What Is a Ship’s Biscuit Called? Which Is the Oldest Surviving Ship’s Biscuit in the World?
Biscuits made from a simple unleavened mixture of flour, water and salt, rolled out thinly and baked slowly until very hard and dry, named hardtack were stored on ships during the Tudor and later periods. They were a staple part of the diet. If cooked slowly, these biscuits are a challenge for even the healthiest of teeth. The sailors must have softened them in some liquid to be able to eat them.
Cooked properly, they are hard not brittle and no good for dunking in tea as they are still rock hard afterwards. However, in former times, maybe the maggots helped to break them down. As voyages progressed, the food would become infested with worms, maggots and other creatures. Ferdinand Columbus, describing one of his father’s voyages, wrote: “Food had become so wormy that sailors waited to dark to eat … so they could not see the maggots.”
A 215-year-old biscuit dating from the Battle of Trafalgar was sold at an auction held in April, 2018. The biscuit, which belonged to a sailor on board HMS Defence in 1805, is believed to be the oldest surviving ship’s biscuit in the world. It is thought to predate one from 1852 on show at a museum in Denmark.
The ship’s biscuit belonged to Able Seaman Thomas Fletcher, who was a gunner on HMS Defence. He brought it back with him from his days at sea. It was kept by the Fletcher family until 2005, when it was bought by a private collector at an auction at Sotheby’s in London.
The out-of-date snack was sold by Mayfair auction house Dix Noonan Webb along with some of Mr. Fletcher’s other belongings, including the Matthew Boulton’s Trafalgar Medal which was awarded to everyone who fought at the Battle of Trafalgar.
According to the Royal Museums in Greenwich, the ship’s biscuit was an important part of the crew’s diet at sea before canned food was introduced, with beef in tins officially being issued in 1847. Also known as “hardtack”, they were made of flour, salt and water.
The Battle of Trafalgar, on 21 October 1805, ended the French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte’s plans to invade England. Naval commander Horatio Lord Nelson led the British Navy to fight against French and Spanish fleets outside the port of Cadiz in Spain, near the Cape of Trafalgar. Vice Admiral Nelson died in the battle but the victory sealed his status as a national hero.