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Life on Board

Disease and Infection

At sea 16th century ships were hotbeds for disease and infection brought about by the lack of proper sanitation, cramped sleeping conditions on straw filled mattresses on the hard decks (hammocks were not introduced in English ships until around 1596) and constant wet and damp. Half the crew of a 16th century ship were often dead by the end of a long voyage, poor food and diet related diseases being a major cause.

Larger ships would have a barber/ surgeon on board, he would be able to dress wounds and set bones, but against disease the effectiveness of his medicine was virtually non-existent. The most dreaded disease was scurvy (lack of vitamin C) which was responsible for tens of thousands of deaths alone. Although some captains in the 16th century were advocating diet was the cause it was to be another several hundred years later that this theory was finally medically proven. The scurvy sufferer first became listless, then his skin broke into angry boils, his gums began to swell and bleed and his teeth fell out. Within days arms and legs became swollen, ugly black bruises appeared and breathing became almost impossible. This was followed by coma and death.

Food and Drink

Drake's crew were probably better off than 17th and 18th sailors, as their circumnavigation diet was very varied and included many types of meat, vegetables, staples and fruits - due to the length of the journey Drake’s crew were forced to buy supplies as they sailed around the five continents. Ships in Tudor times had to carry enough food and drink to last the crew for the voyage. Because many voyages lasted a long time, and there were no fridge-freezers, sailors had to find ways to stop their food going off. The most common way was to salt the food. This meant storing meat and fish in barrels or sacks with salt. Some vegetables, and even eggs, were also pickled, ie stored in vinegar. Small animals were carried where practical and could include goats, pigs, chickens and lambs. As well as providing meat, animals also supplied eggs and milk for the ships crew. On Tudor ships, food was cooked over an open fire in the ‘ships cook box’. The cook box had three sides and a bar across the top to hang pots called cauldrons. The fire was on a tray at the bottom of the cook box, which was on legs to lift off the deck of the ship. It was obviously vital to keep the hot coals away from the timber structure of the ship to prevent fire and so the firebox was always placed ‘downwind’ if it was lit when the ship was at sea.

The typical Elizabethan navy sailor would have eaten biscuits, a little fish or meat, butter and cheese. Typically weak beer (or grog) would have been drunk as it lasted longer than stored water. Drake’s ship, however, would have been different in that on a voyage over 1000 days the crew would have eaten whatever food that they could buy, or find, en route from the locality that they were in. This included tropical foods and tropical fish in the Caribbean to penguins from the icy cold waters of the South Atlantic. It is known that on the circumnavigation the crew ate many kinds of fish, including flying fish. They also ate chickens, dophins, penguins, seals, turtles, oysters, mussels, mutton, pork (various ways), goat and game birds such as partridges. In terms of fruit and vegetabes they ate bananas, plantains, figs, lemons, limes, oranges, grapes, melons, coconuts, cassava, cucumbers, potatoes, macaroni, currants, beans, pulses, and raisins. Staples were also carried including maize, rice, sugar, honey, butter, sago, suet, lard, various oils, salt, spices, herbs, preserves and various items made from flour. They also drank Chilean wine, beer and water, either fresh or collected on sails hung to channel rainwater into barrels. Due to the lack of fresh water, sailors were not wash themselves or their clothes very often and only had very few clothes worn day and night throughout the voyage.


Strict discipline was essential onboard ship and punishment was swift and severe. Almost all aspects of life on board ship were covered by a set of rules. Punishment on ship was governed by the laws of Oleron, believed to have been instituted by Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, wife of Henry II. They covered everything from blasphemy to gambling and the issue of sailors' vituals.

A seaman caught stealing was tarred and feathered then forced to run the gauntlet of the whole crew, finally being dismissed from the ship. A murderer was lashed to his victims body and thrown overboard. For blaspheming, offenders had a marlin spike (metal pin), clamped into their mouths until they are very bloody; an excellent cure for swearers. Drawing a knife on a shipmate could result in the loss of the right hand. The worst punishment, though rare was keel-hauling, when a sailor was tied to a rope, thrown over the side of the ship, dragged through the water underneath the rough, barnacle covered ship's bottom, and hauled up the other side of the ship. Few survived this gruesome torture.

Thomas Doughty was accused and found guilty of mutiny aboard the Golden Hind, this was one of the worst crimes onboard and he was sentenced to death by beheading. Look out for the Thomas Doughy display on board the Ship!

So Why go to Sea?

Life on land in the 16th century was very hard, it was a time when people hardly ventured outside their own village. Going to sea was a great adventure were the pay was relatively good and signing on with a privateer like Drake made it possible for a sailor to win glory, fame as an explorer and capture fabulous wealth, If they returned alive, that is!

Do you know:

  • Why did the crew get ill at sea?
  • What is the cause of scurvy?
  • Why do you think it was important for the Captain to maintain discipline on the ship?