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Columbus Day: What Did Sailors Eat?

Silvia Carli

09/23/2020
By Silvia Carli

In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. This is the first line to a poem learned by school children for decades, evoking colorful and exciting images of exploration and discovery. But what was it like to take to the ocean in a boat without engines or electricity? Columbus Day is a great time to look at how sailors lived and what they ate.

Christopher Columbus on his boat with his crew he was with during his exploration. What is Columbus Day?
What Was It Like to Be in the Ocean on a Boat Without Engines or Electricity? (Image Source: Shutterstock)

The world we live in today is full of conveniences that we take for granted. The era of discovery changed the world forever and made much of our modern way of life possible. Columbus Day history lessons are much more complete today than they were in the past. Great tragedy accompanied exploration and colonization. We should remember them with respect and honor their legacy by learning all we can.

Join me today as I explore the food sailors ate as they sailed the oceans, powered by nothing more than the wind.

Christopher Columbus Facts 

One of the biggest changes over the last five hundred years is that the world has gotten a lot more peaceful. As violence has declined, we have learned valuable lessons about how we should and should not interact with each other. Today we have amazing opportunities to learn from the past. We can add to their successes and improve on their mistakes.

Columbus has gone down in history as an explorer and discoverer of new lands. When he petitioned the Spanish king for funds to sail west, his goal was to open trade routes to India. His initial request was denied. According to some accounts, Columbus had to contend with flat earthers. The reality is that most educated people of the time thought the world was round. The difference was that Columbus thought the world was small enough to make sailing to India practical. Most scholars thought the voyage too long to complete successfully.

The Landing of Columbus Painting by Currier & Ives
Columbus Thought that the World was Small Enough to Make Sailing to India Practical (Image Source: Shutterstock)

Despite his flawed argument, Columbus was eventually able to secure funds to provision three small ships. His critics thought he would run out of food and water before reaching his destination and would either die or return in disgrace. Columbus got lucky and ran into new lands instead. He misidentified the New World as India, leading to the misnaming of many places and peoples.

For mainstream Europe, Columbus brought knowledge of new continents to light. Scandinavian peoples had already discovered North America, but their knowledge of the New World was lost to obscurity.

Columbus made four total voyages. His initial desire was to trade spices in India, but that was never a realistic possibility. Instead, he founded several colonies and sparked the beginning of the age of exploration and colonization. Today, he has become much more controversial, as European expansion came at the expense of indigenous peoples’ cultural identity and lives.

Food Preservation

One of the most interesting things about the time of Columbus is how they stored food. For thousands of years, we have been preserving fresh food in ways that didn’t originally require refrigeration. Cheese, butter, and yogurt are all ways to preserve and condense milk. The people who invented these ways of using milk would probably find it funny to know that we now refrigerate them.

For sailors living in the 15th century, food was an important and difficult consideration. When food wasn’t fresh, one way to ensure safety was to boil everything you were going to eat. Stew eaten by sailors solved this problem and added some additional water to their diet.

A traditional cooking pot on high flame to boil food.
One Way to Ensure Safety was to Boil Everything You were Going to Eat (Image Source: Shutterstock)

When we travel today, one of our biggest problems is vacation weight gain. When we eat too much, we run into dietary problems like high blood pressure, obesity, and heart disease. We are learning to focus on eating heart-healthy foods so we can live longer and happier lives.

Super Foods for Your Heart – Advocate Health Care

Alternatively, sailors from the age of exploration did not get enough to eat. Most of their food came from a dry biscuit called hardtack. This was supplemented with salt pork, fish, beans, rice, and oil. The meats had to be dried, salted, smoked, or pickled to keep them from spoiling. The food would still sometimes go bad, or rats and mice would break in and eat or contaminate the supplies.

Because their voyages were powered by the wind, travel times were unreliable. Food and water had to be rationed to ensure there was enough to last. Despite their best efforts, food and water often ran out, leading to disease and misery for millions over the centuries.

Voyager of the Seas

Water benefits your body and mind in many ways, and sailors were acutely aware of its importance. The oceans are made of saltwater, so sailors had to carry fresh water with them on their voyages.

Woman drinking water by the sea.
Water Benefits Your Body and Mind in Many Ways (Image Source: Shutterstock)

Sailors would refresh their water supplies when they would reach land or when it would rain. Rain made everyone happy, providing an opportunity to drink as much as they wanted. Everyone took full advantage, but as soon as the rain stopped, water rationing would begin again.

Water stored in barrels could often become contaminated with germs. Wine and vinegar would be mixed with water as a rudimentary form of purification. It’s not as good as using a Lifestraw Go, but it made water safer to drink and made these voyages possible. Grog was a similar drink made by mixing rum and water, but rum wasn’t available until long after the days of Columbus.

Is the Rain Healthy? Is the Rain Safe to Drink? – Untapped Healing

On long voyages, water and food rations would often run low or run out completely. Upon reaching your destination or finding new land, the first and most important thing was to find a source of fresh water. Like sailors of old, many people today are not drinking enough water to stay healthy.

Scurvy was another serious problem that sailors faced. It was the result of a vitamin C deficiency. Scurvy killed millions of sailors between the time Columbus sailed and the invention of the steamship. To protect against this, the British eventually relied on limes, and German sailors would eat sauerkraut. These foods were so distinctive that they turned into mildly insulting nicknames like Limey for the British or Krauts for the Germans. Today we know why a balanced diet is so important, and we have plentiful access to diverse foods. Do you eat enough vegetables?

Christopher Columbus Day

Many people want to recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day, and it’s no wonder. There were already people in the Americas with vibrant cultures and histories of their own when Columbus showed up. Columbus accomplished significant things, and it is important to tell the stories of the people he met in their own words. Indigenous Peoples’ Day is one way to recognize and highlight people who have not received all the attention they are due.

Columbus Day vs. Indigenous Peoples Day – KARE 11

Holidays are a time when we can put our cares aside and celebrate historical events. Right now we need to be more careful because of infectious disease, but you can still celebrate and have fun. Here are nine tips for safe fun and healthy 4th of July that can also be applied to Columbus Day, Labor Day, and other holidays.

We owe a debt of gratitude to the hard-working and brave people from the past who made our modern world possible. Celebrate Columbus Day this year by educating yourself on what it was like for the explorers and indigenous peoples who worked and sacrificed to make our world what it is today.

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