Life for a sailor in the 1800s was undoubtedly challenging and difficult. Sailors faced many hardships and dangers while at sea, and their lives were often marked by long periods of isolation, harsh weather conditions, and hard physical labour.

One of the biggest challenges for sailors in the 1800s was the risk of shipwreck. Ships were often at the mercy of the weather, and storms and other natural disasters could easily destroy a ship and kill everyone on board. Sailors also had to contend with the threat of piracy, especially in areas where it was rampant.

Life Aboard Ship

Sailors in the 1800s faced many health risks. Scurvy, caused by a lack of vitamin C, was a common ailment among sailors. It was most common on longer voyages where fresh fruits and vegetables were scarce. A sailor also had to contend with other diseases and infections, and medical care was often limited.

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The physical demands of life at sea were also significant. Sailors had to work long hours in all types of weather conditions. They often had to perform physically demanding tasks such as raising and lowering sails, loading and unloading cargo, and repairing the ship. The work was often dangerous, and sailors had to be constantly alert to avoid accidents.

Disease, Shipwrecks, Pirates and Battle’s. All part of a sailors life.

In addition to the physical challenges, sailors in the 1800s also had to contend with the psychological challenges of life at sea. Long periods of isolation and confinement could be mentally taxing, and sailors had to find ways to cope with the boredom and monotony.

Despite these challenges, many sailors found a sense of camaraderie and belonging among their fellow crew members. Life on a ship was often marked by a strong sense of community as sailors had to rely on each other for survival. This sense of community and shared purpose helped many sailors to endure the hardships of life at sea.

Sea Shanties: The Rhythm of Life on Board

Sailors have a long tradition of singing sea shanties while they work. These rhythmic songs helped sailors keep time while performing repetitive tasks such as hauling sails or heaving anchor. Sea shanties were also a way for sailors to bond and share their experiences. Many shanties were based on real events and were often passed down from generation to generation.

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“Drunken Sailor” – This is one of the most well-known sea shanties. Its origins are unclear, but it was likely sung by sailors in the Royal Navy during the 19th century. The song’s catchy tune and memorable chorus have made it a popular choice for modern-day performances.

“Blow the Man Down” – Another popular sea shanty, “Blow the Man Down” was sung by sailors in the American whaling industry in the 1800s. The song tells the story of a sailor who gets into a fight in a tavern and ends up getting press-ganged into service on a ship.

“Haul Away, Joe” – This sea shanty was sung by sailors to coordinate the pulling of ropes and other heavy objects. The song’s upbeat tempo and catchy chorus made it a favourite among sailors.

“The Wellerman” – This sea shanty has recently gained popularity thanks to a viral TikTok video. It was originally sung by whalers in New Zealand in the mid-1800s and tells the story of a ship waiting for supplies from a whaling company called the Wellerman.

Beliefs and Superstitions: The Sea as a Mysterious Realm

Sailors have always had a deep respect for the sea, which they viewed as a mysterious and powerful force. Many a sailor believed that the sea was inhabited by all manner of creatures, including mermaids, sea serpents, and giant octopuses. They also believed that the sea could be capricious, with calm waters suddenly giving way to violent storms.

As if the sea wasn’t dangerous enough many sailors thought they had to deal with giant squids as well!

To protect themselves from the dangers of the sea, sailors developed a variety of beliefs and superstitions. For example, it was considered bad luck to whistle on board a ship because it was believed that the wind would hear and grow stronger.

Similarly, it was considered bad luck to start a voyage on a Friday. This was believed to be the day on which Christ was crucified.

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Sailors also believed in the power of amulets and talismans to protect them from harm. Many sailors wore items such as gold earrings or a shark’s tooth around their neck as a form of protection. Other sailors carried a rabbit’s foot or a lucky coin in their pocket.

Diet: Surviving on the High Seas

Sailors in the 1800s had a challenging time when it came to food. Fresh food was often in short supply, especially on longer voyages, and preserving food was difficult before the advent of modern refrigeration techniques. As a result, sailors often relied on preserved or canned foods that could last for months or even years without spoiling.

One of the most common foods eaten by sailors in the 1800s was hardtack, also known as ship’s biscuit. Hardtack was a dense, dry biscuit made from flour, water, and salt. It was cheap, easy to store, and could last for months without spoiling. However, it was also notoriously hard and difficult to eat, and many sailors suffered from dental problems as a result.

Naval hard tack biscuits were as tasteless as they looked. A sailor would despise these.

Another common food eaten by sailors was salted meat, usually beef or pork. The meat was preserved by salting, which drew out the moisture and prevented bacterial growth. However, the meat was often tough and salty, and it could be difficult to digest. Sailors sometimes suffered from scurvy. This was a disease caused by a lack of vitamin C, due to the lack of fresh fruits and vegetables in their diet.

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To supplement their diets, sailors would often catch fish or other sea creatures while at sea. This provided a much-needed source of fresh protein and nutrients. In some cases, sailors would also hunt birds or other wildlife on islands they visited during their voyages.

In the Drink

Sailors also had access to a variety of drinks, including water, beer, and rum. Water was often in short supply and could be contaminated. Sailors would sometimes drink beer or other alcoholic beverages as a substitute. Rum was a particularly popular drink among sailors. It was often mixed with water or other liquids to create a drink called grog. However, excessive drinking was a common problem among sailors, and it could lead to a variety of health and behavioural problems.

In general, the diet of sailors in the 1800s was limited and often lacked variety. However, sailors were resourceful and made the most of what they had available to them. Their diet was an important part of their daily life at sea, and it played a significant role in their health and well-being.

“Batten down the hatches” – This term was used to instruct sailors to secure the ship’s hatches (doors) tightly with wooden battens in preparation for rough weather.

“Chantey” – Short for “shanty,” this term refers to the rhythmic songs that sailors would sing while working.

“Grog” – This term refers to a mixture of rum and water that was commonly consumed by sailors. It was introduced by the British Navy in the 1700s as a way to prevent scurvy and other illnesses.

“Haul wind” – This term was used to instruct sailors to change course or to sail into the wind. It could also mean to hurry up or move quickly.

Life at sea was harsh. Sailors in the rigging shortening sail during a storm.

“Jolly Roger” – This term refers to the skull and crossbones flag that was flown by pirates and privateers to intimidate their victims.

“Keelhaul” – This was a punishment in which a sailor was dragged underneath the ship’s keel.

“Mess” – This term refers to the area on board a ship where sailors would eat their meals.

“Nelson’s blood” – This term refers to the rum that was served to sailors. It was named after Admiral Horatio Nelson, who famously defeated the French and Spanish fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.

“Pirate” – This term refers to someone who engages in acts of piracy on the high seas.

“Swab” – This term refers to a sailor who is responsible for cleaning the deck of a ship. It can also refer to a mop or cleaning cloth.

These are just a few examples of the colourful language that sailors used in the 1800s. The unique language and culture of sailors continue to fascinate people to this day. Their contributions to maritime history cannot be overstated.