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.
Meals seem to have been served at 8am, noon, and 5:30pm and to feed a ship required quite a bit of organization.
Obviously, the entire ship could not set down to eat at the same time so the meal times marked the beginning of the meal. Food was issued by the purser and his steward to the designated cook from each mess twice a day. Again, according to MacDonald, the typical times were 7am to 9am and again from 4pm to 7pm.
One has to presume that the afternoon ration issue involved meat for the next day which needed to steep overnight to remove some of the salt. (As an aside, the American navy of this period did not cook breakfast, but rather each mess retained part of the evening meal to be served in the morning. Another deviation between the two navies despite their common heritage was that British sailors ate from mess tables which were suspended overhead when not in use and American sailors ate picnic style on the deck.)
The cook would draw the day’s ration and proceed to the galley where it was turned over to the cook. Each mess was assigned a “pudding bag” for making the suet pudding that substituted for some of the salt beef issue. The duty as mess cook rotated regularly because it was seen as an easy job that everyone should have.
When it came to meat, fairness was at a premium.
Admiralty regulations specifically forbid any preference in quantity or quality of rations based on rank or position. When the salt beef was done boiling the cook issued it randomly, calling out “who shall have this?” and the cook’s mate drawing a mess number at random. When the meat was taken back to the mess, the head of the mess would carve it into equal sections, with his back to the mess. After each cut he would call out the traditional, “who shall have this?” and his number two would randomly call a name. Under this system there could be no claim of favoritism.
As I’ve alluded to earlier there was an extensive list of possible substitutions.
In case it should be found necessary to alter any of the foregoing particulars of Provisions, and to issue other species as their substitutes, it is to be observed,
That a pint of Wine, or half a pint of Rum, Brandy, or other Spirits, holds proportion to a gallon of Beer.
That four pounds of Flour, or three pounds thereof, with one pound of Raisins, are equal to a four pound piece of salt Beef.
That half a pound of Currants, or half a pound of Beef Suet, is equal to one pound of Raisins.
That four pounds of fresh beef, or three pounds of Mutton, are equal to four pounds of salt Beef, and three pounds of fresh Beef, or Mutton, to a two pound piece of salt Pork, with Pease.
That one pint of Calavances or Dholl is equal to a pint of Pease.
That whenever Rice is issued either for Bread, Pease, Oatmeal or Cheese, one pound of Rice is to be considered as equal to a pound of Bread, a pint of Pease, a quart of Oatmeal, or a pound of Cheese.
That a pint of Wheat, or of Pot Barley, is equal to a pint of Oatmeal;
That five pounds and three quarters of Molasses are equal to one gallon of Oatmeal;
Then when Sugar is substituted for Butter or Cheese, one pound of Sugar is equal to one pound of Butter, or two pounds of Cheese.
That one pint of Oil is equal to a pound of Butter, or to two pounds of Cheese: and that half a pound of Cocoa, or a quarter of a pound of Tea, is equal to one pound of Cheese.
Several scholars have done calculations of the caloric value in the diet allowed for by regulations and determined that it provides 4500 to 5000 calories per day. Enough to sustain a man exposed to the elements and engaged in heavy manual labor.
In future installments we’ll go into more detail on the provisioning of British men o’ war during the Age of Sail.
Previous installments can be found here.