Ah, the hammock. The lazy summer day lounger that swings in that light if sweltering breeze on the porch, deck or between two sturdy trees in the backyard. Storied hammock enthusiasts include artists like Gauguin, writers like Hemmingway, swashbucklers like Errol Flynn and pirates; Jean Laffite allegedly had a red hammock suspended on the deep porch of his Grande Terre home where he would lie of an afternoon strumming his guitar.
It all sounds very idyllic until you run into the utilitarian thoughts of hammocks at sea. The picture above, via the Life Magazine online archive, gives a standard portrait of what most people imagine to be the sleeping accommodations aboard ship for hundreds if not thousands of years. In this, most people are correct. But some distinctions should be made.
The original seagoing hammock was an invention of the Greeks. Made of netting of natural fibers, usually hemp, the seabed was slung very much like the ones we are accustomed to today with a blanket placed inside for the sailor to rest on. When Columbus "discovered" the New World he also rediscovered the hammock and gave the handy device it's current name. The Carib Natives slept in slings of cotton or palm fiber that kept them up off the buggy ground and made all the available breezes accessible during sleep. They called their beds hamacs, and so our word hammock was born.
The traditional hammock is a piece of canvas six feet long by four feet wide. Note the length in particular; if our ancestors were height challenged, why waste precious below deck space on a six foot hammock? The two ends gather up via the use of clews from which they can be suspended under the deck. Most ships of brigantine size or larger had space known as a berthing deck where the sailors slung their hammocks. In men-of-war the allowance between hammocks was from fourteen to twenty inches. Hammocks were hung in a regimented order that resembled the positions Marines and sailors would take during inspection. Aboard a pirate or privateer, the slinging of hammocks was more about seniority then duty. The guy who had been with the ship the longest got that breezy berth under the hatchway. The boys got the ones under the head.
Hammocks, of course, had to be stowed when not in use. Particularly on smaller ships where space was at a premium, this was the first duty of a sailor upon waking. During battle, hammocks would be rolled, netted, covered with hammock cloths to keep them from getting wet and stowed under the railings as a barricade against pistol and musket fire.
A second, more elaborate kind of hammock was also available. This was less flexible and not as easily stowed, but more comfortable:
As we see hear in a screen grab from the movie Master and Commander (via this delightful website, The Dear Surprise, which I cannot recommend enough), the second model of hammock had a kind of backboard and pillow arrangement that made sitting up comfortably possible. These hammocks were frequently used in sick berths (as shown here, with Mr. Blakney recovering from the surgical removal of his arm) and by officers in sloops and schooners.
A third hanging seabed is rarely discussed and little known, although it was used routinely throughout the great age of sail. This is the cot. Exclusive to officers and in some ships passengers, the cot was a wooden bed frame suspended from the deck above by ropes at its four corners. The usual dimensions were six feet long, one foot deep and three feet wide. If cabins were not available, a cot could be encased on all four sides in curtains of canvas with a flap on one side for access so that the cot resembled a chest. By the 18th century, cots could be custom made for captains who chose to bring their wives, or other ladies of their acquaintance, along on cruises.
Of course, whether tattered hammock or cot made to order, sleeping aboard ship was not a night at the Hilton. Most sailors got no more than four hours at a stretch in their berth and officers during battle or a long chase would see even less than that. I sometimes wonder how men could sleep packed in half an inch apart below decks in the sultry tropics. The answer is probably simple. Either they didn't, or they were so bone tired that they would have slept through anything. With luck, their hammock was relatively comfortable.