Day in the Life — Sailor of Columbus


As a sailor heading towards the unknown Americas, there wouldn’t have been any shortage of tasks, and the work would have been hard and, in many cases, perilous. They were exploring uncharted waters, and doing so in cramped conditions, with makeshift sleeping areas and bland provisions. The flagship of the expedition, the Santa Maria, ultimately didn’t survive Columbus’s first transatlantic voyage, as it ran aground off Haiti in Decembe:

1492 and was abandoned, but it nevertheless remains an emblem of the explorer’s achievements and provides a fascinating case study into life aboard a 15th-century vessel.


Shortly before the first shift commenced, the crew would get up and eat breakfast. This was generally a cold meal, often consisting of salted fish, biscuits and some cheese (fresh food was usually eaten within the first week of the voyage, as it went stale quickly). Much of the food on the Santa Maria would have been pretty basic but healthy enough.


The crew were divided into two watches, rotating every four hours. The first watch, known as the Cuartos, began at seven o’clock. Certain sailors were assigned specific roles: two men were posted on the bow and the round-top on the main mast; while another was charged with recording the compass direction and the ship’s speed, as dictated by the Santa Maria’s master or pilot.


Part of the general duties for sailors on the first watch was to raise, lower and set the sails using the various lines, as well as carrying out general maintenance tasks on the relevant equipment as and when appropriate. It was common for them to sing as they went about their work in order to stick to a rhythm and keep up morale.


In order to ensure the smooth running of the ship, sailors were also tasked with making sure the walkways and decks were clear at all times. Any debris left over from bad weather or maintenance had to be cleaned away, and the decks and rails had to be scrubbed at regular intervals.


The first watch ended, allowing the second watch — the Guardias — to begin. In the subsequent four hours the Cuartos watch were given a chance to socialise. Some of the activities they participated in included singing, dancing and playing musical instruments. Fishing was popular too because fresh fish was considered a great delicacy.


The shift between 5pm and 7pm was divided into two ‘dog watches’, effectively allowing the crews to switch over. This was done so as to ensure that the crews weren’t constantly working the same shifts, and most pointedly to avoid always having to work the midnight ‘graveyard watch’ — traditionally an unpopular shift for obvious reasons.


Every 30 minutes, the ship’s boy would turn the glass (which was shaped like an hourglass). While doing this he would sing a prayer, which as well as letting the crew know the time also acknowledged the Roman Catholic beliefs of the majority of the personnel. Specific prayers would be sung at certain times of the day; at sunset, the prayer was the Salve Regina (Hail Holy Queen), for instance.


Having completed their second shift, the majority of the crew would attempt to get some shut-eye in the few hours until they started work again. While Columbus and some of the other officers had their own quarters, the majority of the crew would have to make do with any open space they could find. Below deck was where the supplies and privies were located, so that area was generally avoided.

How do we know this?

The Santa Maria’s journal kept a detailed account of the journey, of which a number of extracts written by Columbus biographer Bartolome de Las Casas have survived. These focus more on distance covered and notable discoveries, but they nonetheless provide a valuable insight into what this voyage of discovery entailed. Also useful through the course of research for this article was the book Christopher Columbus by Ernle Bradford (1973).

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