The food stored aboard ship was meant to last many months, through damp, cold, and heat. Although 18th century seafarers’ rations might sound less than tantalizing, sailors were actually better fed than many in the labouring classes at home. Dense tack, a dried biscuit made of wheat flour, was easily stored and did not require any preparation – baking aboard would have proved a challenge when out at sea on rough waters. The ship’s biscuit notoriously attracted weevils and other insects that burrowed their way through the supply as the expedition wore on. Some sailors just saw the insects as extra protein.

Salted meat, often dried as an extra measure of preservation, was another staple. Slabs of beef and pork were stored in casks with brine or packed directly in the salt. Butter and cheese were sometimes available early on in the journey but did not store well and were quickly eaten. Suet or fat cooked with flour was sometimes substituted for the meat and cheese ration. Oatmeal and “pease,” dried peas served like lentils, were staples for the English sailors, while rice, beans, and chickpeas fuelled the Spanish. As much as a gallon of Read More
The food stored aboard ship was meant to last many months, through damp, cold, and heat. Although 18th century seafarers’ rations might sound less than tantalizing, sailors were actually better fed than many in the labouring classes at home. Dense tack, a dried biscuit made of wheat flour, was easily stored and did not require any preparation – baking aboard would have proved a challenge when out at sea on rough waters. The ship’s biscuit notoriously attracted weevils and other insects that burrowed their way through the supply as the expedition wore on. Some sailors just saw the insects as extra protein.

Salted meat, often dried as an extra measure of preservation, was another staple. Slabs of beef and pork were stored in casks with brine or packed directly in the salt. Butter and cheese were sometimes available early on in the journey but did not store well and were quickly eaten. Suet or fat cooked with flour was sometimes substituted for the meat and cheese ration. Oatmeal and “pease,” dried peas served like lentils, were staples for the English sailors, while rice, beans, and chickpeas fuelled the Spanish. As much as a gallon of beer was rationed to the sailors each day, often served mixed with water. It was a popular beverage that could be stored for travel, repelling algae growth and bacteria due to its alcohol content.

Vegetables and “greens” were unheard of, as they were all but impossible to keep from rotting on the damp ships. Sauerkraut made from cabbage and soup made from tablets processed from dried vegetables began to appear on English vessels in the 18th century as captains experimented with foods that could prevent scurvy and other diseases discovered to be associated with malnutrition.

Unlike the English, French, and even American expeditions arriving from greater distances, the Spanish could replenish their provisions at the Pacific naval bases of San Blas and Monterey. Flour, salt, spices, wine, and vinegar are listed among their basic provisions. While they operated the settlement at Nootka, they were able to bake bread in their specially constructed ovens, and they kept chickens for fresh eggs. The records of the Museo Naval in Madrid note that their livestock included “2 cows, one bull, a young calf, a female goat, 20 pigs, 60 hens and 400 chicks.”

Like the overland expeditions, the opportunity to trade with indigenous peoples for berries and fish was not lost on sailors tired of salted pork – some of the stories of early contact even describe the traditional methods of preparing salmon in a cedar cooking box filled with water and heated stones. While at sea, some expeditions were able to catch fish. The rarity of this fresh food is demonstrated by the 18th century English regulation that demanded fresh fish go to injured and wounded men first to speed their recovery.

© 2007 Maritime Museum of British Columbia

Scurvy, Health and Crowding

Robin Inglis, Vancouver Spanish Pacific Historical Society, Discussing issues of daily life on the ships, such as scurvy, health and crowding

The ships were on the whole, really very crowded, even the larger ships like the great expeditions of Cook, or Vancouver or Malaspina. You know, they were large ships but they had a lot of people on them. So the ships were very crowed, and it’s a remarkable testament actually to these people that they paid enough attention to health. Ships were cleaned, they were aired out on good days, and everything else, and they certainly tried when they came to coast lands and near the coasts to try and get good food and fruits. And of course, it was difficult. It was difficult. They worked for long periods at sea. On the Northwest Coast particularly, particularly among the fur traders who were involved in exploration and cartography really as much as the great expeditions. There was, you know, a lot of chances to catch fish, to eat fruits, particularly in the summer time, those sort of things. In general the ships were havens of disease and difficulties, but very few people died, because they really solved the problem of scurvy quickly, almost by accident they did the right things, in dealing with fruits and vegetables, which made that possible.

Maritime Museum of British Columbia

© 2007 Maritime Museum of British Columbia


Before the 18th century, life aboard ship was generally unhygienic and the smell was memorable. The sailors worked and slept in a single set of clothing day after day, and body lice, which, besides causing miserable itching could spread diseases such as typhoid fever, thrived in the close, damp environment. Sailors could not swim or bathe in the ocean – much of the time the water was too cold or the conditions too rough. The grease and salt crust that built up on their clothing was not washed away. In fact, it was often given a slap of tar to help keep the wind and rain from biting into their skin. Their families at home rarely had access to bathing facilities and it did not become a regular part of life at sea either.

In the 1700s, as expeditions set out on more frequent and longer voyages, captains, ship’s surgeons, and scientists tried to understand the diseases that decimated the crews. The connection was made between cleanliness and health, and it became a strictly enforced part of a seaman’s duties to keep himself and his ship fresh and clean. The Royal Navy regulations for cleanliness stated that, “The Captain is to be particularly Read More
Before the 18th century, life aboard ship was generally unhygienic and the smell was memorable. The sailors worked and slept in a single set of clothing day after day, and body lice, which, besides causing miserable itching could spread diseases such as typhoid fever, thrived in the close, damp environment. Sailors could not swim or bathe in the ocean – much of the time the water was too cold or the conditions too rough. The grease and salt crust that built up on their clothing was not washed away. In fact, it was often given a slap of tar to help keep the wind and rain from biting into their skin. Their families at home rarely had access to bathing facilities and it did not become a regular part of life at sea either.

In the 1700s, as expeditions set out on more frequent and longer voyages, captains, ship’s surgeons, and scientists tried to understand the diseases that decimated the crews. The connection was made between cleanliness and health, and it became a strictly enforced part of a seaman’s duties to keep himself and his ship fresh and clean. The Royal Navy regulations for cleanliness stated that, “The Captain is to be particularly attentive to the cleanliness of the men, who are to be directed to wash themselves frequently”. This entailed splashing in a bucket of water, probably very cold water, but it was washing nonetheless.

When the weather was warm enough for drying laundry, the hammocks and bedding were rolled out and scrubbed, and clothing was hung out in the sun and wind.
It was impossible to keep the rats off a ship, especially when the hold was stocked with provisions for a long expedition. These small animals caused a great deal of mess and damage, so the ship’s cat was always on duty to hunt them down.

© 2007 Maritime Museum of British Columbia

A bar of soap

A bar of soap

Maritime Museum of British Columbia

© 2007 Maritime Museum of British Columbia


The ship’s doctor or “surgeon” was faced with many grave illnesses and serious injuries during the course of an expedition. It became an accepted fact that many on long expeditions would succumb to disease, infection, and malnutrition before they reached home. Scurvy was a serious condition that killed thousands of sailors throughout the 18th century as a result of poor nutrition. A better variety of foods and careful observation led to effective preventative measures.

Surgeons did not fully understand bacteria, believing instead that bad smells, fogs, or changes in climate caused infection. Their unsterile implements and the cabin in which they conducted their work could harm rather than help the men they treated. Sailors who perished were sewn into a sac and dropped into the sea, leaving diminished numbers to struggle with shipboard duties. Those who survived faced unusual and experimental treatments, and improperly set broken bones and infected wounds could become life threatening.

Viruses and infections spread by sexual contact were rampant. The European sailors with syphilis, gonorrhoea, and other venereal diseases transmitted them Read More
The ship’s doctor or “surgeon” was faced with many grave illnesses and serious injuries during the course of an expedition. It became an accepted fact that many on long expeditions would succumb to disease, infection, and malnutrition before they reached home. Scurvy was a serious condition that killed thousands of sailors throughout the 18th century as a result of poor nutrition. A better variety of foods and careful observation led to effective preventative measures.

Surgeons did not fully understand bacteria, believing instead that bad smells, fogs, or changes in climate caused infection. Their unsterile implements and the cabin in which they conducted their work could harm rather than help the men they treated. Sailors who perished were sewn into a sac and dropped into the sea, leaving diminished numbers to struggle with shipboard duties. Those who survived faced unusual and experimental treatments, and improperly set broken bones and infected wounds could become life threatening.

Viruses and infections spread by sexual contact were rampant. The European sailors with syphilis, gonorrhoea, and other venereal diseases transmitted them to the women of the Pacific Northwest. On rare occasions, the coastal peoples engaged freely in sexual contact with the sailors, and there was also forced sexual activity and prostitution, generally involving slaves. The diseases were often passed back to crews of other European vessels through the same behaviour – a Russian strain of gonorrhoea spread to Cook’s crew in the Pacific Northwest. Cook’s crew ignored their captain’s strict rules about sexual conduct and spread syphilis to the peoples of Vancouver Island in the process. In 1793, Moziño recorded the devastation of venereal disease among the Mowachaht in Noticias de Nutka. There are recorded cases in the 18th century of surgeons extorting money from sailors to cure their venereal diseases, but more often doctors were concerned with containing its spread. Only eight cases of venereal disease were recorded aboard the Resolution and the Discovery under Cook, but there were surely many more.

© 2007 Maritime Museum of British Columbia

The Social and Sexual Practices of European Sailors

Dr. John Lutz, Associate Professor of History, University of Victoria, Discussing the social and sexual practices of European sailors in the Pacific Northwest

In thinking about first contact between native people and Europeans, lots of things were exchanged. Disease was one of those things that were exchanged of course and trading goods were exchanged. Also, there was a sexual component to this exchange. When you think about the ships, these are vessels of 100 young men – mostly young men, a few officers – and like young men everywhere and young sailors today, I know I’ve been on a navy ship, their first thought when they get ashore was to find drink and women. So, a lot of the early encounters between natives and non-natives are over the issues of sexuality and access to women. Sometimes, as in the South Seas, indigenous cultures were quite open to extra-marital sexual relationships and very liberal attitudes towards sexuality. And, in other places, the sailors encountered, as they did here, cultures that were more like European cultures – more controlling of women’s sexuality – and they had to access women either through a system something like prostitution they had to pay trade goods to have sexual relations with mostly slave women or they were coercive relationships – they attacked indigenous women. You can image the effect this would have on the relationships between Europeans and native people – when native people saw a ship of 100 European men offshore, it was a threat to their communities and their women. They locked their women up. The Nuu-chah-nulth moved away from Friendly Cove to protect their women from the Spanish and others who were settling in.

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

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