- Pearce, Robert L., AM RFD OM(Fr) CStJ FRCS FRACS Colonel RAAMC (Rtd), Associate Professor
- History - general
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- September 2009 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
The British navy had long condoned, even encouraged, the practice of chasing and joining battle with foreign vessels that might return prize money to owners and crew. The promise of a share in prize money was indeed some incentive for crews to join a ship and success with a respected captain more than enough encouragement for them to stay. Sometimes though it was necessary to resort to press-gangs to provide crew for the less popular voyages.
Not surprisingly there doesn’t appear to have been any medical assessment or health standard for joining the Royal Navy in 1800, (although if you weren’t a Nelson, a one armed, one eyed sailor might not stand a chance.) While career naval officers entered the service by choice, usually at an early age and mostly in satisfactory health, the ordinary seamen who constituted the majority of crew on board were not necessarily all able-bodied.
While the practice of medicine generally at the beginning of the nineteenth century was basically crude and unscientific some aspects of health pertaining to the navy can be summarised thus:
- In Nelson’s day the navy was not only susceptible to disease but, on long voyages, at the mercy of conditions that were little understood.
- The British government and its navy were indeed proactive in accepting the need for dedicated surgeons with authority.
- The health status of seamen on enlistment, the methods of enlistment and reasons for joining the navy all varied considerably, but numbers were often more important than special skills and experience, and sometimes even more important than physical fitness.
Health status of the Royal Navy
By modern standards life in the navy in Nelson’s time was hard. But civilian life at the time was also hard. If discipline in the navy was harsh, so too was the discipline of civil law. Health standards were also comparable – at least when we consider the health of men entering the service. The larger ships required large crews – a 74 gun ship carried about 600 men, a first rate possibly 800 men.
They included the captain and at least four lieutenants; a flagship would also have the Admiral and his staff; there were the non-commissioned warrant officers, the master and his mates responsible for navigation, the boatswain, carpenter and gunner – these were all long serving volunteers.
There were many senior petty officers such as the sailmaker, boatswain’s mates and quartermasters; the midshipmen and marines, and finally the seamen – some of them were genuine volunteers, many were pressed men who were mainly merchant seamen. But the numbers were often made up with so-called ‘quota’ men – victims of a system by which authorities of counties or towns were required to produce a quota of men for the navy – usually made up of minor criminals, small debtors offered immunity from the legal process and so on, not volunteers and all requiring some form of coercion or inducement to join the navy.
With such a mix of men from disparate backgrounds, it is easy to imagine the variation in social levels and levels of fitness and health of those on board any large fighting ship of the Royal Navy in 1800. Presumably individuals with obvious disability would be weeded out but there was apparently no particular assessment of health standard at the time of signing on.
The official attitude of the Navy was to acquire a functional crew at almost any cost, as long as the Admiralty could hold the commander responsible. From the crew’s point of view, their main concern was that conditions of service as laid down by regulations would deliver their fair share of rations, leave and pay. When their vessel took a prize, they could also expect a share of the prize money on return to port.
The official daily ration was ample in bulk, usually about three pounds of food per day, (or 4000 calories) including biscuit, salted meat and fish, dried peas, oatmeal, butter and cheese, all of which, however, could be in various states of decay or staleness after a short time at sea. Fresh fruits and any other variation in the diet depended on the opportunities offering from local sources. Most important was to provide an antiscorbutic or source of vitamin C.