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A brief history of the naval hammock

PortandTerminal.com, January 21, 2020

Prior to the adoption of the hammock, sleeping onboard a naval ship was a dirty and dangerous affair. Sailors would generally sleep on sacks filled with leaves, piles of straw or in rare cases on a mattress made of horsehair.

Not only did these early sleeping arrangments quickly become dirty, but they were also dangerous as sailors would often be injured or even killed as they fell off their berths or rolled on the filth covered decks on heavy seas. “The tobacco is wet and my bed is a sewer,” a disgruntled sailor once wrote home prior to the introduction of hammocks.

Painting of Christopher Columbus
Christopher Columbus

Christopher Columbus is credited with discovering the hammock when he landed in what is now the Bahamas and saw locals lounging about in netting and started asking questions. He soon learned that the local people had been using hammocks for hundreds of years as a way of elevating themselves while sleeping above snakes, rats, and other vermin.

Drawing of a native person sleeping in a hammock in a tropical setting

Columbus, in the narrative of his first voyage, says: “A great many Indians in canoes came to the ship to-day for the purpose of bartering their cotton, and hamacas, or nets, in which they sleep.” These early hammocks were woven out of tree bark and Columbus took many of them back to Europe where they would be reengineered and made out of cotton.

Around 1590, hammocks were adopted for use in sailing ships; the Royal Navy formally adopted the sling hammock in 1597 when it ordered three hundred bolts of canvas for “hanging cabbons or beddes“.

By the end of the 16th century, the sailors of the Elizabethan Navy were sleeping per decree in “Brazilian beds”. Soon after, the whole of the European fleet was using hammocks and with good reason as we’ll see.

READ: What did the crew eat on a 16th-century Tudor warship?

It’s difficult for us today to imagine what an innovation in comfort the hammock was at the time of its introduction. Hammocks were clean, safe, comfortable and greatly reduced the incidence of seasickness. Many sailors became so accustomed to sleeping on hammocks that they brought them ashore with them on leave.

Since a slung hammock moves in concert with the motion of the vessel, the occupant is not at risk of being thrown onto the deck (which could easily be a fall 5 or 6 feet below) during swells or rough seas. Likewise, a hammock provides more comfortable sleep than a bunk or a berth while at sea since the sleeper always stays well balanced, irrespective of the motion of the vessel.

Old drawing of crewmen asleep in their hammocks above the cannons on a ship
A starboard battery at night, with crewmen asleep in their hammocks above the cannons

Hammocks soon became the most common form of bed for sailors. They could take some getting used to though. “When I attempted to get into bed at night, I got in at one side and fell out on the other; which made all the seamen laugh at me” one sailor is recorded as saying.

Sailors differentiated between hammocks and bedding. Hammocks were the canvas slings that cradled the bedding, which consisted of mattress, sheets, blankets, and pillow. On Royal Navy vessels, sailors could buy bedding for which they paid through deductions in pay. 

Detail from A sailor bringing up his hammock, Pallas,
Gabriel Bray, 1774, National Maritime Museum
Detail from A sailor bringing up his hammock, Pallas,
Gabriel Bray, 1774, National Maritime Museum

Sleeping arrangements were cramped as the diagram below from 1775 shows. According to various accounts, regular sailors were allocated about 14 inches per man for their hammock. There was a numbered pegging system so each man knew where to hang is hammock each night.

Disposition of his Majesty's Ship the Bedfords Lower Deck, artist unknown, circa 1775,
Disposition of his Majesty’s Ship the Bedfords Lower Deck, artist unknown,
circa 1775,* 
National Maritime Museum.

Each morning hammocks would be taken down, sewn up and stowed away topside where they were put in special netting at the side of the ship to act as protection from musket balls under enemy fire.

model of a 19th-century ship shows how the crew's hammocks would be rolled up and placed topside where they would air and could be used as protection from musket fire.
This model of a 19th-century ship shows how the crew’s hammocks would be rolled up and placed topside where they would air and could be used as protection from musket fire.

Hammocks could also serve as life preservers and if a man died at sea, he would be sewn up into his hammock with the last stitch put through his nose before being buried at sea. This was apparently to ensure that the corpse was not actually clinging to life. In theory, the pain of a stitch through the nose would literally wake the dead.

The naval use of hammocks continued into the 20th century through both world wars. In the early 20th century, canvas racks stretched on metal tube frames began to replace hammocks, but hammocks remained in service on many ships until well after WWII. It was in the Vietnam War, aboard the USS Long Beach (CG-9) and USS Sacramento (AOE-1) that the canvas racks gave way to the now-familiar metal frame box we call the “coffin.”

Black and white photo showing scrubbed hammocks aboard the USS KANSAS during a training cruise in 1910
Scrubbed hammocks aboard the USS KANSAS during a training cruise in 1910
Fifth Marine Division enroute to Iwo Jima (1945). While not true hammocks, the soldiers are sleeping in a type of cot that follows the same principles as a hammock
Fifth Marine Division enroute to Iwo Jima (1945). While not true hammocks, the soldiers are sleeping in a type of cot that follows the same principles as a hammock
"Coffin Lockers" on a modern naval ship
“Coffin Lockers” on a modern naval ship

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