All on Board!



Sea travel in the sixteenth century was deady dangerous. You could be shipwrecked in a storm. You could get becalmed and die of thirst.

There was no reliable method of navigation – navigating by the stars could tell you your latitude (how far north or south you were), but the only way to guess your longitude (how far east or west you were) was by measuring your speed and trying to work out how far you had gone.  Until the late eighteenth century, ships were regularly wrecked because they had miscalculated their longitude so they literally 'bumped into' America.  At other places (for instance off the coast of Ireland), 'wreckers' would lure you onto the rocks by setting up false lights, so they could kill you and steal your cargo.



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Sixteenth century ships:

• Life at Sea      


On board the Nuestra Se๑ora

1  Even when things went smoothly, life on board was a nightmare – as you can see from this description by a Spaniard, Eugenio de Salazar, who sailed across the Atlantic in 1573. 

The Nuestra Se๑ora ('Our Lady') was a small ship, about twenty years old, with a crew of thirty sailors. 

Eugenio wrote to a friend:

To Miranda de Ron:

I write to tell you about my sufferings at sea; though I must admit that they included (thank God) no pirates or shipwrecks.

The movement of the sea upset our stomachs so horribly that we all turned white as ghosts and began to bring up our very souls; we vomited, we gagged, we shot out of our mouths everything which had gone in during the last two days.

A ship is a long narrow city, sharp and pointed at one end, wider at the other; it has its streets, open spaces and dwellings; it is encircled by its walls – that is to say, its planking.  It has one or two fountains, called pumps, the water from which is unfit for tongue to taste, or nostrils to smell.  The dwellings are so closed-in, dark and evil-smelling that they seem more like burial holes, or the caves of Hell.  There is such a complicated network of ropes and rigging that the men inside it are like hens being carried to market.

For game in the neighbourhood there are fine flights of cockroaches, and very good rat-hunting, rats so fierce that when they are cornered they turn on the hunters like wild boars.  There are lice so enormous that sometimes they are seasick and vomit out bits of sailor. 

The sailors are all rogues.  But I have never seen a gang of rogues obey more promptly; for when the captain shouts they come tumbling in a moment, like conjured demons.  Some will be up on the main masts; some riding on the yards, holding on to the sails; some on deck, hauling and gathering; some climbing and swinging about in the rigging like monkeys in the trees. 

And when they hoist the sails – to hear the sailors singing as they works for they hoist to the time of their song. T he leader calls out:

Bu iza – o dio – ayuta not – o que somo – servi soy – o voleamo.

All the others reply in chorus: 'Oh – Oh', and haul away to hoist the sail.

Then I would see the ship's boys emerge from the half-deck with a bundle of cloths.  They spread these out and on them put little mounds of broken biscuit.  They would then place on this 'table' a few beefbones, with bits of sinew clinging to them.  When the meal is laid out, one of the boys sings out: 'All hands to dinner!  If you don't come, you won't eat!'  In a twinkling, out come pouring all the ship's company saying 'Amen' who, without pausing, whip out their knives and daggers and fall upon those poor bones.  It is like an ant heap.  Men and women, young and old, clean and dirty, are all mixed up together.  The people around you will belch or vomit, or break wind, or empty their bowels while you are having your breakfast.

If you want to empty your bowels, you have to hang out over the sea like a cat-burglar clinging to a wall.  Your only hope is to wait until you are desperate.

The worst longing is for something to drink; you are in the middle of the sea, surrounded by water, but they dole it out in thimbles, and all the time you are dying of thirst from eating dried beef and food pickled in salt.

Dona Catalina and the children send their respects and best wishes.

Eugenio de Salazar .



A Tudor Galleon

2  A drawing from the time of an Elizabethan warship.


3  A diagram from an old school textbook.



4  A diagram from my 'Options in History' textbook, A United Kingdom (1997).