Rudimentary would be the best way to describe the living conditions on privateer ships. It is hard to imagine how little space the crewmembers had. They had none of the conveniences of modern life. There was no way to take a bath, and they did not have comfortable beds either. Seamen had to sleep in their hammocks close to the galley and amongst the rats and guns.

During long voyages, the close proximity between crewmembers, the lack of vitamins and insufficient clothing resulted in the outbreak of epidemics. Many seamen died of illnesses such as scurvy and fevers.

Hygiene

Water on board the ships was a very precious commodity. As a result, crewmembers were not inclined to waste it. They would not have washed their shirts every day, or every week, for that matter!

Of course, the ship itself had to be kept tidy. Seamen swept the decks, but with everything the ship contained, it was not easy to maintain a healthy environment. Over time, the ships became permeated with bad odours. Sometimes they were so filthy that they had to be destroyed!

Food

The seafarer's diet had little variety and the typical ration was essentially ship's bread and wine. That was for breakfast! At lunch, the seaman ate a little salted bacon, beef or cod. Sometimes, a few vegetables were added to the broth when cooking the salted meat. Finally, at supper, in addition to the wine and bread, seamen were given an average of four ounces of vegetables, such as beans or peas.

Clothing

Privateer crewmembers did not wear a uniform and, all too often, did not have spare clothes! Sometimes they even went to work without shoes, and their old clothes completely soaked.

To face the North Atlantic climate, seamen had only a shirt, cotton breeches and hat. Some were lucky enough to have a jacket, wool socks and clogs or shoes.

Positions Aboard the Ship

Captain: Responsible for commanding the ship and making the expedition run smoothly.

Marine and non-marine officers: Responsible for the four main aspects of sailing a ship: piloting, gunnery, maintenance and manoeuvring.

Surgeons: Rarely present on board privateer ships, surgeons practised only a rudimentary form of medicine. They certainly knew how to dress wounds, but they also practised blood-letting and purging, which was believed to have a curative effect. We now know that these practices weaken the sick rather than cure them.

Sailors: Handle the sails and anchors, and fire the guns.

Ship's boy: The jack-of-all-trades!
Musée maritime du Québec and Naval Museum of Québec

© 2006, Musée maritime du Québec and Naval Museum of Québec

Teachers' Centre Home Page | Find Learning Resources & Lesson Plans