Does the thought of travelling the world on a damp and creaking vessel, eating meals of insect-ridden, brittle biscuits, with a very good possibility of dying from disease, violent conflict, or falling off the topmast in high seas make you want to set sail on an expedition of exploration? Perhaps not. Even in the 18th century, British writer Samuel Johnson (1709–1784) showed scepticism for the sailor’s way of life when he stated: “No man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself into a jail; for, being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned.... A man in a jail has more room, better food and commonly better company.”

Quarters were cramped and shared by humans, rats, and other vermin. Hygiene was a challenge, especially when most sailors only had a single set of clothing – a good crust of salt and grease was seen as a barrier to the elements. Dangers and hardships abounded, from Arctic ice to scurvy, conflict, and flogging. Gruelling physical labour and low pay were expected, and alcohol, prostitutes, and the high cost of replacing worn out clothing from the ship’s stores cleaned out the pocke Read More
Does the thought of travelling the world on a damp and creaking vessel, eating meals of insect-ridden, brittle biscuits, with a very good possibility of dying from disease, violent conflict, or falling off the topmast in high seas make you want to set sail on an expedition of exploration? Perhaps not. Even in the 18th century, British writer Samuel Johnson (1709–1784) showed scepticism for the sailor’s way of life when he stated: “No man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself into a jail; for, being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned.... A man in a jail has more room, better food and commonly better company.”

Quarters were cramped and shared by humans, rats, and other vermin. Hygiene was a challenge, especially when most sailors only had a single set of clothing – a good crust of salt and grease was seen as a barrier to the elements. Dangers and hardships abounded, from Arctic ice to scurvy, conflict, and flogging. Gruelling physical labour and low pay were expected, and alcohol, prostitutes, and the high cost of replacing worn out clothing from the ship’s stores cleaned out the pockets of many expeditionary members before the ships reached home port. Even captains met their share of troubles in unruly crewmembers, health complaints, and political intrigues that could ruin their careers and reputations.

Yet sailors and overland expeditionary forces came to the Pacific Northwest in steady waves during the 1700s. There was food for the sailors when many at home had none, there was adventure when their brothers lived life behind a plough, and there was the promise of comradeship, revelry in exotic lands, and even a glimmer of hope that trade (unsanctioned for personal gain, of course) might earn them some wealth. They marvelled at sights and experiences that most could never even imagine. In the 18th century, health improved and sailor deaths declined under new measures for safety and nutrition. For captains, expedition leaders, and officers, renown, promotion, and publication of their journals held the allure of expanding scientific knowledge and national pride. Daily life on an expedition was part of a greater experience that made weevils in the biscuits and the experiments of the ship’s surgeon a little more bearable.

© 2007 Maritime Museum of British Columbia

The Significance of Museum Collections when Learning about Maritime History

Mary Swift, Collections Assistant, Maritime Museum of British Columbia, Discussing the significance of museum collections when learning about maritime history

People use objects and it’s how objects are used that tell the story of how people interact with their environment or use their environment to further their knowledge. Every story is connected to a person and it’s those stories that make artifacts interesting and tell the history. If you just have an artifact, you don’t know where it came from or what it was used for unless you get the history, unless it’s in the context of who used it and how it was used.

Maritime Museum of British Columbia

© 2007 Maritime Museum of British Columbia


Many nations launched expeditions of exploration under their military and naval forces. Strict adherence to rank and respect for the captain and officers during expeditions was a way of maintaining order, safety, and health in an atmosphere of constant danger and uncertainty. Although some trained in the navy or merchant service as adults, many first set sail as young boys, often at 7 or 8 years of age. They gained vast experience in the workings of a sailing ship before they could officially be categorized as seamen at age 16.

The Spanish naval ranks included the Capitán or captain, the Teniente de Navio or ship’s lieutenant, and the Alférez or ensign. These men were commissioned officers who exercised power officially granted to them by their king. They had attended naval academies in Spain and South America where they received their military and navigational training. The Piloto was a pilot or mate at the upper ranks of the non-commissioned officers. Non-commissioned officers usually advanced from lower positions on the ship and received their orders from the commissioned officers.

The English were also divided by rank. The captain commanded the Read More
Many nations launched expeditions of exploration under their military and naval forces. Strict adherence to rank and respect for the captain and officers during expeditions was a way of maintaining order, safety, and health in an atmosphere of constant danger and uncertainty. Although some trained in the navy or merchant service as adults, many first set sail as young boys, often at 7 or 8 years of age. They gained vast experience in the workings of a sailing ship before they could officially be categorized as seamen at age 16.

The Spanish naval ranks included the Capitán or captain, the Teniente de Navio or ship’s lieutenant, and the Alférez or ensign. These men were commissioned officers who exercised power officially granted to them by their king. They had attended naval academies in Spain and South America where they received their military and navigational training. The Piloto was a pilot or mate at the upper ranks of the non-commissioned officers. Non-commissioned officers usually advanced from lower positions on the ship and received their orders from the commissioned officers.

The English were also divided by rank. The captain commanded the vessel. Officers, such as the lieutenants, were next in command. Those who didn’t hold real authority but were in training to become officers, such as the midshipman, were next in line, followed by the sailors or “seamen,” who attended to the various duties aboard ship. Unlike the army, which gained many of its officers from the upper classes, commissioned ship’s officers along with the petty or non-commissioned officers could come from the middle and even lower classes, as did the seamen. Cooks, barbers, sailmakers, gunners, blacksmiths for metalwork and weaponry, carpenters for woodworking, pursers for accounting, the ship’s surgeon, botanists, astronomers, and translators were other positions held by expedition members.

The crew was divided into “watches” or shifts of duty. Most vessels used a schedule of two watches, which would place the men on duty on alternating four-hour shifts. The larger vessels divided the crew into sections based on the fore, main, and mizzenmasts to take care of the busy work of raising and lowering the sails. Constant cleaning and repairs were the other tasks of the seamen on watch. Because most expeditions set out with two vessels, there were two full crews or four watches under the commanding captain. The second ship answered directly to its own officers and a lieutenant or captain acting under the expedition commander.

© 2007 Maritime Museum of British Columbia

Officer's hat

Officer's hat, reproduction

Maritime Museum of British Columbia

© 2007 Maritime Museum of British Columbia


Although many expedition sailors were professional seamen working for the merchant service or the navy, a uniform or set of standard issue clothing was a rarity. During the 18th century, most sailors were expected to piece together a set of clothing for themselves, which they repaired and patched when needed, sometimes with old sailcloth. Crews of the Royal Navy were given an afternoon each week for “make and mend,” during which they could sew, often focusing on embroidering patterns onto their clothing when the basic repairs were finished.

When British seamen could no longer mend and instead needed to replace items of clothing, they could purchase “slops” from the purser. Slops were replacement clothes that usually included striped or checked “waistcoats” or vests, neck kerchiefs, smocks for messy work, and jackets cut short enough to keep from getting caught when the men climbed up into the sails and rigging. Canvas blouses, knit stockings, and flat-heeled shoes were also common dress for 18th century sailors. Trousers, long-legged, loose fitting pants, were not a common item of dress for European men during the 18th century. Sea Read More
Although many expedition sailors were professional seamen working for the merchant service or the navy, a uniform or set of standard issue clothing was a rarity. During the 18th century, most sailors were expected to piece together a set of clothing for themselves, which they repaired and patched when needed, sometimes with old sailcloth. Crews of the Royal Navy were given an afternoon each week for “make and mend,” during which they could sew, often focusing on embroidering patterns onto their clothing when the basic repairs were finished.

When British seamen could no longer mend and instead needed to replace items of clothing, they could purchase “slops” from the purser. Slops were replacement clothes that usually included striped or checked “waistcoats” or vests, neck kerchiefs, smocks for messy work, and jackets cut short enough to keep from getting caught when the men climbed up into the sails and rigging. Canvas blouses, knit stockings, and flat-heeled shoes were also common dress for 18th century sailors. Trousers, long-legged, loose fitting pants, were not a common item of dress for European men during the 18th century. Seamen and sometimes other labourers distinguished themselves by wearing trousers. They often took pride in their seafaring costume, saving their best for trips ashore.

In 1748, the British Navy created a standard set of garments for the officers, issuing an “undress” uniform of a blue frock and a formal blue coat with white facings. This was a sign of rank, so there were strict orders not to purchase or trade for the clothing of a superior officer. Captains and officers wore the shorter, tighter pants of the day and their coats and waistcoats were embellished with gleaming brass buttons and gold lace stripes. Portraits and sketches of the Spanish show their captains and officers in these impressive garments. The Russians, accustomed to travelling in colder climates, were equipped with fur-lined jackets and hats.

© 2007 Maritime Museum of British Columbia

Officer's Coat

Officer's Coat, Reproduction

Maritime Museum of British Columbia

© 2007 Maritime Museum of British Columbia


Learning Objectives

The learner will:
  • construct, interpret, and use graphs, tables, grids, scales, legends, and various types of maps
  • locate and describe major world landforms, bodies of water, and political boundaries on maps
  • locate and describe current and historical events on maps

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