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  • Writer's pictureTastes Of History

Where's all the rum gone?

Updated: Feb 17

Over the centuries a seaman's diet, whether they were part of the crews of Sir Francis Drake or Admiral Horatio Nelson, hardly changed. Food stored onboard ship was meant to last many months, through damp, cold, and heat. Although 18th century seafarers’ rations might sound less than tantalising, sailors were actually better fed than many in the labouring classes at home. This is where we get our inspiration to recreate recipes from the reign of Queen Anne and the Georgian period, and specifically the Golden Age of Piracy (c. 1650 to c. 1726).

Food on board ship

The quality of the food deteriorated because of storage problems, a lack of ventilation, and poor drainage. Moreover, many ships' suppliers were dishonest and sent stores that were already rotten before they were taken on board. Fresh food was therefore eaten early in any sea voyage before it rotted, could be infested with maggots or eaten by rats. After that the sailor’s main rations were salted beef or pork, cheese, fish, ale and some form of long-lasting biscuits, known as ‘hard tack’ or ‘ship’s bread’, but these were often filled with maggots and weevils, a type of beetle.​

‘Biscuit’ comes from a Middle French word which is itself derived from Latin bis (twice) and coquere, coctus (to cook, cooked). Thus, ‘biscuit’ essentially means ‘twice-cooked’.

Baking onboard ship would have proved a challenge when at sea on rough waters. Bread could be bought from a baker ashore with a request that it be ‘twice-baked’. Loaves baked this way were tough to cut up, except with a saw, but the loaves would remain edible for a long time. Most bread was thus shipped on board in the form of hard ‘biscuit’, and hence it was often called hard-tack’ or simply ‘ship’s bread. These were rough three inch-square or diameter cakes of dough made with flour and water only, either maize, wheat or perhaps even cassava flour, with an added pinch of salt. The dough would then be baked in batches until hard and packed in casks or sacks. They could be handled several times and, unless they got damp, would keep for a very long time.

Quite clearly, seamen would not try to bite these iron-hard cakes but would instead soak them in their water, ale or broth until they were soft enough to break off a corner. These ‘biscuits’ were often flavoured at sea by being dipped in bacon or pork fat and lightly fried. It is true that the ship’s biscuit was notorious for attracting weevils and other insects that burrowed their way through the supply as the expedition wore on. Some sailors just saw the insects as extra protein. The old sea-going habit of rapping ships bread on the table to encourage the weevils inside the biscuit to leave or be eaten is well-known; less well-known is the seaman’s habit of collecting a handful of maggots, lightly browning them in pork fat or beef dripping and then spreading them like meat-paste onto a biscuit.​

Other than that salted to preserve it, fresh meat in the form of live pigs, cattle, sheep, goats or chickens could be kept on deck or in the ships’ manger to be killed and cooked when required. But as space onboard a sailing ship was at a premium, taking live animals aboard - along with the food and water to keep them alive - took up valuable space.

Pirate ships might have carried hens on board to supply fresh eggs - a good source of protein - and meat. The nautical nickname for eggs was 'cackle-fruit' after the distinctive noise a hen makes when laying. Seabirds (such as noddy’s or booby’s), however, were largely ignored outside a real emergency as they gave little meat, although their flesh would be eaten and their blood drunk by a hungry seaman marooned, shipwrecked or cast adrift in a boat.

Turtles were also plentiful throughout the Caribbean and provided one of the few sources of fresh meat available to pirates. Agile in the sea, turtles were slow on land and easy prey for foragers. On board ship, the cook could keep turtles alive in the hold until it was time to cook them. Soft-shelled turtles’ eggs were also a popular delicacy. Most pirates and privateers who left memoirs mention properly cooked turtle-meat as being the finest food available; many likening it to the finest beef. The calipash and calipee, the greenish and yellowish gelatinous substances from the upper and lower lining, respectively, of the turtle shell is still highly sought-after to make delicious soup. Other pirates mention eating seal and dolphin, again likening both when well-cooked as an equivalent to roast mutton or best roast beef.

Most pirates lived off the land whenever they could. On remote islands, animals and birds were unused to being hunted and were often very tame and easily caught. Crews sailing the Caribbean could put into many islands and harbours heading ashore to trade or reap from the locals such things as coconuts, mango, oranges, lemons and other fruits in addition to fresh meat from turtles, goats, deer, pigs and of course, collecting shellfish from the shoreline or fishing. Salted or cured fish were a valuable food source on long voyages.

Cheese of various kinds could be kept for a long time and was a regular ship-board staple mentioned in many ration allowances onboard ship right through the Georgian period. Butter was sometimes available early on in the journey but did not store well and was quickly eaten. Suet or fat cooked with flour was sometimes substituted for the meat and cheese ration.

Vegetables and ‘greens’ were almost unheard of as they were all but impossible to keep from rotting on the damp ships. Fresh supplies of peas, beans, turnips or onions would be eaten early on in a voyage before they began to rot. Sauerkraut made from cabbage and soup made from tablets processed from stores of dried vegetables began to appear on English vessels in the 18th century as captains experimented with foods that could prevent scurvy and other diseases discovered to be associated with malnutrition. Oatmeal and ‘pease’, dried peas served like lentils, were staples for the English sailors, while rice, beans, and chickpeas fuelled the Spanish.

Drink on board Ship

Water was stored in barrels but probably did not taste too good after a few weeks at sea. Most sailors preferred beer; even Royal Navy vessels carried vast quantities of it, with as much as a gallon of beer rationed to each sailor per day (albeit often served mixed with water). It was a popular beverage that could be stored for travel, repelling algae growth and bacteria due to its alcohol content.

If beer or wine was not enough, then sailors always had their ‘Grog’, a term used for a variety of alcoholic beverages. It originally referred to rum diluted with water (and later on long sea voyages the added juice of limes or lemons). As a ration, it was introduced into the Royal Navy on August 21st, 1740 by Vice Admiral Edward Vernon. He was known for wearing a coat of grogram cloth and thus was nicknamed ‘Old Grogram’ or ‘Old Grog’, which gave rise to the drink's name.

A half pint (300 ml) of rum mixed with one quart (1,136 ml) of water, issued in two servings before noon and after the end of the working day, became part of the official regulations of the Royal Navy in 1756. The sailor’s ration lasted for more than two centuries. Citrus juice was added to prevent spoilage, but it was also found to prevent scurvy, and thus there were two reasons to continue the practice.

While RN sailors were rationed, pirates were most definitely not! Their reputation for being rum-swilling bandits was largely true. They drank anything alcoholic, and many were never sober while ashore. Onboard ship, rum mixed with water, sugar, and nutmeg - known as ‘bumbo’ - was popular with pirates and merchantmen alike.

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