Does the thought of travelling the world on a damp and creaking vessel, eating meals of insect-ridden, brittle biscuits, with a very good possibility of dying from disease, violent conflict, or falling off the topmast in high seas make you want to set sail on an expedition of exploration? Perhaps not. Even in the 18th century, British writer Samuel Johnson (1709–1784) showed scepticism for the sailor’s way of life when he stated: “No man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself into a jail; for, being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned.... A man in a jail has more room, better food and commonly better company.”
Quarters were cramped and shared by humans, rats, and other vermin. Hygiene was a challenge, especially when most sailors only had a single set of clothing – a good crust of salt and grease was seen as a barrier to the elements. Dangers and hardships abounded, from Arctic ice to scurvy, conflict, and flogging. Gruelling physical labour and low pay were expected, and alcohol, prostitutes, and the high cost of replacing worn out clothing from the ship’s stores cleaned out the pockets of many expeditionary members before the ships reached home port. Even captains met their share of troubles in unruly crewmembers, health complaints, and political intrigues that could ruin their careers and reputations.
Yet sailors and overland expeditionary forces came to the Pacific Northwest in steady waves during the 1700s. There was food for the sailors when many at home had none, there was adventure when their brothers lived life behind a plough, and there was the promise of comradeship, revelry in exotic lands, and even a glimmer of hope that trade (unsanctioned for personal gain, of course) might earn them some wealth. They marvelled at sights and experiences that most could never even imagine. In the 18th century, health improved and sailor deaths declined under new measures for safety and nutrition. For captains, expedition leaders, and officers, renown, promotion, and publication of their journals held the allure of expanding scientific knowledge and national pride. Daily life on an expedition was part of a greater experience that made weevils in the biscuits and the experiments of the ship’s surgeon a little more bearable.