Cheese was one of the staple foods on a British man o’ war. Twelve ounces of cheese were issued per sailor each week.
According to Janet MacDonald in Feeding Nelson’s Navy, in the early part of the 18th Century the cheese favored by the Victualling Board was Suffolk cheese. Suffolk cheese was made from milk that had been “thrice skimmed” of cream. The resulting product kept for a long time, unfortunately, it was hard and inedible. A writer discussing English agriculture in the first half of the 19th Century observed:
“Suffolk cheese, from its poverty, is frequently the subject of much humour. It is by some represented as only fit for making wheels for wheelbarrows ; and a story is told, that a parcel of Suffolk cheese being packed up in an iron chest and put on board a ship bound to the East Indies, the rats, allured by the scent, gnawed a hole in the chest, but could not penetrate the cheese.”
When it did get old it became infested with red worms (Eisenia fetida). By 1758 the Victualling Board dropped Suffolk cheese from it list of foodstuffs replacing it with Cheshire, Cheddar, Gloustershire, or Warwickshire cheese. These cheeses did not have the shelf life but complaints about the quality of the cheese virtually ceased when Suffolk cheese went by the board.
Like most agricultural tasks, cheese was a seasonal activity. It could only be undertaken in spring and summer when cows, usually newly calfed, would produce the most milk.
It also had a limited shelf life. Regulations provided that if any batch of cheese did not remain good for six months the government would not pay for any of the batch and the producer would have to remove it at their own expense. Pursers were warned that if they did not issue all their cheese within three months they government would not give them credit for any unused portion.
The life of the sailor revolved around meals. The mess, typically 4 to 8 men, constituted the social organization aboard ship and meals provided the high points in days filled with monotony. Each mess was assigned a number, HMS Victory, for instance, had 165 separate messes. As a former infantryman, I can attest that the single hot meal we received daily on extended deployments was a similar high point.
Meal times were sacrosanct. According to Janet MacDonald in Feeding Nelson’s Navy, when Sir Edward Pellew took over the East Indies squadron in 1805 all meal times were dictated by signals from his flagship and Nelson’s standing orders stated musters and drills could not take place during meal times.
Whatever meat it may have been, the salt beef was certainly abomin- able. It could, perhaps, have been made eatable by long soaking in the steep tub, but no meat for the messes was ever soaked for more than twenty-four hours. The salt pork was generally rather better than the beef, but the sailors could carve fancy articles, such as boxes, out of either meat. The flesh is said to have taken a good polish, like some close-grained wood.
Sea Life in Nelson’s Time
Before I’m thought to be making a case that I’m most assuredly not making let me stipulate that the diet provided to British sailors was grimly monotonous and in some cases provisions were spoiled. As I was taught some time ago while attempting to become competent in operations research, “the plural of anecdote is not data.”
By the standards of the time, the British sailor had a much more wholesome diet than he would have expected in most trades earning the same wage and the food was not necessarily the stuff of which horror stories are told, despite the quote from our old friend John Masefield above.
Novelists are generally just that. Novelists. That’s not a criticism but an observation. With the rare exception of a writer like Dudley Pope who had developed some chops as a writer of nonfiction, most novelists rely on a handful of works for any historical period. It is impossible to read Bernard without hearing the echoes of The Recollections of Rifleman Harris, The Letters of Private Wheeler, and, of course, Elizabeth Pakenham’s indispensable biography of Wellington. For the novels set during the Age of Sail it is obvious that Sea Life in Nelson’s Time by John Masefield (1905) is the Q document.
What sets Masefield apart from other sources is that 1) he didn’t actually experience the events, 2) his sourcing is opaque, to say the least, 3) he’s not a historian, and 4) his later fame, a Britain’s Poet Laureate, gives credibility to the work.
I say this because much of Masefield’s description of life at sea during the Age of Sail permeates fiction set during that era. And a great deal of what he describes is simply wrong when weighed against contemporaneous accounts. Be that as it may, his influence is there and must be addressed.
The real story follows.
As we discussed below in “… a lesser of two weevils” one of the standard vignette’s in virtually any novel set in the British navy during the Age of Sail is the rapping of a ship’s biscuit on the table to draw the weevils out before eating.
Janet MacDonald, in Feeding Nelson’s Navy, notes that this may have been self-inflicted wound. She relies on a primary source for this, Captain Basil Hall experiences during the War of 1812 as recounted in Fragments of Voyages and Travels, volume 1.
Two weevils crept from the crumbs. “You see those weevils, Stephen?” said Jack solemnly.
“Which would you choose?”
“There is not a scrap of difference. Arcades ambo. They are the same species of curculio, and there is nothing to choose between them.”
“But suppose you had to choose?”
“Then I should choose the right-hand weevil; it has a perceptible advantage in both length and breadth.”
“There I have you,” cried Jack. “You are bit — you are completely dished. Don’t you know that in the Navy you must always choose the lesser of two weevils? Oh ha, ha, ha, ha!”
For those unfamiliar with “the Canon” as Patrick O’Brian fans are prone to call the Jack Aubrey novels, the above exchange comes from The Fortune of War.
What were these weevils, lesser or greater?
Naval fiction set during the Age of Sail roundly condemns the food. Spoiled meat. Rancid cheese and butter. Weevily bread. Salt beef that could be carved into snuff boxes.
But like so many other stories of the time we have a duty to ask whether these stories are true or whether they are notable exceptions, apocrypha, or plot devices. I’m reading a fascinating book by Janet MacDonald called Feeding Nelson’s Navy: The True Story of Food at Sea in the Georgian Era.
I’ve some background in operations research where the phrase “the plural of anecdote is not data” governs analysis. I’ve often wondered how men engaged in heavy physical labor, day in and day out, could possibly survive on the diet described and why significant deaths from malnutrition are not reported.
MacDonald’s systematic examination of ships logs, pursers returns, reports of the Victualling Board, and contemporaneous memoirs will really change the way you think about diet on a man o’war.
We’ll be serializing the book, in a manner of speaking, over the next few weeks.