Middelburgse Commercie Compagnie

Life on Board

Order and discpline ruled the ship. Ranks and responsibilities were set, as well as the daily schedule. The captain was the most important person on board: his wil guided all proceedings. And this was very necessary – it was an absolute necessity in order to be able to send a ship – loaded with hundreds of of people imprisoned against their will – across the oceans.

Ranks on Board

At enrollment the crew of The Unity numbered 37. The following ranks could be found on board:

1. Captain
2. First Mate
3. Second Mate
4. Third Mate
5. Master Surgeon
6. Surgeon’s Mate
7. Master Carpenter
8. Carpenter’s Mate
9. Boatswain
10. Boatswain’s Mate and Sail Maker
11. Master Cooper
12. Cooper’s Mate
13. Cook
14. Corporal
15. – 32.  Sailors
33. – 34 . Sailor’s Mates
35. – 37. Ship’s Boys

The captain was lord and master of his ship. The first four crew members were the first officers. Together, they formed the Ship’s Council, organized by the captain when major decisions needed to be made, or a declaration put together. For those cases which affected all the crew members, the boatswain was also included.

Numbers 7 to 14, from Master Carpenter until Corporal, were the second officers. The sailors formed the next rank, amounting to 16 men in the case of The Unity. They were followed by the sailor’s mates, sailors without any experience. Lowest in rank were the ship’s boys. Together, the sailor’s, sailor’s mates and boys were called the ‘ship’s folk’. The boatswain was the leader of this group.

Ship’s work – the crew’s responsibilities

Life on board the ship was hard and dangerous for the crew. There was always plenty of work on the ship itself, even without trading on land. Always something to repair, or clean; sometimes the sails needed to be unfurled, or put away again, and the watch had to be kept 24 hours a day.

  • The captain was the commander. Normally, the captain would keep the logbook, but not all of the captains’ logbooks have been preserved. In the case of The Unity’s third voyage, the only preserved copy was the first mate’s copy. In the logbook the course and weather were noted, together with any repairs done on board and the trading activities. s) trade book.
  • The first mate held the prime responsibility of navigation. In absence of the captain the first mate was in control. The first mate was also responsible for the cargo and for the stowing of the goods in the hold.
  • The second mate could also steer the ship, and responsible for navigation after the first mate.
  • The third mate was responsible for navigation after the second mate.
  • The second and third mate were in charge of the sails.
  • There was no one on board of The Unity bearing the title ‘constable’. This function was usually carried out by the second or the third mate. The constable (gunman) took care of the canons and the ammunition. The Unity was armed with 10 canons (6 three-pounders and 4 two-pounders) and 6 tail-pieces. When the cannons were not being used, the constable had to make sure the cannons were tied up and would not start rolling in case of stormy weather. He also had to turn the gunpowder and roll the barrels to prevent the gunpowder from clotting together. He was also responsible for the handguns and ammunition on board. The gun chest in the captain’s cabin contained 16 hand guns, 12 pistols, 16 swords and 6 blunderbusses.
  • The surgeon was given the task of medical care on board of the ship. He was assisted by the surgeon’s mate.
  • The master carpenter was the first responsible carpenter. He had to take care of the maintenance of the ship, the boats and the rowboats. He was assisted by the master carpenter’s mate. Together they had to be able to manufacture masts and rigging.
  • The boatswain was a second officer. He kept an eye on the shrouds, especially those of the main mast. The shrouds are the ropes of the ship. The ‘standing shrouds’ are all the fixed ropes which support the masts. The ‘walking shrouds’ are the loose ropes. Lower in rank were the boatswain’s mate and all the sailors. The boatswain’s mate assisted the boatswain. In the case of The Unity he combined this function with that of sail maker. The sail maker had to repair ripped or damaged sails, as well as being capable of making new sails.
  • The head cooper supervised the opening of barrels.
  • He was assisted by the cooper’s mate. The coopers on board of The Unity put together water barrels on the coast of Africa, the materials for which had been taken on board in Europe.
  • There was no one on board of The Unity bearing the title ‘chief steward’. This function could have been taken on by various crew members, such as the second mate, the third mate, the boatswain or the cooper. The chief steward’s main duty was the distribution of food and drinks. He had to supply the cook with the daily food. The chief steward also had to keep the captain informed about the level of supplies.
  • The cook supplied the entire crew with food. He had to cook for both the higher officers and the rest of the crew. It is not entirely clear what part he played in the preparation of food for the enslaved Africans. A separate galley was built for the Africans.
  • The corporal or (weapon)smith had to ensure the smaller hand guns stayed in prime condition.
  • The tasks of the sailors included: keeping the watches and helping the ship stay on course; loading and unloading; the cleaning, tarring and caulking of the ship; the taking down and putting op of the sails. Sailors basically serve as the lower officer’s helpers.
  • The sailor’s mate was a sailor of lower rank, an unpracticed sailor. The sailor’s mates serve as the helpers of the sailors.
  • The lowest rank on board of the ship was that of ship’s boy. Ship’s boys were younger than 17, and did most of the odd jobs around the ship.
  • One or more of the crew members of The Unity will have fulfilled the function of ‘drummer’. The drummer gave signals during the changing of the watch and when a ship or boat left the ship, when they went on land or came back on board from other ships. There were two drums on board of The Unity.

Source: ‘Taken van de opvarenden’ www.vocsite.nl, database VOC-Opvarenden.


Religion played an important role in the MCC: many references to religious habits can be found in a variety of archive documents. Throughout, they show a steadfast dependency of God’s grace and goodness. Ill fortunes on board were usually judged from a christian perspective, and christian values certainly shaped life on board the ship.

Unlike the Dutch East India Company (VOC) and the Dutch West India Company (WIC), the MCC did not specially appoint someone to take responsibility for the crew’s spiritual care. They did however, care for het crew’s spiritual welfare in other ways.

The first article of the instructions to the captain dictate two prayer meetings per day. Blasphemy was not tolerated. The prayer was held in the morning and evening, and was led by the captain. The entire crew had to attend these prayers – whoever was not present, or misbehaved, could be fined. For The Unity, this fine was set at 6 shillings, intended for the ‘sea-going poor’.

The Unity’s ship’s inventory included among the captain’s cabin’s goods a Bible, the book ‘Christian Shipping’ and Psalm books. The book ‘Christian Shipping’ was book of sermons, prayers and psalms aimed at seamen. We know of two books which were known under that title at the time: the already in 1760 outdated ‘The Great Christian Shipping’ or ‘The God-Fearing Seaman or New Christian Shipping’.

The MCC organized prayer meetings, but no funerals. Any funerals, and the accompanying customs – such as firing a canon shot – were paid from the inheritance of the deceased crew member.

Overall, religion defined the moral guidelines on board, and provided a fixed point and framework for the crew in the (often)  unfamiliar environment, far away from home.

Source: Koster, S., ‘God zij geloofd voor de behouden vaart’, De rol van godsdienst aan boord van de slavenschepen van de Middelburgse Commercie Compagnie 1730-1807’ (Leiden/Borssele 2013).

Keeping Watch

Once the crew had come on board in Zeeland, they were assigned to watches. Each watch lasted for four hours, or eight glasses. One ‘glass’ was an hourglass of half on hour. There were five glasses of half an hour and one glass of four hours on board of the Unity.

  • 00:00 – 04:00 o’clock: middle watch
  • 04:00 – 08:00 o’clock: morning watch
  • 08:00 – 12:00 o’clock: forenoon watch
  • 12:00 – 16:00 o’clock: afternoon watch
  • 16:00 – 20:00 o’clock: dog watch
  •  20:00 – 24:00 o’clock: first watch

Altogether there were six watches of four hours each. The dog watch was divided into two watches of two hours, so that everyone had time to eat.


The crew received food twice a day, and mostly drank wine and beer. The sailors ate from containers, while the officers used plates and cutlery in the captain’s cabin.

The steward’s book, containing all the food suplies on board, has not been preserved for this voyage. We do have a few summaries of a variety of goods. One of these lists the following foods taken for the voyage (estimated at 20 months): bread, flower, groats, various kinds of peas, beans, beef, ham, bacon, stockfish, various types of cheese, salt, various kinds of butter, oil, prunes, raisins, sugar, mustard seeds, coffee beans, black pepper, nutmeg, cloves, mace, cinnamon, brandy, gin, red and white wine, vinegar, and various kinds of beer. The menu could be supplemented with fresh fish; the ship’s inventory also included 50 fish hooks.

Some food had already been stocked up for the slaves, prisoners brought on board in West-Africa: 200 bags of groats, at 60 kilos per bag (according to the Middelburg weights), 280 bags of beans, and 2 aumes of ‘old meat for the slaves’.