Wednesday, May 9, 2018


Detail from Admiral Hosier's Ghost, Charles Mosley,
1740, John Carter Brown Library.
Today I'm taking a very quick look at what historians have to say about mortality rates among common sailors.

The actual occurrence of death at sea was not uncommon, but how present it was depended widely on what trade a sailor was engaged in. In examining logbooks of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Peter Earle came to the conclusion that 'well under one per cent of sailors died on any voyage in European water or on voyages to the northern American colonies or to the Arctic to hunt whales.' These percentages go up considerably for sailors working the routes to South America and the West Indies, and especially those sailing on East Indiamen.[1]

Denver Brunsman points to the high death rates in the West Indies as one of the motivations for employing press gangs in those waters. It was widely recognized at the time that, in the words of a Parliamentarian, 'the West Indies has been a sink where our seamen have perished.' Brunsman also states (truthfully) that 'the mortality rate on ships in the West Indian naval campaigns could approach 50 percent from disease alone.'[2] Fifty percent mortality from disease in the West Indies is an outlier, but it was a possibility.

Mortality rates aboard men of war were comparable to those in the merchant service, as N.A.M. Rodger demonstrated in his book The Wooden World:
In the 1740s Bristol merchantmen were losing only slightly more than average (5.5 per cent a year against 4.5) on voyages to the West Indies, and it has been calculated that at the same period British men-of-war in those waters were losing about 6 per cent of their authorized complements a year dead from all causes. Allowing for the usual turnover of ship's companies, the mortality as a percentage of the population exposed would have been lower.[3]
By far the most deadly trade for a sailor was the slave trade. As Marcus Rediker related in The Slave Ship: A Human History:
In surveying crew mortality for 350 Bristol and Liverpool slavers between 1784 and 1790, a House of Commons committee found that 21.6 percent of sailors died, a figure that was in keeping with Thomas Clarkson's estimates at the time and is consistent with modern research. Roughly twenty thousands British slave-trade seamen died between 1780 and 1807. For sailors as for African captives, living for several months aboard a slave ship was in itself a struggle for life.[4]

[1] Earle, Peter, Sailors: English Merchant Seamen 1650-1775, London: Methuen, 2007, page 130.
[2] Brunsman, Denver, The Evil Necessity: British Naval Impressment in the Eighteenth-century Atlantic World, University of Virginia, 2013, page 106.
[3] Rodger, N.A.M., The Wooden World: An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy, New York: W.W. Norton, 1996, page 99.
[4] Rediker, Marcus, The Slave Ship: A Human History, New York: Viking, 2007, page 244.


  1. Hi there! I'm interested in learning more about how deaths were handled at sea during this period. Was there something similar to the modern-day death gratuity, or life insurance for the sailors' families? could families be expected to be notified? What happened to the sailors' wages, paid and unpaid?

    Thanks for being such a font of information, it's all very interesting.

    1. Great question!

      Unpaid wages were generally forwarded to the surviving family (if there were any and if it was not already claimed in debts to others). A sailor's personal possessions were auctioned to the rest of the crew at sea shortly after death and the proceeds were also sent to the family.

      You can find a little more in my post on sailors' funerals: