, carving, drawing, practising knots or model making. Sometimes sailors sang sea shanties. These were rhythmic work songs sung on board to help repetitive tasks such as hauling on ropes. Diet
The problem of finding and storing food was a large one on a man-o-war. There was no refrigeration or tinned food. What was called fresh meat had to be packed into wooden barrels with salt. Cooking would help kill some of the putrid meat and on journeys to the cold arctic meat would sometimes last longer than on journeys to the tropics. The same applied to water. Fresh water kept in wooden barrels soon turned green and slimy. Ships put into port as often as possible to “wood and water”. The wood was for the cooking stove. Coal stocks did not last long. Fresh meat in the form of live animals was carried.
What must be remembered is that the sailor afloat was usually considered better off than his counterpart ashore in spite of all the hardships. He ate with his messmates at a narrow table hooked up between the guns. He had beef or pork stew, but the meat was salted and often so hard as to be almost inedible, even after being boiled for hours. Instead of bread he had ship’s biscuit, and instead of water, which did not keep well at sea, he had a gallon of beer a day. The beer ration was replaced by wine in the Mediterranean and by rum, mixed with water to make grog, in the West Indies. This description of the diet, given by an 11-year-old midshipman killed at Trafalgar, was not exaggerated: “We live on beef which has been ten or eleven years in the cask and on biscuit which snakes your throat cold in eating it owing to the maggots, which are very cold when you eat them! Like calf’s foot jelly or blomage [blancmange] — being very fat indeed. We drink wine, which is exactly like bullock’s blood and sawdust mixed together.” Midshipmen may have found the food worse than on land but many of the seamen were glad of the opportunity to eat regularly. If fact the lure of three square meals a day, coined because of the square wooden plates they ate from, was appealing. Health
Ship life bred disease. The worst killers were yellow fever, spread in tropical climates by infected mosquitoes, and typhus, spread by body lice. The lack of fresh fruit and vegetables often led to another serious disease, scurvy. However the cause of this ailment was already known, and Nelson took care to obtain fresh provisions. He himself said that a seaman on a ship of the line was finished at the age of forty-five. In fact the seaman’s daily routine was far more dangerous than the occasional combat: during the French wars, thirteen times as many seamen died of disease and accident as were killed in battle. Discipline
A seaman could be flogged and given as many as thirty-six lashes for drunkenness, quarrelling, insolence or neglect of duty. Such behaviour was often as offensive to a man’s own shipmates as to the officers. According to Victory’s log, ten of her seamen got thirty-six lashes each for drunkenness two days before Trafalgar. The offender was stripped to the waist and tied to a grating on the upper deck. The whole ship’s company was called up to see him flogged by the boatswain’s mates. The ship’s surgeon was in attendance. A worse punishment was “flogging round the fleet.” The victim was put into a boat, rowed round the fleet, and thrashed before each ship’s company. A man could be hanged at the yardarm for serious crimes such as desertion or mutiny. To us such punishments seem brutal, but this was a brutal age: hanging and flogging were still common penalties for ordinary citizens who broke the law on land. Ship’s captains had great power and they had to be harsh disciplinarians to keep their rough unruly crews under control. Battle stations
When an enemy ship was sighted the men had to prepare the whole ship for action in a few minutes. They hooked up the hinged bulkheads, stowed the officers’ furniture in the hold and cleared the lower decks. They secured sails and hung safety nets below them to catch falling men or debris. To reduce the fire risk, they poured water over the sails, booms, boats and hammock rolls and set the ship’s fire engine up on the poop. They filled fire buckets, laid hoses and sprinkled wet sand over the decks. Wet cloths were nailed over the hatches of the magazines and unrolled along the decks. Then the gun-captains collected their flintlocks and powder quills from the storerooms. The gun crews unlashed the guns, opened the gun-ports and laid out stacks of wads and rope rings of shot. The men and boys who carried the powder went to the magazines to collect their cartridge cases. The cook put the galley fire out and lit candles in the light rooms beside the magazines. Meanwhile the seamen stripped to the waist and tied handkerchiefs over their ears to muffle the roar of the guns. When they were all at their stations, marines closed the hatches and stood guard over them to stop men on the upper deck running below.
On the dark Orlop deck, which was the ship’s operating theatre in battle, the surgeon and his assistants prepared bandages and dressings. They had no antiseptics and no anaesthetics. When a man’s limb was smashed, they laid him on the midshipmen’s mess table and amputated. They pushed a leather gag into his mouth for him to bite on but would not give him rum to deaden the pain until after his wounds had stopped bleeding, knowing that alcohol would thin the blood and lessen his chances of survival. The patient was held down while the surgeon efficiently cut off the limb with a saw and sewed up the stump. Only in extreme cases did he dip the stump in boiling pitch to cauterize it. A seaman who survived a battle and an amputation was entitled to a small pension from the Navy and Royal Hospital for old and disabled seamen at Greenwich but many were turned out with only a few shillings, crippled and unfit for work.