I was in downtown Toledo today while the Niagara happened to be paying the city a visit. The Niagara is a replica of a Great Lakes brig built around the time of the War of 1812 (with a few timbers of the original actually used). Fortunately for me, the group that had brought the ship to Toledo was also providing tours of of the ship. Being surrounded by the reality of this ship took me back to many of the seafaring novel that I had read by Alexander Kent and Patrick O'Brien, and of the conditions that sailors dealt with in those days. Banging my head as I walked below decks persuaded me to that sharing some part of their pain with you might be of some value. So here in brief, is my take on the life a sailor in the British Navy during the "Age of Sail".
- Most of the common sailors were either debtors, criminals, or "impressed". This final term usually meant that they had been kidnapped by "press gangs" who either got them drunk or simply bashed them on the head before taking them away. The other method of impressment involved being captured when a British ship defeated theirs in battle, whether it was a military or merchant vessel. (This was one of the reasons over which the War of 1812 was fought.)
- Terms of service were normally for years, or until hostilities ended (whichever came last).
- Leave was non-existent or at the very least restricted, as these mostly kidnapped sailors would desert if given half a chance.
- Storage of food was as good as it could be at the time, but that was horrible. Most of those serving were shortly on rations that consisted of poorly salted meats, bread that contained maggots, and water that had gone rancid in the barrels.
- The ships of the time were exceptionally small when considered against a modern navy and were often on the verge of being top-heavy from the cannons they carried. As a consequence, these vessels were always on the verge of capsizing at worst, and rolling horrifically at best, as were the stomachs of those on them - especially during storms.
- Most of the sailors' duties consisted of working with the sails. This involved climbing into the air a couple of hundred feet into rigging that found them swaying 30 feet and more from side to side with the rolling of the ship; while trying to man-handle heavy rigging and canvas to properly sail the ship. The expression of the time was, "One hand for the ship, and one for yourself.
- When your duties didn't involve an attempt being made to kill you above deck in the rigging, you got to spend your days scrubbing the decks with stones in order to maintain them, spending hours on your knees in the blistering sun.
- Discipline was extremely strict, and usually involved a having the skin peeled from your back by being beat with a bunch of leather strips with knots at the end (cat o' nine tails).
- Sleeping arrangements consisted of a hammock, approximately 18" wide where you ended up sleeping side by side, packed literally shoulder to shoulder with the rest of the crew, who like you hadn't had a chance to bathe in some time. These hammocks came in handy, as they also served as burial shrouds should you make the ultimate sacrifice. (curiously the last stitch made in your burial shroud was made through your lip or nose to make sure that you were actually dead).
- When all of the tedium of sailing was interrupted with battle, these same sailors found themselves faced with: grape shot (a cannon used as a giant shotgun), chain shot (two small cannon balls connected by a chain) which brought the masts and rigging down on your head, or splinters from the impact of solid shot on the wood of the vessels on which they served.
- Wounds suffered from these battles were treated by "doctors" who were usually of the worst possible kind, barely better than butchers. If you didn't die from bleeding to death before being treated, you normally faced some form of amputation to staunch the wound. Thereafter, if you didn't die of infection (sterilization was not well known at the time), you faced the rest of the voyage (and your life) as a cripple.
- When your service (the war) was finally over, you were cut loose in a heartbeat, usually without any kind of pension.
I don't know about you, but when I read of such high adventure and travel to exotic lands in conditions like this, all I can say is: SIGN ME UP!