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The conditions of life and service of sailors aboard a man o' war of the Royal Navy were not only incredibly harsh and brutal to our modern eyes, but where very much so even according to the standards of the time. Discipline was harsh and floggin frequent and the food foul. Not only did a sailor risk life or limb in conflict, but frequently death from disease.

  • Sailors were seven times as likely as civilains to be declared insane
  • For every man killed in battle, forty died of disease
  • Crews in the Royal Navy could serve on board their ship for years at a time without setting foot on land or firing the guns in battle. The Navy was always dangerously undermanned andrelied on impressment (which is thought to have supplied about half of the crew of Nelson's flagship, the Victory, at the impressment) and, if this failed, convicts were invited to volunteer for service at sea.

    Under the harsh conditions on board ship, iron discipline was maintained by the captains with flogging frequent. Nelson himself disapproved of flogging, believing that ". . . it makes a good man bad and a bad man worse" but had to tolerate it as there was no alternative.

    The flogging was carried out with a "cat o' nine tails" a rope whose strands were split and knotted to ensure that they cut the flesh. The lash would throw the sailor off his feet so he was tied during the punishment.

    It is the practice of flogging with the "cat o' nine tails" in the Royal Navy which gave us the modern expression "cat out of the bag".

    Each sailor was allowed a daily ration of four pints of beer or a pint of wine and a quarter of a pint of either rum or brandy but drunkenness was serverely dealt with. Being charged a second time for drunkenness rendered the sailor liable to a dozen lashes but other charges, such as failure to perform his duty, were frequently added to the charge of drunkeness - and to the punishment.

    Theft by a sailor was not only punished by floggin with a heavier heavier cat, the "thieves' cat", but afterwards had to "run the gauntlet" providing us with the origin of another modern phrase. The crew of the Royal Navy would be paired off on deck, as many as 800 men on a ship like the Victory, each with about a yard-length of knotted rope. having been flogged, the offender would be dragged between the pairs of men, each one of whom was expected to draw blood with the knotted rope.

    To ensure the fleet was fully manned, the few volunteers were augmented with prisoners given the choice of service in the navy rather than imprisonment, deportation or even execution and fisherman or merchant sailors from ports who were pressed into service in the Royal Navy by ' press gangs'.

    Over-crowding in unsanitary conditions was one fo the chief ills of life afloat in the Royal Navy, especially on voyages of any duration. Sailors, in their hundreds, lived and worked in close, cramped and foul conditions below decks on the gundecks without even light - unless prepared for action, the gun-ports of the vessel would be locked tight and sealed with wax to prevent the ingress of water.

    During the time of King Henry VIII three men were carried to every ton on naval ships and this kept voyages short because of the lack of space for the necessary victuals. While ships stayed in home waters where they could be readily supplied this was not a matter of great import but, with the discovery of the New World and trans-Atlantic voyages it became a matter of utmost urgency and the number of men carried had to be reduced. By 1585 Hawkins had managed to reduce the number of men to about two men per four tons and the crews of merchantmen were even smaller. Many captains set sail with a surplus of men to make up for lossess at sea but this of itself often exacerbated the problem.

    The sailors slept in canvas hammocks, each alloted only a fourteen inch wide space and the penalty for stealing another man's space was flogging. During the day, the hammock had to be rolled up tightly so as to pass through a hoop kept on board for the purpose and were arranged around the decs of the ship to provide a defence against musket fire and shrapnel. On the death of the sailor, his hammock would also form his funeral shroud for burial at sea.

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