Posted by: Rob Viens | October 23, 2012

Biscuit Rationing and Salted Meat

As the week progressed, Darwin expressed some mixed feelings – on one hand, he was a few days away from the first mail call he’d had in a long time. (Darwin had not received any letters since Rio almost 4 months ago.)  But he had an even more urgent reason to make good time to Uruguay – the food stores were running low:

“During these two days it has been a thick fog, with light breezes: We are all getting anxious for the moment of receiving letters to arrive.— Moreover, there is another substantial reason; our bread fails us on next Sunday, at present all hands are on a ⅔ allowance. The detainement from the Schooners is the cause of the miscalculation in the stores.” (Oct 21/22)

One of the most important items stocked on a 19th century naval vessel was the food.  Meals gave them men energy and moral to work hard, so dinner was a “sacred” event in the life of the crew. There is no doubt that rationing would have put everyone a little on edge and led to some dissatisfaction among the men – especially if it went on for too long.

Typically, a ship such as this one would have been stocked with a few staples that could survive a long time without refrigeration. Two items that were the core of the meal were salted meat (pork and beef) and “biscuits”. Since Captain Cook’s time, there would also be something for the men to eat that had vitamin C (to prevent scurvy).  Cook used sauerkraut but any citrus fruit would do – I’m not sure what was common in Darwin’s time. Lastly, it would also be typical for the ship to carry grains “preserved” through fermentation – i.e., beer (or wine, brandy or rum – yo ho ho). Alcohol traveled even better than water.

Ship’s biscuit (from

Want to taste the infamous “ship’s biscuit” (also called “hard tack”)?  Here is a recipe from the

“To produce a similar plain ships biscuit, a medium coarse stone-ground whole meal flour should be used. Add water to 1lb whole meal flour and 1/4oz salt to make a stiff dough. Leave for 1/2 hour and then roll out very thickly. Separate in to 5 or 7 biscuits. Bake in a hot oven approx. 420 degrees F for 30 minutes. The biscuits should then be left undisturbed in a warm dry atmosphere to harden and dry out.” …Mmm, mmm, good!

Other items that might be found on board included onions and peas (that would be made into a stew with the hard, salted meat), oatmeal (for porridge), raisins (which Darwin ate for sea sickness) and other dried fruit, and sometimes cheese.  Whenever possible (as was made clear when the ship entered shallow water or visited an ocean island) the diet would be supplemented with fresh fish, birds and eggs, and wild game of various sorts (armadillos, tortoises, etc.). Though I am sure that hunting and fishing for 70-80 men was no easy task.

On the 23rd the Beagle was still making slow progress northward:

“The fog cleared away, only to disappoint us with an unfavourable breeze” (Oct 23)

Reduced rations continued… (RJV)

Rationing Countdown (days till the Beagle runs out of biscuits): 4 days


  1. I can certainly understand dinner being the high point of the day…

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