On board the crew of the VOC was very diverse. The seamen came from all across Europe. There were poor farmers’ sons from Germany, discharged soldiers from all over Europe, fugitives, escaped inmates, orphans that couldn’t find a job on land or younger brothers that couldn’t work in the family business or the farms and couldn’t afford a wedding. Working at the VOC was a risky job, and only 1 out of 3 sailors ever returned to their homeland. Whenever the VOC needed more employees they would send a town crier. Most of the time there would be a lot of interest and the VOC-offices would become very busy. This was mostly because in the town there were stories being told about far away countries, beautiful women and the money-making opportunities, if you were skilled enough. The shipping crates were large enough to put some pepper and nutmeg into and as long as you didn’t overdo it, you could get away with it. When there were not enough seamen, the VOC would hire a so-called ‘soul merchant’ that lured people by offering them food and shelter and the needed supplies for the trip like shirts, trousers, plates, spoons, a pipe and a bible. However, by doing this, the seaman would have such a large debt that they would already lose their wage of the first trip.
Soldiers and seamen
From the moment, the ship had set sail the tough life of a seaman began. The crew slept in hammocks below the deck. If the weather was poor, the shutters had to stay closed and it would be very hot. Everybody had his own task. VOC-crates with supplies were divided into groups who shared a container (bak (in Dutch)). The Dutch to his day use the expression: ‘aan de bak komen,’ which means to find work, made clear that you had to get to your container quickly or all the food would have already been eaten. On board there was an iron-clad rule. Despite the numerous languages spoken on board, the whole crew immediately knew what they were expected to do. Besides the seamen, there were also soldiers travelling with them because they would be placed in one of the company’s forts in the overseas colonies. The sailors didn’t like the soldiers who only seemed to get in the way, but the soldiers didn’t like the seamen either as they looked down on them, especially when fighting. However, punishments were severe. They were flogged for swearing and gambling. A thief would be fixed to the biggest mast with knives through his body and would be expected to free himself. The worst punishment was keelhauling. A person would have to jump off the ship tied to a rope, and would be dragged under the ship, most likely up to 3 times. Almost no-one would ever survive that. Or they would be marooned, which means left to die on a deserted island.
Sailors in the rigging
The food on board was really poor. The fresh drinking water quickly became infected with bacteria. They tried to kill the water life inside by putting a hot bar into the barrels but they would still have to drink it with their teeth gritted together or they would swallow whichever animals were present in the water. Besides water, the crews were given beer and a glass of gin everyday to flush away the bad taste. They ate porridge, bread, beans and peas. Sometimes they got bacon, sausages or cheese. The people behind the mast, the skipper, his officials and the passengers ate much better. They got fresh meat, the finest wine and other treats. They even took live pigs, chickens and cows and a lot of spices. The crew received way too few vitamins and began suffering from scurvy. Their gums became infected, their legs would swell and most of the time they died. In later years, they brought fruits en spices that contained a lot of vitamins and that soon made the scurvy disappear.
In sickness and in health
If someone was sick they called the surgeon who most often wasn’t a really good doctor. He was, however, very good at leeching and amputating limbs which was necessary after fighting pirates. However, the company’s management regarded it much more important that the crew found salvation after death and that’s why they took a priest, who prayed for everyone that died. A lot of accidents could happen on the ship. Most of the people died after falling from the mast or from falling into the water. Most couldn’t swim and would drown before the ship could reach them, so that’s why the ship just continued on course when someone fell overboard. At the Cape of Good Hope, the crew had a chance to rest. The ship would be resupplied with fresh water fruit and vegetables, the sick had a chance to rest and become better and everyone else would just enjoy all the different bars and spend all the money they had earned.
text: Ruud Spruit
translation: Dylan Hoefsmit, RSG Enkhuizen, tto-junior