The Peaceful Sea

Life at Sea in the Time of Magellan

by Ralph Heymsfeld

In 1519, when Magellan departed on his famous voyage to circumnavigate the globe, a sailor's daily life was not an easy one. Out at sea for months at a time, a ship's crew confronted on a nearly daily basis life-threatening danger, malnutrition, vermin, disease, filth, and exhaustion. The work of a seaman was hard and punishment for disobedience was brutal.

There are no reliable surviving pictures of the five ships of Magellan's armada, so what is known about them is drawn from conjecture and written descriptions from ships' logs and other contemporary manuscripts. The ships ranged in weight from 75 to 120 tons. Santiago, the smallest of the ships, was a caravel (Columbus' Pinta and Nina were both caravels as well). It is not known what types the remaining ships were, but they were likely either caravels or carracks, two ships commonly seen on the Iberian peninsula. Both caravels and carracks were three masted. Caravels were smaller and lighter with a shallow draught, while carracks had a deeper draught. Carracks were less maneuverable but could hold more cargo and therefore were useful on expeditions for storing provisions.

Regardless of whether a caravel or a carrack, the ships offered little in the way of creature comforts for the crew. The various ships would have had a small cabin for the captain and officers, but not for the seamen. Although the hammock would soon be a mainstay of sailors throughout the world, they were not yet in use on Magellan's voyage. Hammocks had only recently been brought to Europe by Columbus who had discovered them in the Bahamas. The shipmen would have bed down on the deck wherever they might find a bare plank or coil of rope. Regardless, they would not have been able to get much sleep. The sea never rests and therefore seldom could the crew. The crew was divided into three watches which would rotate throughout the night.

A strict hierarchy was maintained among the crew, and the duties of a sailor varied according to his position. At the bottom of this hierarchy were the pages, young boys who ranged in age from about 8 to 15 years old. There were actually two classes of page: peasant pages and privileged pages. Predictably the daily lives of the two classes of page were strikingly different. The peasant pages led a hard existence scrubbing the decks, cleaning up after meals, and in general performing any menial tasks that might arise. Life was kinder to the privileged pages who were assigned to officers and under their protection. The privileged pages came from well-connected families and were expected to be training for a career at sea. One of their duties was to maintain the sand clocks on which the ship relied for both timekeeping and navigation.

Next after pages in the ship's hierarchy would be the apprentices or grumetes. Apprentices would range in age from about seventeen to twenty. Among the ship's crew, they did some of the hardest and most dangerous work. The ambition of the apprentices was to receive a document signed by the ship's officers, and be certified as sailors, or marineros. The tasks of the grumetes and marineros were diverse and depended on circumstance as well as their individual skills. Onboard a ship one might be called to climb the lookout post, furl and unfurl the sails, or worst of all man the bilge pumps.

The bilge pump was an absolute necessity and a good example of the many Renaissance technologies which enabled the Age of Discovery. Even when they were in the best repair, ships of the day would take on water. Prior to the invention of the suction pump, this bilge water would have to be bailed with buckets, and if a ship was taking on water too fast the sailors might not have been able to keep up. The first suction pumps were made of a tube - likely a hollowed out log - with a plunger that had a handle attached at one end and a leather flange at the other. The pump moved water more effectively than the buckets ever could have hoped too, but the work was exhausting. Even worse, the bilge water was notoriously vile and sailors would be overcome by the stench.

In addition to the general crew there were a number of specialists at sea. The pilot was in charge of navigation. The boatswain would have been the most experienced sailor, in charge of the sails and in general charge of the crew making sure the orders of the officers were carried out. The gunner was an expert in the ship's armaments and the ways of gunpowder, and he would tend to the cannons throughout the voyage taking care that they were clean and free of rust. The carpenter did what he could to keep the ship in good repair, while the cooper had the all-important task of keeping the ship's barrels and casks together. As would have been typical at the time, the barber was also the ship's dentist and surgeon; he would have had vast responsibilities for the well-being of the crew, and little in the way of skills or equipment with which to meet this obligation.

With such hardships and terror at sea, it was difficult to keep order aboard a ship. To maintain authority punishments were swift and severe. The most common form of punishment was flogging or whipping with a rope. The number of strikes was proportioned to the degree of the offense. Stealing food might earn as many as 99 strikes. There were other forms of punishment borrowed from the tortures of the Spanish Inquisition. In the strappado the offender was suspended from the ceiling by the wrists which were tied behind the back. In the toca, similar to waterboarding, the offender had a cloth placed over his mouth while water spilled from a jar created the impression of drowning. The most severe infractions at sea - notably mutiny - were punishable by death.

Diet aboard a 16th century Spanish vessel would have consisted primarily of salted meat and hardtack. Also known as sea biscuit or ship biscuit, hardtack was the staple of countless generations of sailors before and after Magellan's time. It was a cracker made of flour and water with perhaps a little lard (or perhaps not). Other foods would have included fish, oil, cheese, and beans. It was difficult for ships of the day to carry enough provisions to last an entire voyage so rationing was common. It was also difficult to keep food fresh and free from vermin. Weevils, mice, and rats would infest the hardtack and what they didn't eat would be contaminated with feces and urine.

Of the many effects of malnutrition, by far the most devastating was scurvy. Scurvy is caused by vitaman C deficiency but at the time of Magellan this relationship was not understood. Vitamin C is necessary for the production of collagen. Scurvy begins with fatigue, spots on the skin, and bleeding from the gums and mucous membranes. As the disease progresses, the victim becomes increasingly weak to the point of being immobilized, teeth fall out, and old scars reopen. Although the condition is easily cured with fresh fruits and vegatables or citrus juice, left untreated the result is death. It is believed that more sailors in the Age of Discovery succumbed to scurvy than to storms, shipwrecks, and hostile encounters combined.


Bergreen, Laurence, Over the edge of the world: Magellan's terrifying circumnavigation of the globe, New York, HarperCollins, 2004, Print

McDougall, Walter A., Let the Sea Make a Noise, New York, HarperCollins, 1993, Print

Nell, Grant Sebastian, Ships in the Age of Discovery,, retrieved November 24, 2009

Christopher Columbus Santa Maria, The Mariners' Museum | EXPLORATION through the AGES, Retrieved November 18, 2009

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About the Author: Ralph Heymsfeld is a prolific writer and an avid hobbyist. Connect with Ralph on LinkedIn. You can find more of Ralph's writing on his website at