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Life aboard a merchant ship

The trading ships that came to be known as 'East Indiamen' may have been among the largest of their day (about 120 feet long, 35 feet wide), but they were no luxury liners. Living space, seaworthiness, speed - everything was sacrificed to make room for more goods. More cargo meant more profit from silks, ceramics, spices, and tea. The ships were deep-bellied and dark inside. In the mid-1700s, the cargo hold averaged 14 feet high, but the height between the three decks was a miserly 6 feet.

The ships carried officers, seamen, soldiers, and some passengers, mostly East India Company employees. A ship had a commander, a chief officer, and a surgeon, as well as a boatswain, gunner, carpenter, sailmaker, cooper (barrelmaker), caulker, armorer, butcher, baker, two cooks (one for the captain), and many assistants.

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A ship like the Earl Temple could have carried a crew of as many as 101, half of them 'able seamen.'

Officers slept in cabins above deck and ate reasonably well. Seamen slept below in tiered berths or hammocks. The air was fetid and there was no sunlight. Fresh food eventually ran out or spoiled.

Most sailors in English ships of 1700 ate dry biscuit and salted beef or pork. The meat was prepared by boiling it in salt water. Beer and 'grog' (diluted rum) were also part of their daily ration, but they, too, often soured or ran out.

Life at sea was hazardous. Storms could sweep men overboard or wreck the ship. Fire was a danger, too, though the ship was surrounded by water. Pirates were also a concern.

Discipline was rough. Fines and floggings were doled out freely. Even the pay was uncertain. Sailors didn't get their wages unless the ship completed its voyage.

With such hardships, no wonder desertion was such a big problem!