Unlike most workers ashore, the seafarer’s place of work was also, at least temporarily, his home. Indeed, some knew no other home than their ships, spending their whole working lives at sea, apart from brief, hazy sojourns in waterfront pubs and boarding houses. Although living conditions varied greatly according to the vessel and voyage, life at sea was especially wretched aboard the British deep-sea sailing ships that visited New Zealand in the 19th century.
Of all the hardships and discomforts endured by seafarers, none has aroused such strong feelings as food. For centuries the two main elements of their diet were ‘salt junk’ (salted beef, pork or horse) and hard, baked biscuits –euphemistically called bread. Providing fresh food and water on a non-stop sea voyage of three or six months without refrigeration was difficult enough, but the problem was compounded by tight-fisted shipowners and masters, fraudulent ships’ suppliers and faulty preservation or stowage. Much also depended on the ability of the cook, a vital but frequently maligned figure.
The development of steam power, which could be harnessed to run refrigerators and produce fresh water, led to welcome improvements, but complaints and protests about food persisted. Even in the 1940s many steamship seamen had to hold their bread up to the light to check for cockroaches and weevils, and strain their soup through cloth to sift out unwelcome intruders.
Seafarers’ living quarters were often equally unpleasant. On deep-sea sailing vessels the crew traditionally lived communally in the fo’c’sle (forecastle), in the bows of the ship – a dark, cramped space frequently awash with sea water and infested with vermin. Again, the advent of the steamship (and enforcement of legal minimum standards) led to a significant improvement in shipboard accommodation in the 20th century, with the fo’c’sle gradually superseded by cabins aft or amidships. Nevertheless, living conditions on many ships remained primitive until well after the Second World War.