It is popularly believed that the ship’s biscuit (hard tack) issued to Nelson’s Navy were full of a variety of revolting insects such as ‘maggots’ and ‘weevils’. A few authors (such as Jack Nastyface) who have enhanced the facts to suit their own ends have encouraged this. However in the majority of narratives little if any reference is made either by officers or people (both were issued from the same stock). So what is the truth?
All stored foodstuffs of the time would have been susceptible to attack from ‘storage pests’. Modern pesticides and packaging have eliminated these from our food shelves but they would have been familiar to people in Nelson’s time. The issue is as to when they changed from a small nuisance into an infestation that resulted in condemned food. The bread room of a ship was especially designed and located to keep bread cool and dry and this gives us a clue to those circumstances when problems could arise. The rate of reproduction and lifecycle of storage pests considerably increases with humidity and temperature. Hard tack was thrice baked to completely dry it out and hence preserve it (for up to five years by the victualling board standard). The baking would also make it extremely hard for any insects to penetrate the grains to the softer centre on which they feed. Dampness makes the bread soft again. So if bread gets damp in hot climates then any insects present will proliferate very quickly.
It would appear that any small beetles at the time were called ‘weevils’ and all large ones ‘cockroaches’. The basic pest found in ships biscuit is incorrectly termed the ‘weevil’. In fact it is not a true weevil but a relative of woodworm called the ‘Bread Beetle’ – Stegobium paniceum. The larvae are very small (0.5mm) and wrap themselves in a mixture of grain and saliva which makes them impossible to distinguish from the bread dust itself. Hence on initial examination nothing would be seen on the bread. In cool dry conditions the life cycle from larvae to adult would be up to one year. Hard tack would be typically used within this period and so the majority of time no weevils would be observed. They would however have been present from the bakery bags and hence pass from batch to batch. Batches of bread which are much older / damper / warmer would allow the larvae to feed vigorously and pupate into the adult beetle. This is a small reddish brown beetle between 2 and 4mm long. If adults appeared in large numbers the soft centre of the grains of the bread would have been eaten away. In this way any bread which was found infested with ‘weevils’ would (as recorded) crumble to dust.
We also have reports of large white maggots also being found on ships biscuit – nicknamed ‘bargemen’ by sailors. These were the larvae of the Cadelle beetle – Tenebroides mauritanicus. These when found could be seen on biscuit that apparently did not have any ‘weevils’ and was otherwise sound. What was most likely to be occurring here was a food chain. The Cadelle larvae (which were up to 20mm long) could actually be feeding on the unseen Bread Beetle larvae. Maybe the Cadelle could be called the Pursers Friend as it was actually helping to preserve the bread from attack? Once again temperature and humidity affected the life cycle. Once grown up the adult Cadelle is some 8mm long and could be confused with other ‘weevils’ or ‘cockroaches’.
There was no incentive, or indeed, scope to issue bad provisions except in extremes. When each new cask or bag is opened it is surveyed by representatives of the Purser, Master and Captain to verify the fitness of the contents both as to quantity and quality. Any species found to be unfit is condemned and the Purser recompensed. Condemned provisions must, however, be retained and returned to the Victualling Board in due course. Thus, when a ship is running short of fit provisions it may have to hand a stock of unfit provisions previously condemned. In these circumstances, when the choice is between Bad Provisions and No Provisions it is probable that bad provision may be issued. There does not appear to be any mechanism for compensation for this circumstance since, of course, the evidence has been consumed. It is unlikely that bad provisions would be issued in other circumstances since to do so would require the collusion of all officers. We also know that earlier in the eighteenth century (1750 – 1757) only 0.3% of bread was condemned (source: The Wooden World/N.A.M.Rodger). This figure is unlikely to have changed significantly by Nelson’s time some 50 years later, if anything techniques may have improved.
So were weevils as proliferate as Jack Nastyface would have us believe? Reality is a probable a case of the lesser of two weevils!
This article was produced with the assistance of Mr Lee Rogers, National History Museum, London.
Dr. Maturin suggests further reading: