Life at Sea During the Age of Captain Cook

Who sailed on the voyages?

Captain Cook’s journeys were very unusual for their time. Why? Not only did these voyages include the kind of people who were always on exploration missions – sailors, navigators, etc., but there were also scientists on board. Cook’s mission was as much one of scientific discovery as it was of geographic discovery.

The crew of the first voyage was very experienced, although they were young (there weren’t many over 30 years old). One man, Lieutenant Gore, had already circumnavigated the globe twice, under other captains. Five crewmen had been on an expedition that circumnavigated the globe once. Five other crewmen had sailed with Captain Cook before. On the second voyage, Lieutenant Tobias Furneaux, who had sailed around the world before, commanded a second ship, the Adventure. On the third voyage, Charles Clerke commanded the secondary vessel, the Discovery. Many who participated in the first voyage went along for the second, or the third, or both.

An astronomer named Charles Green was aboard for the first voyage, to help Cook with his astronomical observations. Joseph Banks went along with the crew as a botanist; his scientific party included Dr. Solander, a naturalist, and a Mr. Sporing, his assistant naturalist. Two artists went along as well; their names were A. Buchan and Sydney Parkinson. On the third voyage, Lieutenant James King recorded the voyage visually.

What did they wear?

Gentlemen such as Joseph Banks, and officers, such as Captain Cook, dressed in the standard gentleman’s clothing of the day. They wore tight, fitted breeches with stockings and buckled shoes. On top, they wore white shirts with a vest called a waistcoat, and a long-sleeved jacket.

Common sailors had the freedom to dress a little more casually. They likely wore slops (loose, short pants) and shirts, and were not required to wear waistcoats or jackets. Many sailors did not even wear shoes on board the ship, as it was easier to climb in the rigging of the ship with bare feet.

Where did they sleep?

The high-ranking members of the expedition, such as Captain Cook and Joseph Banks, had their own private cabins. They were not large, but they did offer the men a little bit of privacy. Much of the scientific work done on board the ship was also done in these private cabins. The sailors slept on the mess deck in hammocks. The mess deck is also where the sailors ate and relaxed.

What did they eat?

One of Cook’s most important discoveries during his voyages was actually about food. Cook realized that there were certain foods that, if eaten, prevented the disease called scurvy. Scurvy, we know today, is caused by a lack of vitamin C in the diet. Scurvy was common among sailors, because most vitamin C comes from fruits and vegetables. Fruits and vegetables were very difficult to keep fresh during long sea voyages in the days before refrigeration. So, sailors before Cook’s time ate a diet that was mostly dried, hard bread known as hard tack, and dried, salted meat.

Cook took two major steps to change the diet of his crew. First, every time the ships stopped anywhere that grew fresh fruit and vegetables, he bought some to feed to the crew. However, because there were sometimes weeks between stops, and fruit and vegetables would rot in that time, he had to have another plan. He knew that sauerkraut, which is pickled cabbage, had been shown to prevent scurvy. Sauerkraut, because it is pickled, can be kept in jars, and will not go bad. Cook brought a lot of sauerkraut on his voyage – but the crew didn’t want to eat it at first.

Captain Cook played a very interesting trick on his crew. When he realized that the men were refusing to eat the sauerkraut, he took it away from them. He said only the officers could eat it, and only put it out on the officers’ tables. Telling the crew they couldn’t have it made them want it more – so they started eating it!

Cook’s crew was out to sea for a longer period of time than any sailors before them. And yet, not one of Cook’s sailors died of scurvy. This means that Cook proved that certain foods could prevent scurvy, and smart sea captains after him followed his example and took sauerkraut, fruit, and vegetables on their voyages.

What were some jobs aboard ship?

The captain had to make all the difficult decisions. He decided what course to follow, how punishments would be dealt amongst the crew, and, in Captain Cook’s case, he had the freedom to choose members of his crew as well as his ships. Captain Cook’s talents also led him to personally make maps of places he visited.

Lieutenants ranked below the captain, but could be in command of their own ship. Furneaux was only a lieutenant when he commanded the Adventure. A lieutenant is someone who steps in “in lieu” of the captain. If the captain is incapacitated, on another ship, or busy with something else, a lieutenant can also make decisions on board, punish the men, etc.

Navigators used equipment that could determine the ship’s position in the world. They could take that information and, after knowing where the captain wanted the ship to go, plot the course. A navigator had to be an expert at using navigational instruments, and very good at math.

Marines were on board Cook’s ship as well. While people in the navy could fight using the ship’s guns, marines were called upon for fighting that might happen on land.

The boatswain controlled the rigging. His crew made sure the sails were set properly.

The carpenter was responsible for keeping the wooden parts of the ship in good shape. He worked on the masts and the hull. The carpenter on the Endeavour had a very important role; when the Endeavour wrecked on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, if they had not had a good ship’s carpenter on board, they might not have been able to repair the ship and get safely home.

The quartermaster made sure the supplies on board the ship were distributed fairly. If the ship ran low on supplies, he would decide whether or not to change the size of the men’s rations.

The cook had the job of feeding all the men on board. The cook on board the Endeavour had only one hand, which probably made his job very difficult. However, many sailors who had serious injuries would find themselves as cooks on board ships. It was a job they could still do, even if they had only one hand or one leg.

The surgeon was a very important member of the crew. He kept the crew healthy while they were on board the ship. If a crewman was injured, he cared for him.

Botanists, astronomers, and illustrators were unusual people to take out to sea. However, Cook’s mission was one of scientific discovery. Because of that, he took people with him who knew how to study the new plants and animals they would encounter on their journeys. Some of the drawings and observations made by men on board with Cook were the first known examples of their kind – no one had seen many of the animals of Australia, until drawings were published from Cook’s journeys.

What was their pay?

The following pay scale was for the Royal Navy. The exact pay of Captain Cook’s crew might have been a little bit different than this; often, when sailors would go on a voyage of exploration, their pay would be raised, because they were on such a risky mission.

Able-bodied seamen (men who had two or more years’ experience at sea) made about 14 pounds a year. Ordinary seamen (men who had between one and two years’ experience at sea) made 11 pounds, and landsmen (men who had less than one year of experience at sea) made 10 pounds. This was the pay scale for the British Navy from 1653-1797, when Royal Navy seamen got their first pay raise. Officers were paid much better, depending on what sort of vessels they were serving on. Captains of first-rate ships made about 30 pounds a month (twice what able-bodied seamen made a year!), captains of third-rate ships made about 20 pounds a month, and captains of sixth-rate ships made 16 pounds. A lieutenant made the same rate no matter what: 8 pounds a month.

What type of punishments did they have?

On Cook’s voyages, not many crewmen required punishment. When they did, they were flogged (beaten with a cat o’ nine tails). There are no examples on board Cook’s ships of some of the more serious punishments, such as keel-hauling.

The natives Cook encountered were dealt with differently, however. Cook was especially well known for being kinder than most European explorers to the natives. However, that did not mean he let them get away with doing mischief to his crew. When natives of various islands stole from his crew, he often had to fight them to get back the stolen property. During some of these skirmishes, Cook’s men shot native Pacific islanders for theft. Even this, though, was often an accident. The shots were made to warn and frighten, not to kill. However, sometimes the shots missed and people did die.