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A seafarer’s life during the Age of Exploration

The Age of Exploration, or the Age of Discovery, saw the rise of European trade, wealth and power

While European maritime and technology flourished during the Age of Exploration, but what about the lives of seafarers?

Well, seafarers during this time did not have it easy. Seafaring was tough, life on board could take years as ships could move about 100 miles a day and the pay was miserable. In fact, not all crew on board went into seafaring voluntarily, some were virtually forced into service.

So, was it worthwhile?
By today’s standards, no, it was not a glorious career option. Seafarers often had to deal with cramped, humid and moldy cabin conditions, diseases, poor food, pay and hygiene standards, as well as any bad weather conditions, which could cause shipwrecks.

Due to the poor conditions onboard, seafarers were more often than not, victims of a deadly disease called scurvy. This disease was caused by a lack of vitamin C, and sufferers would usually find their joints swelling and their teeth falling out, and eventually succumb to the disease as their nervous system could not work properly anymore.

Scurvy was caused by the diet onboard. Seafarers during that time ate up to 3,000 calories in a day. They generally consumed salted beef or pork, biscuits or hardtack, which were easy to store but often invested with weevils and bugs as it was made of wheat, and dried beans, peas or rice. They also usually paired their food with ale, wine or hard liquor. They were not provided with any fruits or vegetables, which explained the lack of vitamins.

But be that as it may, seafarers then were nevertheless a tough crowd. Despite the poor living conditions, they made do as best as they could – they enjoyed games of dice and cards, shared tales, played musical instruments and did carving and drawing during their free time. Even while doing repetitive chores, they sang sea shanties to keep themselves entertained.

Sky History
Royal Museums Greenwich


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