The Horror of Life Aboard a 16th Century Ship
While reading accounts of both Columbus’ and Cabeza De Vaca’s voyages, I often find myself imagining what my life would be like as an explorer in 15th and 16th century Europe. I see myself excitedly sighting land for the first time and taking my first bold steps onto the New World; I imagine trekking through the wilds with my men and later getting drunk with them around a bonfire. However, absent from my daydreaming is the excruciating voyage required to actually reach the New World. I find it easy to romanticize the actual exploration part of one of these trips, but I can’t even begin to wrap my head around the grim reality of spending months on a cramped, gloomy, and smelly ship on the way to the New World.
Life on board one of these ships was an absolute floating hell. According to Oviedo, Narvaez’s ships were extremely crowded, “old and worn out ships which have arrived there through the mercy of God and by force of double pumping.” Father de la Torre, a missionary heading for the New World 15 years after Cabeza de Vaca, described his ship as, “a very narrow and stout prison from which no one can flee.” The ship was so crowded that even if, “one feels well enough, there’s no place where once can study or withdraw to himself a little on shipboard; one remains eternally seated for there is no place to walk" (Schneider).
To make matters worse, the ships were also a breeding ground for rats, roaches, and other pests. Aboard the the cramped, sweaty ships, “an infinite number of lice eat one alive, and clothing cannot be washed because seawater shrinks it...heat and suffocation are unbearable.” The ships were filled with the horrible smells of rotting food, human waste, and the foul water that leaked into the ship. Food on these long voyages was an equally disgusting combination of hard tack and salted beef, often infested with maggots. “No one has any desire to eat...The thirst one endures is unbelievable,” de la Torre recalled (Schneider).
Passengers had very little in the way of entertainment. Some played card games, while other gossiped, “about whether the clouds portended storms, whether other vessels spotted were hostile, and whether the supplies would run out.” Overall, life onboard one of these ships was absolutely miserable, terrifying even. Alonzo Enriguez de Guzman, another passenger, summed up his voyage as “eight hundred leagues over the sea, suffering hunger and thirst, and seeing no land" (Schneider). The fact that so many people endured these horrifying transatlantic voyages demonstrates the power that the New World held over Europeans.
Paul Schneider's Book, Brutal Journey