The Harsh Life

At Sea in the 19th Century

“No man will become a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself placed in jail.”—Dr. Samuel Johnson, 1773

Samuel Johnson’s advice is not something one would expect to see in a navy recruiting pamphlet in 1800, but it was an honest appraisal of the life of a seaman in that year.  From every account, from around 1775 to the mid-1800s, life at sea was so difficult that most men avoided it in the same way they would avoid bubonic plague, and it was infrequent when a ship went to sea with a full complement of crewmen.  During the Revolutionary War, American ships remained tied up because few men were interested in taking on the harsh life.  Young boys between the ages of twelve and sixteen, on the other hand, filled as they were with romantic notions about life aboard a ship, became a primary focus for navy recruiters.

Generally …

Life at sea was about the same for Americans as it was for an Englishman, a Swede, or a Spaniard.  A grown man imbued with common sense, particularly one with previous experience at sea, did his best to avoid the sea service because sailing ships were filthy, smelly, unhealthy, and rampant with rats and other vermin.  If that wasn’t enough, sailing ships were cold, damp, and confining.  Once at sea, one may as well have been placed in jail because there was nowhere to go, but as Dr. Johnson suggested, jail should be preferred.  The general unattractiveness of life at sea was so predominant that ship’s captains often sent “press gangs” ashore to round up able-bodied seamen, many of whom, having been whacked on the head, were carried unconscious aboard ship and placed in irons until the ship left harbor.  Once the ship was at sea, the impressed men were welcomed aboard, congratulated for making a good decision, and given “the word” — the rules by which they would govern themselves while a member of the crew.  The term “able-bodied seaman” meant that a crewman had two legs, two arms, and most of his fingers.  

The Word

At a time when most Americans were illiterate, navy training was an oral tradition and “on the job” instruction.  The first task assigned to “trainers” was to make sure that all hands acknowledged the Navy’s regulations and the policies of the ship’s captain.  In most cases, “the word” lasted until the ship was again in port because this was when sailors had an opportunity to escape.  Some historians claim that desertion from the naval service numbered in the thousands, prompting ship’s captains to send out impressment crews in the middle of the night to locate and “recruit” drunken sods.  Age didn’t matter, but the younger person was always preferred, and it would help if the impressed crewman spoke English, but this was not a hard and fast rule.  French speaking sods could be whacked on the head just as easily as a Spaniard.

Manning the ships with officers

Navy officer uniforms 1803

There were two sources of recruitment for young seamen.  Generally, midshipmen were officer trainees.  The term originated in the 17th century from the place aboard ship where they worked or birthed — amidships.  Army and Navy candidates for officer service were often the sons of wealthy families not destined to inherit their fathers’ estates.  Unless the eldest son died before maturity, a younger son did not expect any inheritance.  Still, in fairness, it was believed that something should be done for the younger sons.

It may have been that if younger sons had no demonstrated ability or interest in the study of law or accountancy, or some other noteworthy profession, particularly if the younger sons were disrespectful or rebellious, then their influential fathers would try to have them accepted into the army or navy.  Obtaining officer’s commissions differed between the British Army and Royal Navy, and some of these traditions were transferred to the US Army and Navy.  Between 1683 and 1871, British Army commissions were frequently purchased; a wealthy father would pay to have a son placed at Sandhurst; afterward, the purchase of commissions was up to the officer.[1]

The Royal Navy employed a different system.  Beginning in 1661, influential fathers would obtain “letters of service” from the Crown.  The King’s letter instructed admirals and captains to “show the bearer of this letter such kindness as ye shall judge fit for a gentleman, both in accommodating him in your ship and in furthering his improvement.”  The bearer of the King’s letter was titled/rated as volunteer per order, also often known as the King’s letter boys; it distinguished them as a higher apprentice class from those of normal midshipmen ratings.

The life of a midshipman was particularly challenging — more so than for an army subaltern.  Rising to a position above midshipman required six to eight years of training at sea, the favor of ships officers under whom they trained, passing a written examination, and the approval of the ship’s captain who always had the last word.

Historically, there were four classifications of midshipman.  Between 1450-1650, a midshipman was an experienced seaman from the deck who supervised ordinary seaman below the rank of ship’s officers.  This fellow may also have called a master’s mate.  He was not an officer trainee, but perhaps more on the order of a warrant officer.  In the 1700s, midshipman extraordinary were young men serving below the rank of post-captain, paid as midshipmen until they could find a position aboard another ship.  Midshipman served as apprentice officers, and midshipman ordinary were older men who either failed to pass the examination for lieutenant or, men having passed the examination yet deemed of insufficient character for advancement.  Midshipmen did not have the luxury of “resigning.”  As a King’s letter boy, a midshipman was honor-bound to serve the six-to-eight years, after which he might resign to find other opportunities.

Manning the ships with enlisted men

Once “recruited,” the young seaman received his initial and ongoing training under the authority of the ship’s schoolmaster.  It the ship did not have a schoolmaster, the duty for training fell to either the ship’s chaplain or captain’s clerk.  Not much effort was applied to the formal training of boy-seamen, however.  Most seamen learned their tasks while “on the job.”  Life at sea was already dangerous, particularly among the youngsters who had to learn, in addition to their routine shipboard tasks, to manage their fears.  Climbing into the rigging some 80 feet above the main deck was a frightening experience — worse when at sea with the ship rolling from side to side.  The only way to conquer such fears was to ‘just do it.’  More than a few boys fell to their death.

In 1837, the U. S. Navy adopted the Naval Apprentice System for enlisted boys no younger than thirteen years, nor over eighteen years, to serve until age 21.  Occasionally, a ship’s captain offered a boy-seaman a temporary appointment to serve as an apprentice officer.  Still, generally, the boy-seaman remained in the lower ranks for the duration of his service at sea.

In 1902, the U. S. Navy published its first Bluejacket’s Manual, written and issued to recruits as an instruction for basic seamanship and shipboard life.  In 1902, as in the previous 100 years, literacy was a problem among recruits for navy service.  The Bluejacket’s Manual continues to serve this purpose with annual updates to keep pace with evolving technologies.

Health and Hygiene

In 1818, U. S. Navy Regulations required captains to keep wind sails and ventilators in continual use.  The purpose of this regulation was to keep ships at sea “well-ventilated.”  Senior officers believed that a well-ventilated ship (drying below-decks from ever-present seawater and dampness) was a healthy ship.  The proposition may have been true, except that a constant stream of cold air blowing through the ship could not have been beneficial to men with colds and may have even caused more than a few illnesses and deaths.  Navy regulations also prohibited seamen from wearing wet clothing.  The ship’s system helped dry wet clothing.  With limited facilities to store extra clothing, this too became a chore aboard ship.

Meals aboard ship today are generally tasty and nutritious but it wasn’t always that way.  In 1818, the American sailor could expect three pounds of beef per week, 3 pounds of pork per week, one pound of flour, 98 ounces of crusty bread, two ounces of butter, three ounces of sugar, four ounces of tea, one pint of rice, a half-pint of vinegar, and three and a half pints of rum.  Boy-seamen below the age of 18 were not permitted to have rum; they were paid money instead … about thirty-five cents per week ($6.86 today).  In later years, seamen were provided with raisins, dried apples, coffee, pickles, and cranberries.  Food aboard ship was always “salty.”  Before refrigeration, food subject to spoilage was packed in brine.  It was often “too salty” and unsuitable for human consumption.  These problems led some sea captains to keep livestock on board, including pigs, ducks, geese, and chickens.

Ships of the Navy carried enough fresh water to last a typical cruise, carried below decks in wooden casks.  Stagnant water was a problem, however, which frequently required the rationing of water.  When water stores became a problem, the ship’s captain would order a boat ashore to obtain fresh water when possible. Getting freshwater was no easy task, either.  Regulations stated that crewmen were not permitted to drink any water alongside the ship, that freshwater, when obtained, must be allowed to settle before consumption.  In the early 1800s, no consideration was given to the natural impurities of freshwater, which did cause sickness among the men, including cholera.  Boiling water before consumption did not evolve until many years later.

Navy enlisted uniforms, 1888

As previously mentioned, there was no heat aboard sailing ships.  The only fire allowed aboard ship the carefully controlled fire maintained for cooking in the ship’s galley.  If there were any heated spaces aboard ship, they would most likely be found in the sickbay and usually took the form of hot coals in an iron bucket.  These conditions assured that the men were always cold, and it became a worse ordeal when the men’s clothing became wet or damp.

Regulations also required crewmen to wash two or three times a week, which must have been an unhappy task while operating in the North Atlantic during winter months.  Among the common ailments of seamen were rheumatism, consumption, debility, scurvy, and syphilis.  The latter disease often endangered the operational efficiency of the ship due to physical incapacitation.  In certain seasons, ship’s crewmen experienced outbreaks of yellow fever and smallpox.  Since there was no cure for consumption (tuberculosis), men so affected continued their service until death overtook them.  Whether these men were isolated away from others is unknown.

The Slops and other Uniforms

The American sailor’s wardrobe, called “slops,” generally consisted of a peacoat, two cloth jackets, two cloth trousers, two white flannel shirts, two white flannel drawers, two pair of white yarn stockings, two black handkerchiefs, two duck cotton frocks, two duck cotton trousers, four pair shoes, one mattress, two blankets, one canvas hammock, one red cloth vest, and two black hats.

Quarters — or not

Living quarters aboard the ship were spartan.  Officers were assigned cabins according to their rank and seniority, but crewmen lived communally.  For the crew, sleeping quarters were dark, frequently awash in seawater, and almost always infested with vermin.  Despite rules for bathing, crews’ quarters were often rancid smelling was nauseous.  Part of this problem is explained by the fact that ship’s crews washed their clothing in urine and saltwater.  Presumably, this was designed to save freshwater for drinking and, perhaps, to address the problem with lice and other biters.

Religious Instruction

The US Navy always mandated religious services while at sea, but not every ship was large enough to warrant a chaplain.  In the case of small ships, it was either the ship’s captain or his clerk who conducted religious services — which included two divine services each day and sermons on Sunday.  Attendance at religious services as mandatory for everyone not on watch.  But even when there were shipboard chaplains, it was unlikely that the individual fulfilling that duty was an ordained minister.  In 1862, US Navy Regulations stated that ship’s captains “… shall cause divine service to be performed on Sunday, whenever the weather and other circumstances allow it to be done,” and recommended, “… to all officers, seamen, and others in the naval service diligently to attend at every performance of the worship of Almighty God.”

Recreation

In today’s navy, recreational pursuits are available to every member of the crew, including workout rooms, libraries, computer centers, and various thematic clubs.  It wasn’t until 1825 that the navy set aside a place for libraries, which were generally placed under the charge of chaplains and ship’s clerks.  Since most crewmen were illiterate, officers were the usual patrons of ship’s libraries.

Members of the crew who played instruments often provided music.  In the old navy, the number one recreational activity was shore leave or liberty.  Officers often went on sightseeing tours, hunting parties, or were “invited guests” to the homes of locally prominent members of society.  Enlisted men were left to their own devices, which were generally activities in contravention of every religious service or sermon heard while aboard ship — and this may be the one remaining tradition of the early American navy.

Paying the Piper

Discipline aboard ship was draconian.  Among the more severe transgression was the stealing of food.  Individual discovered stealing food were in some cases punished by nailing the offender’s hand to a mast and then cutting it off.  Flogging was also a common punishment — the number of lashes depending on the offense charged, but several dozen was not uncommon.  If it ever actually existed as a punishment, Keelhauling was, to my knowledge, never employed in the US or Royal Navy, whence American naval traditions originated.


Endnote:

[1] Primarily a system in the British Army whereby an officer would pay a sum of money to the Army for a commission in the cavalry or infantry, thereby avoiding the need to wait for a seniority or merit-based advancement.  The payment was a cash bond for good behavior liable to forfeit in the case of cowardice, desertion, or misconduct.  This system was abolished in 1871.