What is a “Tarpaulin” Sailor?

“In the early 16th century, the modern navies acquired officers from the ranks of enlisted sailors, who had worked their way up to command.

These officers are known as “tarpaulin” sailors. They were from very modest families, but were highly experienced with ship handling and naval warfare.

The respective navies of the world powers grew in size and importance as colonial interests expanded all over the world. With the naval growth in the 16th century, the nobility and gentry felt compelled to increase their presence in the officer corps.

Due to distrust and the perceived equalization of the social classes, they disliked the “lower sort of men” in charge of the maritime force.” (Lehner, 2008, p.10).


Lehner, W.D. (2008) An Analysis of Naval Officer Accession Programs. Master’s Thesis. Monterey, California: Naval Postgraduate School.


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