The Diet of Nelson’s Navy

I have previously discussed the excavations and bioarchaeology of Nelson’s Navy, however new research is adding to the story. Nelson’s Navy was active during the early 19th century, and many of their remains were buried at naval hospitals in Plymouth and Gosport. A new publication by Roberts et al. (2012) discusses the results of stable isotope analysis of the remains in order to look at their diet. Understanding the diet of this population is important because we can compare it against the larger population in the period, as well as other navies to see how naval diet has changed over time. The navy during this period was huge, therefore feeding that many working men presented a logistical challenge, especially over the long distances at sea.

We  have rich documentary evidence regarding diet from this period, which may either correlate with or contradict the findings in the skeletal remains. The naval diet during the 18th century was strictly controlled by the Victualling Board of the British Navy in order to maintain proper health and prevent spoilage. From the text, we know that food was rationed by weight and planned each day. The rations documents list wheaten loaves, hard biscuits, oatmeal, pease, cheese, raisins, vinegar, oil, butter, beer and sometimes salted or dried fish. Based on texts and military records, this diet is thought to have remained for the most part unchanged from the 16th to 19th century. It is only with the introduction of canning in the mid-19th century that diet and rationing in the navy changes drastically. For an interesting look at the food, check out this blog post on “The Food of Nelson’s Navy“.

Based on the documentary evidence, Roberts et al. (2012) hypothesizes that Carbon 13 levels would be lower, ~21 ‰, as would Nitrogren 15 levels, ~12 ‰. This is due to a lack of C4 grains like maize, which raises C13 levels, and a lack of marine resources, which raises N15. However, they note a number of caveats that could potentially shape differences in isotope levels. First, while the ship was primarily naval servicemen who lived off this diet for many years, it also included Marines, officers, and adolescents. Isotope analysis is most effective when an individual has the same diet over a long period of time. Adolescents turn over bone faster than adults, so their bodies may not reflect the diet as much. Marines and officers may also have different signatures due to variation in diet. The second is that it is known that local foods would supplement the strict diet when available. However, the Victualling Board also keep careful control over this practice. Captains were allowed to swap portions of the diet with local foods, but it came out of their own pocket and had to fulfill the same nutritional requirements limiting the chances of changing the rations.

The sample for the stable isotope study included 80 rib specimens from adolescent and adult burials, of which 50 were from the Plymouth naval hospital site and 30 from the Gosport Naval Hospital site, both used primarily during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Samples of the femur and teeth were also taken from the Gosport sample. They found for both populations that C13 was approximately 18.8 to 20.2 ‰, and N15 was approximately 11.1 to 11.9 ‰. There are slightly higher values of both for Plymouth, suggesting that they may have had increased access to marine resources, and that there was potential swapping during travel for C4 foods like maize.

This data was then compared against two contemporary populations of armies from Pennsylvania and Virginia in the US, and one slave population in Barbados. These populations have much higher C13 rates due to consumption of corn, although the ranges are similar to Plymouth, which the authors suggest may have been due to contact. A second comparison was done against the naval soldiers from the Mary Rose, a British warship dating to the 16th century. The isotopic values for all three populations are similar, suggesting a consistent diet over time in the British Navy. The isotopic ranges for all three are what is expected for individuals surviving on an a primarily C3 land resources diet, with minimal marine resources.

They conclude that throughout the British Navy from the 16th to 19th centuries, the rations and diet were highly consistent regardless of the ship one served on. The only difference is the slightly elevated C13 in the Plymouth group, which suggests they sailed more towards North America than other areas. The goal of this research was to add to the historical data, and enrich our interpretations of the navy in the past. The article is very well done, and the comparison over time, with texts and between countries is quite fascinating. It’s going to be interesting to see how this work continues, especially with the temporal comparisons between Nelson’s Navy and the Mary Rose.

Works Cited

ResearchBlogging.orgRoberts P, Weston S, Wild B, Boston C, Ditchfield P, Shortland AJ, & Pollard AM (2012). The men of Nelson’s navy: A comparative stable isotope dietary study of late 18th century and early 19th century servicemen from Royal Naval Hospital burial grounds at Plymouth and Gosport, England. American journal of physical anthropology PMID: 22407735

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One response to “The Diet of Nelson’s Navy

  1. Much like the soldiers of the time, the sailors of Nelson’s navy would augment their diet, regardless of official rules. Hunting, fishing, trading with locals, their efforts to break the monotony of rations lead to some interesting dietary supplements. Some, like curry, we whole heartedly adopted on a wider scale; others, like penguin, have thankfully been left on the figurative back-burner of history.

    An excellent write up, although comparing Nelson’s Navy with american armies and to a lesser degree, a slave population in Barbados, seems an odd choice given the culinary differences between their concept of staples and the Royal Navy’s. Wouldn’t a comparison against British Army garrisons or colonials still under British rule been better choices for the isotope study?

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