Feeding Nelson's Navy - The True Story of Food at Sea in the Georgian Era, Janet MacDonald

Feeding Nelson's Navy - The True Story of Food at Sea in the Georgian Era, Janet MacDonald

The popular image of food in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic period involves biscuits alive with weevils and salt meat so hard it could be used for carving. As this study makes clear, that isn't a fair or accurate impressive. The author looks at the full range of issues involved with feeding the navy, from the administrative system that purchased the food, prepared it for sea, made sure it got to the ships and checked its quality, the type and quality of food and drink provided, how it was cooked, how it was eaten and the impact food had on the sailor's health.

MacDonald has gone back to the original sources for the many stories of poor quality food. Most of them turn out to be from much earlier periods, or related to specific events (some can even be traced back to Magellan's voyages of discovery in the early 16th century!). By the time of the Napoleonic Wars food was provided by the Victualling Board, an increasingly efficient organisation that managed to keep Britain's massive fleets feed all around the world.

One minor area of interest here is to discover how many areas are badly documented. This includes such essential items as how the men actually ate - we know that almost the entire crew ate at the same time, but can't be sure how they organised collecting food from the cooks, how many tables they had or where their utensils were stored. This is probably simply because the few common sailors who did write their memoirs didn't think something so mundane actually needed explaining.

The section on health is also interesting - especially for the detailed look at the anti-scurvy measures. These turn out not to have been quite as impressive or consistence as normally presented, with the essential fruits not always issued as a preventative measure, despite plenty of available evidence. 

The kitchens on the major warships come across as having been far more impressive than I'd expected. There were neat preparation areas that would have been at home in normal kitchens of the period, and some impressive stoves with multiple boilers, grills, ovens and even water condensation equipment.

The sailor's diet would also appear to have been more complex than expected. The official daily issue of food looks fairly limited, but there were also plenty of official substitutes that were allowed, so individual messes could potentially combine various foods to produce more varied meals.

There is a selection of recipes at the end that shows that some of the more notorious items were actually perfectly edible. The lobscouse recipe is rather close to my favourite corned beef hash recipe. The value of this sort of experimental food history is demonstrated by the reconstruction of a type of soup made by rehydrating pre-prepared cubes. These have often been described as being 'soapy', but turn out to be perfectly acceptable if the original ingredients are used.

MacDonald also looks at the more serious aspect of this topic - the complex administration system needed to provide the food, pay for it, assess it, and make sure that the correct qualities were issued.

Overall this is an excellent examination of this crucial aspect of British naval power, and I'm certainly going to try out some of the recipes.

1 Basic Rations
2 How It Got There - the Work of the Victualling Board
3 Administration On Board Ship
4 How the Men Ate
5 How the Officers Ate
6 What Other Navies Ate
7 Diet in Health and Sickness

1 - Weights and Measures
2 - Official Substitutes for Species of Provisions
3 - Calorific values of Naval Foodstuffs
4 - Vitamin Content of Naval Food
5 - Bills of Exchange
6 - Eat Like a Sailor - Recipes

Author: Janet MacDonald
Edition: Paperback
Pages: 224
Publisher: Frontline
Year: 2014 edition of 2004 original

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