Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

“Filth so foul and stench so offensive as not to be imagined”

Richard de Grijs
Sydney, Australia

Figure 1. Two British Marines on H.M.S. Pallas’s Gangway, Jany 75, where one may be looking for lice. Gabriel Bray, 1775. National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, with financial support from the Society for Nautical Research Macpherson Fund; ID: PAJ2006.

… during the voyage there is on board these ships terrible misery, stench, fumes, horror, vomiting, many kinds of sea-sickness, fever, dysentery, headache, heat, constipation, boils, scurvy, cancer, mouth-rot, and the like, all of which come from old and sharply salted food and meat, also from very bad and foul water, so that many die miserably.1

Today, references to the Golden Age of Sail often provoke a sense of nostalgia. However, shipboard life on the era’s long-haul oceanic voyages was anything but romantic.

Crews’ berths were usually located in their ship’s forecastle, where health and sanitary conditions gradually deteriorated. Even on “first-class” ships, sailors’ chests were often “black from the gas which rises from the cargo, and which smells like sewage …”2 Worse still, Captain Henry Toynbee (1819–1909) reported having served on a ship that “was carrying two packs of foxhounds and three horses, which received half [their] ventilation by a hatch which opened into the sailors’ forecastle.”3 Dark, often damp,4 and always cramped, sickening smells became increasingly dominant:

the ’tween deck was crammed, with casks, and cases, and chests, and bags, and hammocks … the stench of bilge-water, combining with the smoke of tobacco, the effluvia [rancid smells] of gin and beer, the frying of beef-steaks and onions, and red herrings … A single candle served to make darkness visible, and the stench had nearly overpowered me.5

Below deck, rats, rotting food, foul bilge water, wet canvas, the ship’s decaying wooden structure, and a general lack of ventilation added to the smells of pine tar, pitch, turpentine, and the more unpleasant odors associated with human necessities—and even with the storage of dead bodies—to produce a “stench so offensive as not to be imagined,”6 even by contemporary standards.

Ventilation was a particular problem in the tight crew quarters. On Royal Navy vessels, the lower decks were regularly ventilated, or at least fumigated by burning brimstone (sulfur). Although ratings (non-commissioned sailors) slept on the gun decks, where gun ports could be opened, the atmosphere on the orlop (lowest) deck and in the hold was often heavy with noxious fumes and stagnant air. Moreover, the lower decks were periodically scrubbed with vinegar,7 thus adding to the nauseatingly unpleasant blend of odors.

On French ships, ventilation was a rarity, however. Combined with the French habit of storing the deceased in the ship’s ballast to eventually provide them with a proper Catholic burial upon their return to home shores, noxious, mildewed smells rapidly became overwhelming:

It is impossible to remain many minutes among the hammocks without experiencing a sensation of suffocation and nausea; indeed it is only necessary to lean over the main-hatch … to recognize the heavy mawkish [faint sickly] odor that arises and betokens the over-crowding of human beings.8

Such conditions, worsened by incessant leakage and continuously wet hammocks, exacerbated the onset of scurvy,9 since higher doses of vitamin C are required in damp and cold environments.10 After several months without fresh fruit or vegetables, sailors’ gums would become swollen and putrid, soon progressing to a state where many would cut away large chunks of flesh from their own numb mouths. Eventually, as the men’s energy flagged and they became increasingly lethargic, black ulcers developed and their bodies started to decompose.

The smell of rotting flesh became a common occurrence.11 Lacking modern medical insights, many sailors feared that their scurvy-ridden bodies had been infested by the “malodorous” vapors of the oceans. The cure, they thought, could be found in the smell of earth, by their mere presence on dry land, or even by washing their mouths with their own urine—as the Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama (1469–1524) had suggested.

By the eighteenth century it was widely accepted that “miasmas”—foul odors, allegedly also including salty seaside mists—spread illness and disease.12 Doctors’ orders to avoid cesspools, animal carcasses, and garbage piles were followed religiously until germ theory had taken center stage by the late nineteenth century.

Odors were not to blame for the rampant spread of disease, of course. Poor hygiene was: “… the lice abound so frightfully, especially on sick people, that they can be scraped off the body.”13 Infestations of fleas, ticks, lice, cockroaches, spiders, worms, and “vermin of all kinds”14 hiding in cracks and crevices—particularly in the moist bandages of the unfortunate souls recovering in sick bay—were the norm rather than the exception. Cockroaches, in particular, spread viral, bacterial, and fungal diseases.

Cockroach infestations were common. As a case in point, the US naval officer and author Daniel Ammen (1820–1898) explained:

There was one condition … that was disagreeable in the extreme, … cockroaches; everywhere below decks it was ever present and repulsive. As soon as the hammocks were hung up, these pests would sally forth from their hiding places and fly around, chasing one another in joyful glee.15

The continuously moist conditions below deck literally bred diseases such as “ship’s fever” (typhus) and typhoid, later followed by the new diseases of exploration, including yellow fever and syphilis. As voyages progressed, many sailors gradually abandoned most norms of common decency, often relieving themselves into the ship’s bilge, next to or under the guns, or even in the general hold.16

On merchant vessels, sailors often mustered with just the clothes on their backs. If they got around to doing their laundry at all, they used buckets of seawater—after first bleaching their clothing in urine, which was stored in large barrels specifically for that purpose.17 It is therefore not surprising that reports abound of European merchant vessels that were “mighty foul and stink withal; the most men not troubling themselves to go on deck for their necessities,”18 often until the day before arrival and quarantine, when all hands were told to “scrub up” and present themselves for government inspection.19

Figure 2. Stowage of the British slave ship Brookes under Great Britain’s Regulated Slave Trade Act of 1788. Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division; digital ID: cph.3a34658.

Yet the conditions on merchant and naval ships were worlds apart from those prevailing on slave ships and prison hulks. Writing about his incarceration on the Jersey prison hulk in 1782, Captain Thomas Dring (1758–1825) characterized it as “far more foul and loathsome than anything which I had ever met with on board [a] ship, and [which] produced a sensation of nausea far beyond my powers of description.”20 It was the stench of human excrement, “at times almost beyond endurance,” that gave these ships away: “You could smell [them] five miles down wind.”21

As such vessels approached, the foul conditions and terrible stench clearly marked them out as slave ships. In 1788, the appalling conditions on slavers en route to or from West Africa and the Caribbean prompted the Plymouth Chapter of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade to publish what has become an iconic image of slavery, the Brookes slave ship. It became the symbol of one of the first successful humanitarian campaigns of modern times. In 1806, the Royal Navy finally introduced regulations to prevent illness and infection from spreading:

As cleanliness, dryness, and good air are essentially necessary to health, the Captain is to exert his utmost endeavors to obtain them for the ship’s company in as great a degree as possible. He is to give directions … that the lower decks are washed as often as the weather will admit of their being properly dried … and the ports are to be opened whenever the weather will admit of it, and … as few interruptions as possible may be opposed to a free circulation of air. The ventilators are to be continually worked and the hold and store rooms ventilated by windsails [canvas funnels aiding the circulation of air]. The ship is always to be pumped dry, the pump well frequently swabbed and a fire, with proper precautions, let down to dry it. If the weather should prevent the lower deck ports from being opened for any considerable time, fires are to be made in the stoves supplied for that purpose and the lower decks may be scrubbed with dry sand.22

In fairness, since the mid-1700s, the Royal Navy had mandated regular swabbing of the decks. The suggestion had originally come from the medical profession rather than from the Admiralty, but keeping ships clean to keep disease at bay seemed like a good idea nevertheless. And indeed, daily airing and scrubbing (“flogging”) of the decks demonstrably led to healthier crews and reduced the spread of infectious diseases. The British Navy’s approach was so successful that other professional navies soon followed suit.

And although it took until late in the nineteenth century before the causes of infectious diseases were properly understood, common practices like dousing foul-smelling bilge water with chloride of lime (calcium hypochlorite), in essence bleach in powder form, reduced the rancid smells, killed most mosquito larvae, and eliminated various microbes.23 As a result, intermittent fever vectors were kept at arm’s length and instances of mal aria (poor air quality) were reduced—all by chance but, fortuitously, to good effect.


  1. Mittelberger, G and Eben, CT (transl.), 1898. Gottlieb Mittelberger’s Journey to Pennsylvania in the Year 1750 and Return to Germany in the Year 1754. Philadelphia, J. J. McVey. 20.
  2. Whymper, F, 2022. The Sea. Its stirring story of adventure, peril, and heroism. London, Cassell, Petter and Galpin. Chapter VII. https://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/39341/pg39341-images.html.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Lind, J, 1757. A Treatise on the Scurvy: In Three Parts, Containing an Inquiry Into the Nature, Causes, and Cure, of that Disease. London, A. Millar. 69–70.
  5. Marryat, F, 1829. Frank Mildmay, or, The Naval Officer. New York, Wallis and Newell. Chapter 2. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/21554/21554-h/21554-h.htm.
  6. Ward, WEF, 1969. The Royal Navy and the Slavers: The suppression of the Atlantic slave trade. New York, Schocken Books. 88.
  7. Volo, DD, and Volo, JM, 2002. Daily Life in the Age of Sail. Westport CT, Greenwood Publishing Group. 119.
  8. Gihon, AL, 1871. Practical Suggestions in Naval Hygiene. Washington DC, US Government Printing Office. 94.
  9. de Grijs, R, 2021. Plague of the Sea, and the Spoyle of Mariners” – A brief history of fermented cabbage as antiscorbutic. Hektoen International. https://hekint.org/2021/06/17/plague-of-the-sea-and-the-spoyle-of-mariners-a-brief-history-of-fermented-cabbage-as-antiscorbutic/.
  10. Brown, SR, 2003. Scurvy: How a Surgeon, a Mariner, and a Gentleman Solved the Greatest Medical Mystery of the Age of Sail. Cheltenham, The History Press. 43.
  11. Pimentel, L, 2003. Scurvy: Historical Review and Current Diagnostic Approach. Amer. J. Emergency Medicine, 21, 328–332.
  12. Corbin, A, 1982. The Foul and the Fragrant: Odor and the French Social Imagination. Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press.
  13. Mittelberger and Eben, 1898. Op. cit.
  14. Whitall, J, 1785, Journal. 19–20.
  15. Ammen, D, 1891. The Old Navy and the New. Philadelphia, J. B. Lippincott. 35.
  16. Brown, K, 2011. Poxed and scurvied: the story of sickness and health at sea. Barnsley, Seaforth. 130.
  17. Stark, SJ, 2017. Female Tars. Women Aboard Ship in the Age of Sail. Annapolis MD, Naval Institute Press. Chapter 1.
  18. Pyrard de Laval, P, 1610. Cited by Giraldez, A., 2015. The Age of Trade: The Manila Galleons and the Dawn of the Global Economy. Lanham MD, Rowman and Littlefield. 121.
  19. De Vere, SE, 1847. Evidence before the Select Committee of the House of Lords on Colonisation from Ireland. 458.
  20. Greene, A, 1961. Recollections of the Jersey Prison Ship from the Manuscript of Capt. Thomas Dring. New York, Corinth Books. 12.
  21. Mannix, DP, 1962. Black Cargoes: A History of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1518–1865. New York, Viking Press. 113.
  22. Great Britain, Royal Navy, 1806. Regulations and Instructions Relating to His Majesty’s Service at Sea, 8th edition. In: Lavery, B. (ed.), 1998. Shipboard Life and Organization, 1731–1815. Publications of the Naval Record Society, 138. Aldershot, Ashgate Publishing Ltd. 53–54.
  23. Druett, J, 2000. Rough Medicine: Surgeons at Sea in the Age of Sail. New York, Routledge.

RICHARD DE GRIJS, PhD, is a professor of astrophysics at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. He has a keen interest in the history of science and navigation. Richard is also a volunteer guide on Captain Cook’s H.M. Bark Endeavour replica at the Australian National Maritime Museum, where he additionally consults on matters related to the “longitude problem.”

Fall 2023



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