Dining on Ship’s Biscuits in 1607


Ship’s Biscuits,(Biskits) formed a major part of the diet of those sailing to America

The year was sixteen hundred and seven and three ships of 105 men were sent by the Virginia Company from Britain to America to begin a settlement. It took five months make the crossing with stops in the Caribbean.

To celebrate that journey, the original archeological site, a re-created settlement,  three replica ships and a Powhatan village help us to learn about life as it was centuries ago.   Several interpretive staff at Jamestown, Virginia and the Yorktown Victory Centre – both passionate and knowledgeable about food history gave me helpful information about what we think may have been the diet of those travelling on the three British ships sent to colonize America in 1607.

How a sailor might have looked on the way to Jamestown.
Replicas of the Godspeed and Discovery ships that brought settlers in 1607

I have described the food that those sailing in 1607 might have eaten on their journey inside a short tale.

In the hold of the Godspeed, the wood creaked as the ship tossed and turned in the wild waves of the cold Atlantic. The year was sixteen hundred and seven.

I sat propped up against the side of the ship, in the hold and all around me were the other men, cold, sea sick and weak from the many days of sitting. We were fifty-one in total. We could not go above, to breathe the fresh air, unless we would not be in the way of the sailors. We brought no women on this journey.

We left England for a better life, to start a colony and make money for The Virginia Company. Would we find gold? I was starting to wonder if we would arrive at all. I was a gentleman in England and am not sure why I left. I closed my eyes and dreamt of dinner back in my mother’s kitchen back in England. Our stomach’s groaned with hunger like the ships timber around us.

The Godspeed was packed with food supplies and we survived by eating dried meats, rice, beans, pickled goods and lots of ship’s biscuits. It was damp in the hold and those biscuits started to get buggy. They were made back in England of flour, water and salt and are hard as a rock on the shore, so it is hard to imagine how a bug could settle into one of those biscuits. They are made to last a lifetime, even if ours doesn’t. Our cook made food over a fire burning in a barrel by the opening to the deck or up on deck, but food was getting scarce. We ate mostly soups and stews, and put the ship’s biscuits in the soup so we would fill up. We hoped to land in the Caribbean to take on fresh food and water.

I remember one day the cook was making us some food; we called it Drowning Baby Pudding, as unsavoury as that may sound. I am watching. The cook took some ship’s biscuits, pounded them finely and put them in a pot to mix with some scraps of salt pork. He found some onions, chopped several and added water to the pot. It was a special day because he added some eggs. He mixed up all the ingredients and wrapped it up in a cloth, forming a large ball and put it in boiling water to cook.

Believe me, it tasted good, very good. The ship’s wood groaned, but our stomachs were full, and the Godspeed tossed in the waves. We hoped we would land someday soon.

I baked some ship’s biscuits, to taste them myself. Here’s my “recipe” based on the ingredients that they would have used.

  • 1 cup whole wheat flour
  • 1/3 cup of water
  • bit of salt

I mixed all together an kneaded the mixture for about five minutes. I rolled out the dough and used a round cutter to shape and prick with a fork as well as a second method of forming a flattened ball and pricking with a fork. Put on a cookie sheet in the oven at a 300 degrees for one hour or so.  They would often bake several times to ensure dryness, but mine were very dry. I ate one and – my teeth are still intact.




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