Nourishment in the Swedish naval fleet 1500-1800

The Vasa from the Bow : Wiki Commons

- Advertisement -

This article will present some of the general results of the authors PhD-thesis. The thesis is written within the field of economic-history, however during the work with the thesis the author was allowed to work interdisciplinary. Therefore the source material for the primary sources was two; historical written records of different characters and maritime archaeological material.


During the period 1500-1800 the foodstuff in the Swedish naval fleet can be divided into the following categories; bread, meat and meat products, fish, dairy products, cereals, peas, vegetables and beverages. The consumption of these provisions (except for cereals, peas and vegetables) was at its highest level during the 16th century, which declined in the following centuries. Rations of cereals, peas and vegetables increased by 200 percent from the 16th century to the 18th century.

Not only did the consumption of provisions (except for cereals, peas and vegetables) decline over time; there was also a decline in the variation of food items. Fish is a good example. During the 16th century, there was plenty of fish even if they were served in small quantities. The decline starts in the 17th century and during the 18th century stockfish and herring are the only types of fish served.

The reason for the decline in fish consumption had nothing to do with Catholic fasting rules (as the Swedish King stated) and must be searched elsewhere. One reason for the decline was that the Admiralty Board did not consider fish as good as other provisions. A decree was issued by the Board in 1658 to the superintendent of provisions that he should deliver much smaller quantities of fish. This fits well with the decline of fish consumption in the Swedish navy during the 1660s and 1670s. Fresh fish is listed in the accounts from the 16th century for some warships.

It seems that when fresh fish was caught and served, the daily ration of salted or dried fish was withdrawn. Even if fresh fish is not found in the accounts for the other centuries, fishing equipment has been found in the salvage of the Vasa. This shows that the crew tried to vary their fish consumption while on board. Oysters have been found in the salvage of the Kronan, even though this item is not listed in the accounts. It is remarkable that this item is found. Oysters are very delicate since dead oysters can not be consumed. Oysters require a certain level of salt in the water in order to survive, and must be kept under pressure in their barrels.

- Advertisement -

Meat and meat products follow the same pattern as fish consumption. It was only during the 16th century that the navy served sausages, meat brawns and tongues. The daily meat rations also declined over time. Beef was the dominant meat for the crew. Pork had a much smaller role in the diet than beef throughout the period. In this case, the accounts and the artefacts tell the same story.

The bread ration follows the same pattern and decreased over time. As in the case of fish, the largest selection of different kinds of bread is found in the 16th century. During the 17th and 18th centuries only two kinds of bread were served, one for the ordinary men and another type for the officers.  The small ration of cereals, peas and vegetables during the 16th century was compensated with a larger bread ration. Generally, there was a substantial decline in total consumption from the 16th to the 18th century.

It developed from a diet based on meat and fish to a diet based on cereals and peas. This follows the food consumption pattern on land in Sweden during the same period. The change in the food consumption at sea seems to have had economic reasons. A diet based on cereals and peas rather than meat and fish worked out cheaper for the Admiralty Board.Apart from fish and meat, one finds hens, eggs and geese only in the accounts from the 16th century, albeit in small amounts. Bones from different kind of birds have been found in the Vasa salvage.


Beer was served during the 16th and 17th centuries. It was gradually replaced by aquavit and vinegar during the 18th century. The vinegar was supposed to be diluted in fresh water. Water is a beverage that is not listed among the provision items. This does not mean that water was not taken on board. The reason for the absence of water in the accounts is that the navy did not have to pay for it. Water was very difficult to keep fresh for a long period of time since it contained insects and other small organisms when it was transferred into the water barrels.

Ship deck of the Swedish ship of the line Kronan at Kalmar museum. : Wiki Commons

Only beer, aquavit and vinegar are listed as beverages in the accounts. However, the archaeological artefacts from the warships Vasa and Kronan reveal a different picture. The artefacts show that the men on board (most likely the officers) brought their own supplies of wine and distilled beverages. Most likely, one of the bottles found in the salvage of Vasa contained rum or arrack. This is one of the earliest pieces of evidence of these beverages in Sweden. The vessel Kronan carried large barrels containing wine. A part of this stowage for wine bottles and liquor has been found at the salvage site.


Cheese and butter were served as dairy products. One finds small amounts of eggs mentioned in the accounts only from the 16th century. Even though eggs are not listed in the accounts for later centuries, they have been found in the salvage of the Kronan. Further investigations of the animal bones from the vessel will inform us whether the Kronan had hens on board. If not, a new research question arises: how did they manage to store eggs on a war vessel in the 17th century?

Salt and spices

Salt is an item that is listed on a daily basis for the seamen throughout the period. During the 17th century, the daily rations are remarkably large, up to 77 grams per man. A modern recommendation is a daily intake of 5-10 grams. During the 16th century, the daily ration of salt was 13 grams per man and there is no specific amount for the 18th century. All the sources tell us is that salt was given directly to the cook on a daily basis for cooking purposes. However, in one of the menus from the 18th century, the daily ration of salt is stipulated to be approximately 13 grams. The salt consumption during the 16th and 18th centuries was much closer to the modern recommendations than the consumption during the 17th century. Spices, fruits, berries, nuts and edible fungi are not listed in the accounts. Nevertheless, all these items have been found in the Kronan salvage.

Galleys and cooking

We do not know what the galleys looked like on the Swedish warships in the 16th century, or how many galleys the vessels had and where in the vessels they were located. This is due to the fact that no 16th century wreck has been excavated yet. Ships like the Vasa (built in the Dutch tradition) had the galley deep down in the hold. This galley had a wooden frame that was covered with bricks and consisted of a floor and two walls, one to the starboard and the other to the portside. The galley was equipped with a large cauldron of 180 litres.

The Kronan was built nearly 40 years after the Vasa and was designed by an English master shipbuilder. The galleys were moved from the hold to the first gun deck in the vessel. The galley was still made of bricks and bricks have been found on two different locations at the wreck site of the Kronan. This indicates that the vessel had at least two galleys, one larger and most likely used for cooking for the ordinary men, whereas another smaller one was used for the officers. The smaller galley can also have been used to warm the officers’ food if it was cooked in the larger galley. The 18th century Swedish warships had two galleys, a larger one that was located in the forecastle and a smaller one in the cabin. The small one was used to cook for the officers. The stoves were built mostly of bricks in the 18th century and had a smoke hood of sheet metal. From the late 18th century, the stoves were made in sheet metal altogether. This changed the way of cooking dramatically. Now it was possible to grill, bake, roast, steam cook, and fry, and even prepare food in water-bath instead of boiling the food in a cauldron over an open hearth.

The men ate in groups since the ordinances were written for 5-8 persons for the crew (not the officers). Regardless of social group, food was served twice a day during the 16th and 17th centuries. Breakfast was served for the first time in 1743.

Food and housekeeping artifacts found in the salvages of the Vasa and the Kronan, along with the inventories of warships from the 1670s, gives us a fairly good picture of how the food was cooked and eaten.

On the Vasa (and most likely on other vessels), there was a clear social stratification between the crew and the officers. The crew ate their food on wooden discs and wooden bows with wooden spoons, and drank from cups made of wood or clay. The officers ate from tinplates, tin mugs and wineglasses made of glass. Their food was kept warm in the cabin. The officers on the Kronan ate with forks as well. These forks have between two and four prongs. The forks with four prongs are early examples of this kind in Sweden.

The common opinion has been that this kind of fork was introduced in Sweden during the 19th century. There was also a social stratification between the monarch, Gustavus Adolphus (1611-1632), and the officers when the King was on board. Since there have been no salvages of 18th century wrecks in Sweden, we do not have any information about the utensils the crew used then. But from the inventories we know that the officers drank, among other things, warm chocolate and ate cakes and pudding which was not served to the crew. Social stratification clearly continued into the 18th century.

The artefacts from the 16th century are as rare as the 18th century artefacts. The inventory of any salvage from 18th century wrecks would be extremely useful. The inventory lists from the 16th century include only limited information about the galley equipment and utensils for cooking. Salvages of 16th century wrecks would be very useful in providing new knowledge about the subject. Even though the sources say little about the social stratification on board during the 16th century, it is unlikely that there was no stratification.

How the meals were served is not yet clear. However, it is very likely that a ship boy served the officers in the cabin after getting the food from the galley. On the Vasa, it would have taken the ship boy a couple of minutes to fetch the meals hot for the officers. Since the crew worked in shifts, they probably ate in shifts as well throughout the day. This means that the cook had to have the fire going and the cauldron cooking most of the day. The distribution of the food must have been easier when the galley was moved up in the vessels, since the crew ate at their work stations. In order to get fresh food, the men caught fish or hunted. Among the artefacts from the Vasa and Kronan, hunting rifles have been found along with fishing equipment. In the accounts from the 16th century, fresh fish is listed and even though there is no fresh fish in the accounts for the rest of the period it is unlikely that the men did not try to get fresh food.

Closing remarks

This text has been dealing with the major results from my PhD study regarding food and diet in the Swedish Navy during the period 1500-1800 and there is a future and continuation on the study. The result presented here will be in cooperated with the future forthcoming result of the project “Nautical and Naval Foodways assessment”. The project is based at MARIS (Maritime archaeological research institute) Södertörn University in co-operation with INA (Institute of Nautical Archaeology). The project should be seen as part of a larger historical and archaeological study, the project’s aim is to work, with the permission of INA and with the various principal investigators, on artefacts from INA excavations in the Bodrum Research Center that specifically address questions of nautical and naval foodways over a large time span and geographical area.

The span of analysis will be decided by available and accessible materials from INA and other excavations, beginning with the oldest and the earliest excavated/investigated shipwreck material pertinent to the study.  Obviously, the range of available material culture related to the study will define the temporal and geographical parameters of the project.  For INA material, the project has obtained provisional permission from the President of INA and the director of the Bodrum Research Center to query the BRC staff and principal investigators. The project while focusing on artefacts that can be linked to provisions, foodstuff, cooking, eating, drinking aboard the different ships which have been excavated, will also assess literary and historical accounts. A single study on the evolution of shipboard foodways, galleys and cooking is envisioned. The aim is that the final outcome of the research will be a publication that can fill the knowledge gap that now exists about foodways aboard ships. A study like this is lacking in contemporary nautical research.


Söderlind, Ulrica, 2006, Skrovmål- måltidsordning och kosthållning i Svenska flottan 1500-1800, Stockholm

Written by Ulrica. Soderlind

HeritageDaily : Archaeology News : Archaeology Press Releases




- Advertisement -
Ulrica Söderlind
Ulrica Söderlind
"Ulrica Söderlind is born and raised in Sandviken, Sweden and since 1990 she is living in Stockholm. She received her high school education at different culinary schools and has worked in the industry both in the Swedish merchant fleet and on land. Her latest employment before starting at the university was in the so called Nobel kitchen at Stockholm City Hall. Today she holds a master degree in maritime archaeology and a PhD degree in economic-history and her research is in the field of food and beverage and the research is interdisiplinary. She is currenlty affiliated to the department of economic-history at Stockholm University and she is also an associated researcher to Institute of Nautical archaeology (INA) and to the research institute MARIS at Södertörn University, Sweden"

Mobile Application


Related Articles

Stone box containing rare ceremonial offerings discovered at Tlatelolco

Archaeologists from the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) have discovered a stone box containing ceremonial offerings during excavations of Temple "I", also known as the Great Basement, at the Tlatelolco archaeological zone.

Excavation uncovers traces of the first bishop’s palace at Merseburg Cathedral Hill

Archaeologists from the State Office for Monument Preservation and Archaeology (LDA) Saxony-Anhalt have uncovered traces of the first bishop’s palace at the southern end of the Merseburg Cathedral Hill in Merseburg, Germany.

BU archaeologists uncover Iron Age victim of human sacrifice

Archaeologists from Bournemouth University have uncovered an Iron Age victim of human sacrifice in Dorset, England.

Archaeologists find ancient papyri with correspondence made by Roman centurions

Archaeologists from the University of Wrocław have uncovered ancient papyri that contains the correspondence of Roman centurions who were stationed in Egypt.

Study indicates that Firth promontory could be an ancient crannog

A study by students from the University of the Highlands and Islands has revealed that a promontory in the Loch of Wasdale in Firth, Orkney, could be the remains of an ancient crannog.

Archaeologists identify the original sarcophagus of Ramesses II

Archaeologists from Sorbonne University have identified the original sarcophagus of Ramesses II, otherwise known as Ramesses the Great.

Archaeologists find missing head of Deva from the Victory Gate of Angkor Thom

Archaeologists from Cambodia’s national heritage authority (APSARA) have discovered the long-lost missing head of a Deva statue from the Victory Gate of Angkor Thom.

Archaeologists search crash site of WWII B-17 for lost pilot

Archaeologists from Cotswold Archaeology are excavating the crash site of a WWII B-17 Flying Fortress in an English woodland.