Mermaids (fic) >
by Gill Hoffs
When researching the mid-19th century for my book on the sinking of RMS Tayleur, I read many many accounts from would-be immigrants to the Australian Gold Rush, who sailed on ships nowhere near as luxurious as ‘my’ one. As someone who enjoys their food, and a vegetarian, too, their accounts of the food available on board horrified me.
Acts of Parliament in England set out lists of minimum provisions for every passenger which captains had to adhere to, though sometimes they, the ship owners, or the suppliers short-changed the passengers and crew by swapping casks of flour for chalk or relabeling ancient supplies as fresh so that when the containers were opened at sea there was little but scraps of hairy putrescent meat and black-headed maggots to share out.
Most of the passengers (bar first class, who were given extra food of better quality) received basic rations, mainly potatoes, pickles, beef, suet, bread, oatmeal, raisins, and peas, some water, coffee, or tea, and lime juice to help them avoid scurvy. Some ships carried livestock to ensure the travellers had fresh eggs, milk, and meat.
One emigrant sailing from Liverpool in 1853 faced a two day wait once aboard while the ship lay in the river waiting for the right tide and wind, and had this advice for inexperienced travellers: “As nothing but a little biscuit [hard enough to break your teeth, nothing like the cookies and oatcakes of today] was served out during our lay in the river, it behoves emigrants to provide a little cooked food for the first day or two before leaving the shore, for it is next to impossible to give out victuals until the vessel is at sea.”
He also advised passengers to take with them extra provisions, such as “a few pots of preserves, a few do. of marmalade, a few do. of pickles, which are a great treat, a little good cheese, a few fresh-laid eggs preserved in salt, a dried musked ham or two (home cured do not keep in the tropics), and a few dried Portugal or English onions”.
As for drinks, fresh water was often in short supply at sea and soon went off, becoming thick, green, and soupy with worms wriggling in every mouthful. Tea and coffee helped mask the foul taste of water stinking like rotten eggs and sewage, and poor quality versions were issued to all. However, the emigrant recommended travellers “bring a few pounds of ground coffee in bottles, and a pound or two of tea, as the latter is generally a common or damaged article on ship board, and the coffee is served out green, and there is consequently much trouble in getting it roasted and ground; essence of coffee is very suitable, but is rather an expensive article.” Beer, ale, and spirits were commonly drunk (despite the inevitable raucousness and hangovers this led to) and the helpful advisor warned “[a]ll who would like a little ale or porter would do well to bring a small cask or two, as the tropical heat invariably breaks bottles.”
No matter how cold the weather, the kitchen area was always warm. One traveller in 1863 wrote “Many a curious scene is witnessed at the galley. If swearing is to be heard proficiently, it is there. The cooks are sadly plagued by the amount of stuff to cook, and no room to do it. Three men, cooking from four in the morning till seven in the evening, for above 400 persons, in a space, betwixt the fires, of about six by eight feet, is enough to fry out any good humour that might be in them.”
Some ships carried no passenger cooks and very few stewards, and then it was up to the passengers themselves to queue for rations and prepare them. When there were perhaps 700 of them and limited space, this was an onerous task, but filled their long, boring day at least. “Our time was nearly wholly taken up in getting our provisions from the steward and then getting them cooked. All the items of our provisions – bread, butter, sugar, tea, coffee, rice, and about twenty other things – were served out, one at the time; and as a hundred persons had to be supplied with each article, it took half a day to get your rations. Then to get them cooked was still worse; for the fire-place was not adequate to cook properly for more than 30 persons.”
Some travellers supplemented their meals with food caught on the journey. “Porpoises we encountered in shoals; one, weighing about 130 pounds, we caught with a harpoon. His flesh tasted something like bullock’s kidney, and it was greedily devoured. … A benito which we caught with a hook weighed 37lbs.; and reflected all the colours of the rainbow as he lay on the deck.”
Once their provisions were collected and cooked, there was the problem of eating the meal on a ship rolling and tilting on the swell of the open sea. One emigrant told a newspaper “I have actually been obliged to preserve the level of my plate (soup plate) by putting a pint tin pot under one edge!” Of course, when the ship crested the wave and rolled in the other direction, the poor sod was drenched in hot soup.
Other ships ran out of food completely and the weaker passengers, usually children first, starved to death or threw themselves overboard in a bid to end their misery. The passengers and crew on the Tayleur apparently had a decent menu to choose from, once the initial bout of seasickness wore off. Unfortunately they barely had time to settle into their berths and acquaint themselves with the range of dishes cooked in the galley before the ship sank, and their precious provisions – and hundreds of lives – were lost.
published 4 December 2013