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Naval grazing in Nelson's fleet: Janet MacDonald looks at the surprisingly good rations that kept the Jack-Tars jolly.

CONTRARY TO POPULAR MYTH, the diet of sailors in the Royal Navy in Nelson's time was both plentiful and of good quality; most of the stories of dreadful food come from merchant sailors, for whom there were no regulations and little recourse other than changing ships in the hope of finding a more sympathetic captain. For the naval seaman, there were numerous regulations, including a specified ration for each man, and a system by which they could reject sub-standard food and opt for alternatives or cash in lieu.

By Nelson's time, the basic diet consisted of ship's biscuit, salt beef, salt pork, dried pease, oatmeal, butter and cheese, with substitutes of mutton, flour, raisins, suet, rice and sugar or molasses. Each man was entitled to quantities which averaged out at over 5000 calories per day. The official diet had been laid down in Pepys' time, and between then and the late 1840s (when tinned food became good enough and cheap enough tot general use) the only major change was to drop stock fish and increase the meat ration.

By modern standards this diet seems lacking in fresh vegetables, but these were provided whenever possible: while in port or for a brief period after leaving port. But while in port the rule was that fresh beef should be provided as often as possible--in practice this meant almost daily. Vegetables were traditionally served with that fresh beef, a tradition that turned into a rule after the Spithead mutiny of 1797.

Log books show onions were followed by leeks as the seasons changed, and cabbage gave way to 'greens' (probably kale, spinach or, in the West Indies, calalou). There were turnips, carrots and often pumpkins. All were bought in the local markets, as was citrus fruit once this had been recognised as a valuable antiscorbutic.

All of the above was provided under the auspices of the Admiralty's subordinate organisation, the Victualling Board. There was a rule that allocation of rations should be done in public to ensure no favouritism for officers. Most officers replaced, or supplemented their rations, by buying their own supplies and these often included livestock such as sheep, pigs and poultry, which joined the officially provided bullocks (for fresh beef at sea) and sheep (for the sickbay). There was usually at least one goat for milk, and sometimes even a milch cow. A few ships were lost when the livestock's hay caught fire.

Officers bought a lot of pickles (including mango pickle and piccalilli), relishes such as mushroom ketchup or herb vinegars, and also jams. Nelson's own shopping lists include Parmesan cheese, pickled tripe and macaroni. But the officers, and also the men, bought stocks of local produce whenever they touched land, in the markets or from the bumboats that flocked round the ships as soon as they dropped anchor. St Helena was famous for watercress, Madeira for bananas, the East Indies station for mangoes and the West Indies for a vast range of fruit including melons and the large grapefruit-like shaddocks.

And of course there was fish. Close in land there would be local fishing boats eager to sell their catch; ships on blockade duty, were provided with trawls; and everywhere there were fish to be caught with lines. Fishing was a popular way to pass the time when off-watch. Catches in warm waters included 'dolphins' (actually bonito), shark (eaten peppered and grilled) and turtles. Fish caught lay trawl belonged to the ship; it was first offered to the sickbay, then distributed among the officers and men's messes by rotation. Fish caught by line belonged to the catcher, who could dispose of these as he wished, sharing the catch with his mess-mates or selling it to officers.

And sometimes there was more exotic fare to be pulled from the sea. One officer in the West Indies reported the capture of an alligator that had been washed out to sea. It apparently both looked and tasted like veal. And the American frigate captain David Porter raved about the 'luscious and delicate' taste of giant tortoises, acquired from islands in the Pacific and Indian oceans.

What did they wash it down with? The official basic drink was beer, issued at a gallon per man per day; this sounds a lot, but it was 'small' beer and they were using the old Queen Anne gallon (five-sixths of the modern Imperial gallon). Within reach of the British coast, or other beer-making nations, and for the first three months of long-distance voyages, beer was the only drink available for the men (officers bought their own wine). Even on ships going further afield and thus canting spirits, it was forbidden to open casks of spirits while within reach of British coasts, in case some enterprising person smuggled some ashore.

Elsewhere the first substitute for beer was wine; when that was exhausted they moved on to grog (a four-to-one mixture of water and spirits). And also contrary to popular myth, in Nelson's time the spirit was not always rum. It was whatever was produced locally: in the Mediterranean it was brandy, in the East Indies it was arrack and in the West Indies it was rum.

Feeding Nelson's Navy: The True Story of Food at Sea in the Georgian Era by Janet MacDonald is published this month by Chatham Publishing, 19.99 [pounds sterling].
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Title Annotation:Frontline
Author:MacDonald, Janet
Publication:History Today
Article Type:Excerpt
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Oct 1, 2004
Words:888
Previous Article:Rediscovering Nelson: Colin White surveys current scholarship on the national hero and announces an autumn lecture series devoted to him.
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