The Agent-Victualler Afloat
Here on Hogsalt, we talk a lot about the money-fixated global food system, and not in flattering terms. But 200 years ago, there was another money-fixated global food system that went by the surprising name of the Royal Navy. England’s navy was, of course, a navy. Being the navy of a nation of merchants and shopkeepers, the Royal Navy had one overarching task — to make the seas safe for (British) commerce. In other words, 200 years ago, the British Empire was globalization in the making.
With speed, mobility and the capacity to project violence to any watery corner of the globe, the wooden Royal Navy was the direct ancestor of today’s drone strike. Given that the RN lacked engines, generators, radios and the like it was probably just about as stealthy and certainly a hell of a lot more sustainable. (And, in case you’re chuckling at the notion of “speed,” I should mention that fuel oil costs have caused modern container ships to reduce their cruising speed to the exact same velocity of the last cargo sailing ships. Progress?)
But before the British Empire could perfect that globalized trade empire, it had to deal with a problem by the name of Napoleon. He’d forced Europe to kneel, and now he was looking across the Channel at England, planning an invasion. So, instead of forcibly “opening” Asia to trade or ensuring that pirates didn’t take a cut of the Empire’s cash flow, the Royal Navy was left with the onerous duty of waging war against an equally-well-armed adversary.
In this, England had a unique advantage. One-armed, one-eyed, 5’6”, equal parts vain, courageous and brilliant, he was Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson. His job was to blockade the French Fleet and thus prevent the invasion. To do this, he had a fleet of “wooden ships and iron men” as it was described.
It took a lot of iron men. Nelson’s flagship, the 104-gun ship-of-the-line HMS Victory, was 200 feet long, 200 feet tall, 50 feet wide and had a hull of solid oak two feet thick. It took 850 iron men to make her sail and fight and those men needed to be fed.
Boy, did they get fed. While their food was monotonous in the extreme — salt beef, salt pork, hard biscuit, dried peas, oatmeal, beer, butter and cheese — there was a lot of it: 5,000 calories per man per day. It’s a measure of the arduousness of the work — and the coldness of these completely unheated vessels — that no one got fat aboard ship.
Victory was but one ship. When you added up all the Royal Navy’s vessels, you ended with a total workforce of around 110,000 men, scattered across the entire globe at a time when traveling to the other side of the world could easily take a year. Making sure that they were all fed, every single day, was the work of the Board of Victualling Commissioners.
What this august name translated into was seven commissioners with a small army of secretaries and clerks adding up to about seventy people. They took their work seriously, putting in six-day weeks and calculating (by hand) seven-figure estimates of next year’s cost figured down to 1/960th of a penny. They also demanded that every account exactly balance every other account, a neat trick when you consider that many of those account books were being kept aboard the over 1000 ships the RN had scattered around the globe.
These fearsome commissioners and clerks oversaw work at the “victualling yards,” proto-industrial food production facilities where a few thousand butchers, bakers and brewers cranked out the standardized, unitized foods that kept the Jack Tars of the Royal Navy alive, while in-house coopers made the casks to put it all in.
And there was a lot of it. For that 110,000 man workforce, the victualling yards were taking in and processing 23,000 head of cattle and 115,000 hogs. All the meat was cut into two pound segments and stored in casks filled with brine strong enough to float the meat. In a tightly sealed cask, the meat could remain viable for over a year.
There were three main victualling yards in England and, as you might imagine from the degree of control exercised over account books, the Victualling Board liked to keep things well in hand. They liked it so much, that any victualling yard outside of London was referred to as an “outpost,” and kept under the control of a man by the name of the “Agent-Victualler.”
Now, it would sometimes happen that circumstances, like wars, would disrupt this tidy arrangement and force an Agent-Victualler to be dispatched to the fleet, where he had to keep the fleet in vittles without the aid of the industrial food-works of the victualling yards. It was at this point that he became, by the glory of the language of Shakespeare and Dickens, the Agent-Victualler Afloat.
In addition to coordinating the fleets of supply ships running from the victualling yards in England, the Agent-Victualler Afloat had to find a way to feed the fleet off the local supplies. It wasn’t an easy job. Agent-Victuallers Afloat in the Mediterranean had to endure quarantines, venture into plague-infested villages, elude Bedouin raiders and navigate both tribal and papal politics while trying to locate and move the needed foods and to do it all at a price that the Victualling Board would accept (because if they didn’t, it was coming out of your salary.)
It didn’t always work out, which is why in 1801, one of the Commissioners of the Victualling Board found himself aboard ship and headed towards the Med to perform an audit. At his side was a clerk, one Richard Ford, a man of modest background, lacking the “esquire” appended to his name to indicate that he was a gentleman.
He must have shown a certain spark, however, because when the Commissioner went back to England, Ford remained, for a short time, as the Agent-Victualler of Lisbon. We’ll never know exactly what Ford experienced in that time, but his journey from the quill-scratching quiet of the Victualling Board’s offices at Somerset House to the light, heat and tumult of the Mediterranean seems to have — like so many Brits in so many novels — changed him.
In 1803, Nelson wrote to London asking for an Agent-Victualler afloat and who he got was Richard Ford. Ford seems to have been in a hurry to get back to the Med, because instead of waiting for a delayed transport to convey him and his new clerk, Ford talked his way aboard first one warship and then another and got to Nelson two months ahead of the transport that was supposed to have delivered him.
Once on station, he got the fleet’s finances straightened out, and put to work getting the fresh food that Nelson urgently wanted for his crews. It wasn’t easy. To obtain cattle in the Maddalena islands, Ford would trek miles inland, negotiating purchases from individual farmers until he had enough. Royal Navy regulations required that Ford bring two officers with him to witness the transactions and to ensure that not a farthing more than necessary had been paid. But doing that would have slowed Ford down, so he dispensed with it.
He made exploratory trips to Morocco and the interior of Spain, Sardinia and Sicily, finding suppliers, farmers, plotting months ahead because this was 1803 and no one was going to be keeping anything in cold storage until they found a buyer. He’d return to the fleet — not an inconsequential rendezvous because the fleet was in constant motion and this was wartime — somehow shepherding the transport of, for example, 30,000 oranges, 20 tons of onions, 200 “pipes” of wine and 50 sheep (sheep being food for unwell sailors).
He was tireless, outperforming his predecessors. After only five months on station, he’d bought 1627 cattle, 70,000 gallons of wine, 30,000 gallons of brandy and 99 cases of lemons, among other vegetables, bread, rice and sugar.
But food wasn’t the only thing on his mind. Much of what he obtained was from Spain, but Spain was only nominally neutral. The reality was that Spain was on track to declaring war on Britain in late 1804. What that meant was that Ford had to deal with constant obstructions from the Spanish authorities, who imposed punishing duties, export restrictions and sometimes just said no.
Ford didn’t let it stop him. Working with British traders in Spain, Ford kept the supply chain moving, lubricating it with bribes. Even that didn’t always get the job done. In a report to the Victualling Board, he put it this way:
The sheep sent by the “Niger” for the use of the sick were obtained without he knowledge of the officers of Customs, who refused my application to ship so large a number in consequence of [an] order from the Spanish government. It was therefore necessary to provide them by other means.
There was more, too. Though it remains undocumented, we can connect the dots to see that Nelson was getting military intelligence out of Spain in the months before the declaration of war. Only one person was moving back and forth between the fleet and the Spanish interior, and he was usually accompanied by a large baggage train of food.
This is the subtext of an appreciative letter to Ford that Nelson penned in 1804 aboard his flagship Victory: “…I have the very great pleasure in acknowledging my full and entire approbation of the whole and every part of your conduct…”
One year and six days after he wrote those words, aboard the same ship, Nelson died a hero in the Battle of Trafalgar. He died knowing that he had won an overwhelming victory, ending the threat of Napoleon invading England. In death, Nelson became immortal in the memory of Britain.
The hero myth is another global system; you find it in every culture and underneath the idiosyncratic details, the bones of the story are always go like this: the hero leaves the safe confines of his society, travels into the unknown, encounters and struggles with the strange, wild and dangerous, and finally returns with a boon that benefits all of society. So, Prometheus returns with fire, Arthur returns with Excalibur, Nelson returns dead and preserved in a cask of brandy, bearing the boon of freedom.
While it’s true that our very species has been shaped by our relationship with fire, and that we are easily the most violent animal on the planet, neither of those two fundamentals could even get out of the gate unless another quest, the first quest, the quest for food, was successful. In myth-of-the-hero-speak, Homo neanderthalensis returns with mammoth steaks. Even today, you can hear echoes of the mythic origin of bringing food in the word “breadwinner.”
But the kind of hero the multiplexes overflow with are heroes whose stock in trade is the boon of violence and, while it’s true that the occasional dragon does need slaying, the notion of the hero who makes instead of breaks is tough to find these days. It wasn’t always so.
Our history books recount the bold spirit of the “pioneers” but what we tend to forget is those pioneers were pioneering so they could farm. Our autumn celebrations — under their pilgrim decor — are celebrations of harvest, of bounty, of food. What they are not is a celebration of those who have brought it forth, and there’s a reason for that.
In 1863, when Lincoln declared the first national Thanksgiving, fully half of the population in America lived on farms. No one needed to be told to pay attention to the fundamentally heroic enterprise of bringing forth sustenance from the earth; it was inescapable. But that’s no longer the case. As of the 2010 census, less than 1% of the population are farmers.
The drive towards “efficiency” has lead to a relentless embrace of mechanization, such that a single farmer, with his hundreds of thousands of dollars of machines he cannot truly afford, can “farm” nearly 1500 acres. It’s a heroic feat of production all right, but it’s come in a way that has hollowed out the communities of the great plains, because there’s simply no work. It’s heroism that could only inspire a corporate “person.”
It’s also a kind of sustenance creation that batters the earth into submission. Well, we’re in the process of discovering that if you treat the partner you depend upon for life as an enemy to be defeated, then eventually that partner becomes an enemy. That’s a real problem when you need the partner but the partner doesn’t need you.
Bringing food is a social act, a welcoming act, a nurturing act and, as Richard Ford reminds us, it can also be a heroic act. He did it all working for a skinflint employer obsessed with proper documentation without the aid of any “mobile device” more sophisticated than a quill pen. He didn’t have air freight, gps, online ordering or a commodity market that could deliver what he needed from the safety of his own agricultural hinterland.
What he had was wits, determination, and the understanding that if he was going to feed more than 10,000 sailors stationed off a hostile shore, he was going to have to do it not by waging war, but by finding ways, however slight, for both sides of the transaction to cooperate. Sometimes that meant bribery. Sometimes it meant turning the other cheek to a rude functionary. Sometimes it meant negotiating a fair price with a poor farmer and treating him with enough respect that when he saw you taking the animals without the permission of the customs officers, he said nothing.
Richard Ford worked in the cold and gloomy rooms of Somerset House for nearly 20 years after he left the Mediterranean. I like to imagine that sometimes, when his sense of duty nodded off for a moment, he would pause his pen, and gaze out the window. What would he have remembered? The light, perhaps? The dust and the feeling of his sunburned cheeks? Maybe the sounds of the cattle and wagons. Maybe it was all that, and something else, too, the sight, coming in view as he crested the last hill, of the brilliant sea, lined with ships, all waiting for him.
Further Reading: For more about the remarkable task of feeding the Royal Navy, the killer source is my source, Janet Macdonald’s Feeding Nelson’s Navy.
HMS Victory Galley by Neil Howard
Nelson’s Columns by James Hill
Letter to Ford by Horatio Nelson
HMS Victory by Chalkie
Somerset House by Jayaprakash R
La Maddalena Islands by The One
Stove of HMS Victory by Damian Enwhistle
Spanish Oranges by Jeremy Keith
Moroccan Cattle by SandyRaidy
Sicilian Sheep by Allie Caulfield