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.
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.