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The Age of Exploration

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The Age of Exploration: Life on the Open Seas. Find out how sailors were recruited, what was their average diet, and what ailments they had to face while sailing the open seas!

A Hard Day’s Work

Life was pretty difficult for a sailor in the age of exploration. Journeys could take years. Ships only covered about 100 miles a day. The pay was poor. Seamen on Columbus’ journeys made less than $10 a month in today’s money. Crews worked around the clock in shifts minding the ship. Disobedience led to harsh punishments. Beatings and floggings were common, and mutineers were put to death. 16 was the minimum age for sailors, but some boys started working on ships as young as 7 or 8. Some men didn’t join willingly. They were “impressed,” or forced into service.

Scurvy, Seasickness and Slime

Sailors consumed about 3,000 calories a day, which they got from: 1 lb. Salted beef or pork; flour mixed with fat was served when meat rations ran low. 1 lb. Biscuit or hardtack; hardtack was infested with weevils and bugs, which sailors ate as additional food. 1 gallon Ale, wine or hard liquor; a salty diet combined with a lack of fresh water led to dehydration. Dried beans, peas or rice. There were no fresh fruits or vegetables. Vitamin deficiencies gave men scurvy—and rotted teeth and gums, open sores and even mental breakdowns. It was common to lose 50 percent of a crew to scurvy, known as the “scourge of the seas.” Explorer James Cook was a pioneer in scurvy prevention. He fed his men sauerkraut and dried vegetable soup. If the diet didn’t kill you, there were plenty of other things that could. Sailors had just one set of clothes that were rarely washed. They thought dirt and grease provided protection from wind and rain. Lice, rodents and foul drinking water spread typhoid fever. Ships could be dangerously cold—fires were only allowed in calmer weather. The lack of fresh air below deck caused carbon monoxide poisoning. Men slept on deck in hammocks—an invention they borrowed from Mesoamerican cultures.

Ignominious Ends

Captains didn’t have it much better than their crews. Magellan didn’t make it around the world with his ships. He was killed in the Philippines. Ponce de Leon failed to find the Fountain of Youth, but a poison arrow found him in Florida. Balboa was beheaded after feuding with his bosses. Verrazzano was killed and eaten by cannibals in the Caribbean. A fight over stolen boats ended Cook’s life in Hawaii. Hudson’s crew set him adrift in what is now Hudson’s Bay. He was never heard from again.