Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

No fitful rest for the ordinary sailor

Richard de Grijs
Sydney, Australia

Figure 1: Top: Hammocks strung up in the general crew area of HMB Endeavour. Note the officer’s cot at far right. Bottom left: On the Dutch East India Company’s Duyfken the captain and chief merchant slept on beds in a small cabin at the stern. Bottom right: Marks showing the hammock locations in HMB Endeavour’s berthing area; the coiled-rope ring provides guidance as to how tightly hammocks had to be packed. Photos: Author supplied (Australian National Maritime Museum).

At the Australian National Maritime Museum, our exhibits include two replica ships that played major roles in Australia’s European history. The Dutch East India Company’s Duyfken made the first recorded European landing on Australian soil in 1606. Our second replica vessel is a faithful copy of HMB Endeavour, commanded by James Cook (1728–1779) on his first voyage to the Pacific (1768–1771).

Although these vessels represent distinct periods in the history of maritime exploration, one quickly realizes how cramped the “fo’c’sle”—the forecastle, the crew quarters between decks in the bow, usually on the gun deck—must have been. As a case in point, Admiral Nelson’s (1758–1805) HMS Victory featured a gun deck that measured 56 meters (length) by 15.6 meters (beam; width).1 She was crewed by a complement of 821. There was only enough space for half the crew to sleep at any time.

In the early modern era, sailors slept wherever they found a suitable place on deck, if the weather allowed, or below deck in the bow, on cargo, or—as a last resort—on chests.2 In ancient times, Roman, Greek, or Norse ships did not have interior decks, so sailors would wrap themselves in woollen blankets,3 furs, clothes, or primitive sleeping bags, if possible sheltering from the elements under makeshift tarps.

They would have slept on bare plank decks, sacks filled with fresh leaves, piles of straw, or—if they were lucky—mattresses stuffed with horsehair.4 Sleeping on the bare deck came with considerable drawbacks, however, even in calm weather or in port. Straw bedding attracted fleas, cockroaches, and other disease carriers. In wet weather, any bedding quickly became soaked, which often led to outbreaks of influenza and pneumonia. Conditions deteriorated when beds started to rot, generating foul odors and consequently becoming breeding grounds of germs and infectious diseases.5

On the gun decks, sailors shared their sleeping quarters with the cannons, provisions, chests, and other cargo. On heavy seas, sailors might roll off their boards, graze and injury their bodies on the chests, and hit the feces-soiled, rat-infested decks. Loose cannonballs, guns, barrels, or chests might impact their bodies and cause serious injuries or even death. There was little opportunity to avoid such projectiles since the space between decks was usually no more than four or five feet.6

Christopher Columbus’ (1451–1506) voyage of 1492 led to a breakthrough for ordinary sailors on long-haul voyages. That year on October 17, he noted in his journal on arrival in the New World: “Their beds and covers are like nets made of cotton … The beds on which these people slept were ordinary wicker nets suspended from trees.” He also wrote down “Hamaca” for these “floating beds,” a word taken from “hamaka – stretch of cloth,” in the Taíno-Arawakan language of the Greater Antilles and Haiti.7 This eventually became “hammock” in English.

Columbus, and soon afterwards Amerigo Vespucci (1454?–1512), were sufficiently intrigued by their discovery that they introduced the hammock to the Old World’s gentry.8 Although most European nobles did not appreciate the novelty device, hammocks gained some traction in nautical circles. Nevertheless, it would take another 100 years before they were widely introduced on ships. The Royal Navy officially adopted “Brazilian beds” for regular crew only in 1597, although many sailors had already pre-emptively adopted hammocks for their comfort and health earlier in the sixteenth century.

Hammocks were much more comfortable to sleep in than bare boards or even primitive bunks. They sway with a ship’s motion—and hence reduce sea-sickness—while offering a cocoon-like protective cover, making it almost impossible to fall out. For added stability, many sailors used a spreader—a length of wood with a “V” cut at each end—fastened to their hammock’s second string on each side. Since the first string was much tighter than the others, it raised a protective edge.

On Royal Navy vessels, acquiring bedding—narrow mattresses, sheets, blankets, and pillows—was the responsibility of each sailor individually. Bedding could be bought through the ship’s purser, either directly or through payroll deductions.9 Sheets and pillows were considered a luxury.10 By 1818, US Naval Regulations stipulated that during their first year of service, sailors were issued a 6-foot by 3-foot hammock, one mattress, and two blankets.

Figure 2: Luttrell Psalter, featuring an early hammock at the bottom of the page.

Naval hammocks were usually made from sailcloth, which made them different from Columbus’ floating beds and more like the hanging bed supported by ropes depicted in the Old English Luttrell Psalter (ca. 1320–1340; pictured). As is often the case, the hammock’s Indigenous origins were soon forgotten. When King Henry II of France (reigned 1547–1559) noticed a hammock at a Brazilian court celebration, he exclaimed: “The hammock looks exactly like the one we have on our ships,” according to Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592).11

On warships, the master-at-arms or the first lieutenant assigned sailors a dedicated location to hang their hammock, as determined by the shipboard hierarchy. Sailors slept in long rows, arranged head to toe, with just 14–16 inches of personal space (width)12; petty officers were given 28 inches. Sleeping in hammocks took some getting used to:

We, who weren’t accustomed to the life on board, were a bit uneasy and the first mishap happened when I was attempting to climb into my hammock at night and fell straight out again. Everything has to be learned and I am glad that I wasn’t the first person who had this happen.13 (Paul Roeser, 1878)

Hammocks offered significant advantages over permanent bunks. They could be deployed (“piped down”) and taken down (“piped up”) quickly in confined spaces. When not in use, sailors would roll them up, wrapped tightly around their bedding, and—in fair weather —store them in nets along the gunwale.14 Thus, hammocks often doubled as safety rails along the main deck. Their exposure to air and sunshine helped maintain hygienic practices. In wet weather, they were stored below decks. In case of emergency, suitably packed hammocks could also be used as flotation devices.15

More importantly, their use allowed sailors to sleep away from any debris and vermin on the deck, thus reducing the rate of disease and deaths. For this same reason, pre-Columbian Central and South American inhabitants used their floating beds to stay clear of water, snakes, rats, biting ants, and other nuisances on the jungle floor. Hammocks also provided added protection from transmissible diseases and insect bites, and the canvas tarpaulin could be cleaned easily. However, many sailors continued to practice unhygienic customs by sleeping in wet clothes, likely because of exhaustion at the end of their watch.16

The ship’s master and his senior officers had more private, comfortable, and secure sleeping quarters—a tent pitched near the stern on the aft deck, a deck house, or private bunks and cabins. The captain occupied the largest cabin, which usually contained a bed. However, since normal beds enhance the effects of seasickness, captains sometimes had “gimballed” cot beds installed, which always remained level irrespective of the ship’s motion. Cabins were assigned by rank, initially to the officers, paying passengers, and specialist crew members—the surgeon, carpenter, boatswain, purser, steward, and gunners.17

Ordinary sailors rarely slept in cots or bunks unless they had been transferred to the ship’s sick bay or the brig (in detention). From the late nineteenth century, however, conditions gradually improved for regular sailors, with bare boards evolving into narrow, stacked bunks in a common, large berthing area forward of the main mast. As crew densities declined, bunks eventually replaced hammocks through the twentieth century. In the Royal Navy, the use of hammocks continued well into the 1950s. Many sailors preferred their hammocks; they even strung them up in their bunk area.

Sleeping arrangements for passengers, particularly those in steerage (“economy class”), were not much better than those of the regular crew. For instance, steerage passengers on the Mayflower, which carried the “Pilgrims” from England to Jamestown in the colony of Virginia in 1620, were accommodated in a large berthing area between decks, with only curtains to separate family groups. They may have slept on the bare deck or perhaps in simple bunks. It took until the nineteenth century before steerage passengers were afforded the luxury of berths and even small cabins, although those were apparently very cold so that most slept with their clothes on.

Conditions remained very crowded, however18:

The berths are in two tiers, … They consist of an iron framework containing a mattress, a pillow, or more often a life-preserver as a substitute, and a blanket … The berth, 6 feet long and 2 feet wide and with 2 and a half feet of space above it, is all the space to which the steerage passenger can assert a definite right. To this 30 cubic feet of space he must, in a large measure, confine himself. No space is designated for hand baggage. As practically every traveler has some bag or bundle, this must be kept in the berth. It may not even remain on the floor beneath.19

With overcrowded conditions came the threat of epidemics. Despite pre-boarding health checks, passengers infected with an array of contagious diseases routinely managed to embark, in turn infecting the weakest of their fellow passengers first—infants and young children. Although regular disinfection campaigns of passenger berths were undertaken with vinegar and chloride of lime (bleaching powder), lice, cockroaches, fleas, and rats often survived in cracks in the bunks or in the passengers’ bedding.20

Among the most serious health concerns were tuberculosis infections. Even today, overseas travelers arriving in Australia must disclose their tuberculosis history, which remains a threat to the broader population.


  1. Harrison, C. “British First Rate ship of the line ‘Victory’ (1765).” Three Decks – Warships in the Age of Sail (2010–2024). https://threedecks.org/index.php?display_type=show_ship&id=17.
  2. Garstin, C. (ed.). Samuel Kelly: An Eighteenth Century Seaman, Whose Days Have Been Few and Evil. (New York, NY: Frederick A. Stokes Co., 1925), 19; Spavens, W., and Rodger, N.A.M. (ed.). Memoirs of a Seafaring Life: The Narrative of William Spavens. (Bath, UK: The Bath Press, 2000), 76.
  3. Henriksen, L.K. “Holumenn.” Vikingeskibsmuseet, Roskilde (n.d.); https://www.vikingeskibsmuseet.dk/en/professions/education/knowledge-of-sailing/the-ships-crew/crewmembers-in-the-viking-age/holumenn.
  4. Museums Victoria. “Journeys to Australia.” Immigration Museum (2024); https://museumsvictoria.com.au/immigrationmuseum/resources/journeys-to-australia/.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Thomson, K.S. “H.M.S. Beagle, 1820–1870.” American Scientist, 63 (1975): 664–672; Glover, L., and Smith, D.B. The Shipwreck that Saved Jamestown: The Sea Venture Castaways and the Fate of America. (New York, NY: Henry Holt & Co., 2008), 81.
  7. Aĭkhenvald, A. Languages of the Amazon. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 64.
  8. “History of Hammocks.” Abhaengen (n.d.). https://www.abhaengen.com/en/history-of-hammocks; Sellmagical. “Why did sailors sleep in hammocks on their ships for many centuries, and not on ordinary beds, as in our time?” Medium (February 13, 2022). https://medium.com/@sellmagical/why-did-sailors-sleep-in-hammocks-on-their-ships-for-many-centuries-and-not-on-ordinary-beds-as-38d5f0c0c298.
  9. Dalton, K. “Hammocks, Bedding, and Where they Slept.” British Tars, 1740–1790 (January 22, 2018). https://www.britishtars.com/2018/01/hammocks-bedding-and-where-they-slept.html; Williams, J. “A Sailor’s Life in Lord Nelson’s Navy.” War History Online (May 11, 2019). https://www.warhistoryonline.com/instant-articles/sailors-life-in-lord-nelsons-navy.html.
  10. Whidden, J.D. Ocean Life in the Old Sailing Ship Days. (Boston, MA: Little, Brown, & Co., 1908), 8.
  11. Abhaengen, Op. cit.
  12. Taylor, N.A.M. The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain, 1649–1815. (London: Penguin UK, 2006).
  13. Abhaengen, Op. cit.
  14. Fox, E. The Adventures of Ebenezer Fox in the Revolutionary War. (Boston, MA: Charles Fox, 1847), 89.
  15. Daily Telegraph. “Chief Petty Officer Victor Merry, Boy Seaman in battleships and destroyers in the Second World War.” Obituaries (November 9, 2018). https://www.telegraph.co.uk/obituaries/2018/11/09/chief-petty-officer-victor-merry-boy-seaman-battleships-destroyers/; Abhaengen, Op. cit.
  16. Little, B. The Sea Rover’s Practice: Pirate Tactics and Techniques, 1630–1730. (Sterling, VA: Potomac Books, 2007).
  17. Thomson (1975), Op. cit.
  18. Glover and Smith (2008), Op. cit., 81.
  19. Callan, L. Philippine Duchesne: Frontier Missionary of the Sacred Heart. (Westminster, MD: Newman, 1957), 224.
  20. Museums Victoria (2024), Op. cit.

RICHARD DE GRIJS, PhD, is a professor of astrophysics and an award-winning historian of science at Macquarie University (Sydney, Australia). With a keen interest in the history of maritime navigation, Richard is a volunteer guide on Captain Cook’s (replica) H.M. Bark Endeavour at the Australian National Maritime Museum. He also regularly sails on the Museum’s replica Dutch East Indiaman, Duyfken.

Spring 2024



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