Daily life on an expedition of exploration was full of hard work and challenges. But there were many ways to break up the routine and have some fun. Much of the work was done to the tempo of shanties or working songs, with a rhythm set to the pull of the lines and lyrics filled with dirty jokes to keep the sailors paying attention. Music brought the expedition together, reminded the men of home, and immortalized people and stories in verse. The Spanish gathered on deck to sing in honour of Maquinna at Yuquot, and Tadeo Haenke of the Malaspina expedition recoded sheet music for a Tlingit song of peace. The words for “flute” and “music” are part of an 18th century Russian glossary of terms in Unalaska, and the fiddler was sometimes listed as a hired crewmember on English vessels of the 1700s.
Alcohol is famously linked to sailors, who were issued a daily ration of beer. The Royal Navy doled out a “tot” of rum, alcohol distilled from the sugar cane grown on the British plantations in the Caribbean. Tots were rationed from 1655 until the practice was ended in 1970. The Spanish provisions included stores of wine. These rations were given out in measured amounts to prevent what the Admiralty called “drinking in drams” which led to drunkenness (and drunkenness led to fighting and men falling overboard). This didn’t stop the sailors from buying, trading, stealing, or even brewing their own beverages.
Holidays on expedition were still working days, but the food and drink rations might be a little larger, even if they tasted the same as they always did. In 1805, Lewis and Clark spent the third Christmas of their expedition at Fort Clatsop on the Pacific. The men greeted each other with the shout of “Christmas gift!” and exchanged tobacco and handkerchiefs.
Some men learned to draw or to read while on expedition. Because of the watch system aboard ship, sailors were generally sleep deprived and took advantage of any free time to take a nap – a welcome, if not very “merry” pastime. An ivory chess set was among the personal possessions of Captain Cook, whom we can imagine plotting strategy on the chequered board. There is no doubt that seamen found opportunities to gamble, placing money and the clothes on their back as wagers on tests of strength, cockroach races, and other bets sailors continue to make today.