Adventurous Career or Life of Veritable Slavery?

The more one looks the more one finds that a nineteenth century sailor had both a life of opportunity and a life fraught with danger, persecution, discrimination and forced servitude.  It seems it could go either way.  One could rise to the rank of captain and ship owner or sink to that of a slave who would be cast aside to die in the gutter once his body was used up.

If one applied oneself and committed to a mariner's life there would have been tremendous opportunity to not only have a good and profitable career but also be able to see a view of the world that few others would have. 

Young men like Melville, Dana and Conrad would write volumes about their adventures and I am sure many others followed them, dropping out of school and running away to sea.  They would come home after several years full of adventurous stories to tell at the dinner table.  

Above is a link to the Maritime History Archive's Web page 

But what also interest me is the ones who didn't go voluntarily, the ones like the famous policeman in Savannah Georgia who after finishing his day on his beat, stopped into a waterfront bar for a drink and was shanghaied.  He didn't return for two years. 

Or the mere boy who is talked into signing on with tales of adventure and then because of his age would become another statistic in the human trafficking conducted by landsharks.  After repeated blows to the head by bucko mates and after suffering this for years his mind and will would be gone.  He would become a drunk and as soon as the boarding house runners would arrive on his returning ship he would be lured again into a system where he would spend several nights or even weeks in a boarding house.  There he would get himself into such debt to the crimp that all his wages were forfeited and he would be sold to the next available ship.  This would be repeated over and over again for the rest of his life.  His family would hear little or nothing of him.  When he grew too old to be a productive crew member he was cast aside.  If he was lucky he would have been approached by the chaplains of the water front otherwise known as  "Sky Pilots"  who may have been able to provide for him through a sailor's rest home.  The industry it seems did have some conscience.  Or often the gutter would be his last resting place before the morgue.

Legal Servitude

I am now reading a book by Stephen Schwartz called "BROTHERHOOD OF THE SEA: A HISTORY OF THE SAILOR'S UNION OF THE PACIFIC" 

Here is an excerpt from it where he discuses "Legal Servitude" Pages 4 and 5:

"Undoubtedly, the most outrageous aspect of the brutal past oppression for American seamen was the complete lack of any means for redress of grievances.  Basing themselves in traditional maritime custom, as it then existed worldwide, the U.S. shipowners, to emphasize, maintained the seafarer in a state of barely-disguised servitude.  As Paul S Taylor , author of the first major history of the Sailor's Union of the Pacific (published in 1923), wrote, "the revolutions and emancipating decrees of Europe, and the thirteenth amendment in the United States (which abolished Black slavery) passed the sailor by.  The passage of time...not only failed to remove his bondage to the vessel but statutory enactment further stamped his status as peculiar and unfree."8

As long ago as 1790, the new government of the United States legislated the arrest, imprisonment and return to their ship of "deserting' sailors.  The 1872 Shipping Commissioner's Act reinforced this degrading rule.  Taylor states that "in recognition of the peculiar status of seamen, modern maritime nations...regard them as "wards of admiralty" incapable of making a freeman's contract, and deserving special care from their guardian, the state...with the exception of the rate of wages, the life of the sailor from the moment of signing articles to the time of paying off (had) always been denied.  Workmen ashore have long been free to quit work, thereby criminal liability for that would smack of involuntary servitude.  On the other hand, the very word "deserter" applied to the sailor who quits his ship implies a different status."9"

Other good books I have been reading are "Jack in Port" by Judith Fingard and "Sons of the Waves" by Stephen Taylor,  "By Way of Cape Horn" by Paul Eve Stevenson, "Ocean Life in the Old Sailing Ship Days" by Captain John D. Whidden,  "Shanghaied in San Francisco"by Bill Picklehaupt, "The Challenge" by A.B.C. Whipple and by far one of the most inspiring was "Shanghaiing Days" by Richard Dillon where I read excerpts of the "Red Record" of the Coast Seaman's Union of California, recounting various incidents of cruelty by the officers of various sailing ships and steamers. 

And Coming Soon!

The recounts of the Boarding House Runners from the archives of the newspapers of the day.

Click on this button to see the Maritime History Archive's  wonderful presentation and historic photographs of 19th century sailors

Presentation of "Duchy Cape Horn" by H.R. Donaldson

One night in California, in the latter part of the 19th century a group of angry sailors gathered on the wharf and one of them,  a man by the name of Andrew Furuseth went on to become head of the Seamen's Union that finally broke the system of crimping and near slavery that many sailors suffered.  Sadly,  they were not able to accomplish this until 1915.  He was also responsible for the Maguire Act of 1895 and the White act of 1898 that were the first steps in treating the 19th century mariners like human beings.

Below is an enumeration of what this bill accomplished.  I lifted this directly from the great Wikiapedia article about the Seaman's Act of 1915:

    Abolish imprisonment for desertion
    Reduce penalties for disobedience
    Regulate the working hours of seaman, both at sea and in port
    Establish a minimum quality of rations supplied to semen
    Regulate the payment of wages to seamen and establish a harsh penalty of double wages per day for unpaid wages upon a sailor's discharge
    Set safety requirements including provisions of lifeboats
    Require a minimum percentage of seamen aboard a vessel to be qualified seamen
    Require seventy five percent of the crew on board to understand the language spoken by the officers

What would it have been like to be a crewman on the Carrier Dove?

When I read Dana, Melville and Conrad I always enjoy the way they can bring out a sense of adventure and still deliver the message of the tension between the officers and crew. I felt this all too well in my brief four years in the US Navy while serving on a destroyer and ammunition ship. Not long after I left the Navy I read the Sand Pebbles by Richard McKenna and was struck by how I could relate the feeling of my own experiences with Holdman, the protagonist.

     I was compelled to go into military service because of the draft lottery. There were fellows on board my ship who were compelled to go in to the Navy also because of an impending convictions if they didn't. An option was offered to them to let the Navy “straighten them out” and gave them a chance to avoid jail time because of their young age. And of course there were the volunteers. The ones who had dreamed of a career at sea and were going headlong into it.

     But once we were all on board the ship we became a family of sorts and everyone seemed to pull together. Those who just couldn't bring themselves to do this did have a way out and we even had one crewman transfer out by helicopter while miles out at sea. For a nineteenth century merchant ship or Navy ship this would not have been an option. Conformity was enforced with a club and whip if necessary.

     While our wages were guaranteed a nineteenth century sailor was always in danger of loosing his by either crimp or captain. While our safety was constantly being discussed and monitored a nineteenth century sailor had never heard of a life raft or vest or safety harness. His clothes were often inadequate as was his medical care.

     However there was a movement in the nineteenth century shipping industry to care for “worn out” sailors after they were no longer able to serve on board a ship and while I was visiting Snug Harbor on Staten Island I was impressed by the scale of it all. But it was only since reading Dana's “Seaman's Friend” that I discovered that there was a deduction in every sailors pay to provide for this service. I assume there was a good bit of philanthropy provided as well and to be fair to Snug Harbor I am not sure how they were funded. I will have to look into that.

     I watch the videos nowadays on YouTube of the early 20th century sailors describing how they were sent aloft almost immediately when going aboard ship for the first time and wonder what that must have been like to be chased up a hundred foot tall mast by a gruff mate. How did one deal with the fear of heights? How did one deal with no electricity, no heated or air conditioned spaces, having to wear wet clothes and sleep under damp blankets for days on end. And the one thing that most people don't think about is the night. No flashlights/electric torches, no flood lights or spot lights for the navigators. All done by a sense of feel and a knowledge of which line was where and just WHERE one was. A nineteenth century sailor could find the clew of a sail at three AM on the darkest, coldest and windiest of nights by the touch of the fingers of one hand while his other was steadying him at over a hundred feet up on the spars.

     Many sailors after quitting the sea went on to become steeple jacks and bridge and skyscraper construction workers because of their familiarity with heights. It was of course well known that their upper body strength had been well developed and were famous for their over developed arms ie..Popeye!.  I remember reading about the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge and how they were able to draw on the talents of the readily available sailors.

     Even if there were several decades between Dana's experience and his publishing of the Seaman's Friend it is still a great book to read for a description of the Carrier Dove sailor.

Below is  a list of Dana's chapters where he describes the duties and expectations of a ship's sailors starting from the lowest ranking crew member. Below is a brief synopsis:

PAGE 165
Requisites, Wages. Watch. Day's work. Working ship. Helm. Duties aloft and about decks.
“Boy is the term, as I have said before, for all green hands, whatever may be their size or age; and also for boys, who though they have been at sea before, are not large and strong enough for ordinary seamen. It is the common saying, that a boy does not ship to know anything. Accordingly, if any person ships as a boy, and upon boy's wages, no fault can be found with him, though he should not know the name of a rope in the ship, or even the stem from the stern. “ …
“In the ordinary day's work, the boys are taught to draw and knot yarns, make spun yarn, foxes, sennit, &c, and are employed in passing a ball or otherwise assisting the able seamen in their jobs. Slushing masts, sweeping and clearing up decks, holding the log-reel, coiling up rigging, and loosing and furling the light sails, are duties that are invariably put upon the boys or green hands. They stand their watches like the rest, are called with all hands, go aloft to reef and furl, and work whenever and wherever the men do, the only difference being in the kind of work upon which they are put. “...
“They are sent aloft immediately, as soon as they get to sea, to accustom them to the motion of a vessel, and moving about in the rigging and on the yards. Loosing and furling the royals, setting topgallant and studding sails and reeving the gear, and rigging in and out on the booms, and the like, is the knowledge first instilled into beginners.”..."
I am assuming that the above would have included what otherwise be described as "Green Hand" when the new crewman would be the age of an adult?

page 163
Requisites Hand, reef and steer. Loose, furl and set sails. Reeve rigging. Work upon rigging. Watch duty.
An ordinary seaman is one who, for not being of sufficient age and strength, or from want of sufficient experience, is not quite competent to perform all the duties of a an able seaman, and accordingly receives a little less than full wages, and does not contract for the complete qualities of able seaman.”...
“An ordinary seaman is expected to hand, reef, and steer, under common circumstances, (which includes “”boxing the compass;”) to be well acquainted with all the running and standing rigging of a ship; to be able to reeve all the studdingsail gear, and set a topgallant or royal studdingsail out of the top; to loose and furl a royal, and a small topgallant sail or flying jib; and perhaps , also to send down or cross a royal yard.”...
“The duty upon which an ordinary seaman is put, depends a good deal upon whether there are boys or green hands on board or not.”...”Yet the the distinction between ordinary seamen and boys is not very carefully observed in the merchant service, and an ordinary seaman is frequently called upon for boy's duty, though there are boys on and at hand. ...if there are no boys on board then ordinary seaman do boy's duty”...

page 158
Requisites of an able seaman. Hand, reef and steer. Work upon rigging. Sailmaking. Days work. Working ship. Reefing and furling. Watch duty. Coasters and small vessels.
...”The common saying that to hand, reef and steer makes a sailor, is a mistake. It is true that no man is a sailor until he can do these things; yet to ship for an able seaman he must in addition to these be a good at workng upon rigging. The rigging of a ship requires constant mending, covering and working upon in a multitude of ways; and whenever any of the ropes or yards are chafing or wearing...”...
pge 160:
...”but I believe I am safe in saying that no man will pass for an able seaman in a square-rigged vessel, who cannot make a long and short splice in a large rope, fit a block-strap, pass seizings to lower rigging, and make the ordinary knots, in a fair, workman like manner.
Pge 161
“In working ship the able seamen are stationed variously; though, for the most part upon the forecastle at the main tack or fore and main lower and topsail braces; the hands being placed at the cross-jack and for and main topgallant and royal braces. In taking in and making sail and in all things connected with the working of a ship there is no duty which may not be required of a able seaman; yet there are certain things requiring more skill or strength, to which he is always put and others which are as invariably assigned to ordinary seaman and boys.”....

It is interesting to note that Able Seamen were considered not only more capable technically but had to have more physical strength.

page 153

Working ship. Seamans work. Helm. Duty aloft. Work at his trade. Station. Berth and mess. Standing watch

...”The carpenter is not an officer, has no command, and cannot give an order even to the smallest boy; yet he is a privileged person. He lives in the steerage, with the steward, has charge of the ship's chest of tools, and in all things connected with his trade, is under the sole direction of the master. The chief mate has no authority over him, in his trade, unless it be in case of the master's absence or disability. “...

Seaman's work. Work at trade. Duty aloft, Standing watch. Berth and mess Station

“As to the sailmaker's duty on board the same remarks will apply to him as that were to the carpenter. “... Sometimes he stands no watch, and works at his trade all day, and at others he stands his watch, and when on deck in the day time and during good weather, works at his trade and at night or in bad weather does duty with the watch. He usually lives in the steerage with the carpenter and always takes his food from the galley. He has no command and when on deck, belongs on the forecastle with the rest of the crew. “...


Duty in passenger-ships. Care of cabin table , passengers. In other vessels-Master-mate. Aloft. About decks. Working ship
...”The duties of the steward are very different in packet ships, carrying a large number of passengers, from those which are required of him in other vessels. In the New York liner, for instance, he has waiters or under stewards who do most of the labor, he himself having the general superintendence of the department. It is his duty to see that the cabin and staterooms are kept in order; to see to the laying and clearing of the table ; to take care of the dishes, and other funiture belonging to them; to provide the meals, under the master's direction, preparing the nicer dishes himself; to keep the general care of the pantry and stores for the cabin to look after the cook in his department; and lastly wich is a important a part of his duty as any other, to attend to the comfort and convenience of the passengers.”
...”In vessels which are not passenger ships, he does the work which falls to the under stewards of the large packets; cleans the cabin and state rooms, sets, tends and clears away the table , provides everything for the cook, and has charge of the pantry where all the table furniture and the small stores are kept. He is also the body servant of the master. His relation to the chief mate is somewhat doubtful; but the general understanding is that although he waits upon him when at table and must obey him in all matters relating to the ships work, yet he is not in any respect his servant. If the mate wishes any personal service done, he would ask it or make some compensation. In these vessels the steward must come on deck whenever all hands are called, and in working ship, pulls and hauls about decks with the men. The main sheet is called the steward's rope and this he lets go and hauls aft in tacking and wearing. In reefing and furling, he is expected to go upon the lower and topsail yards and especially the mizzen topsail yard of a ship. No seamanship is expected of him and he stands no watch, sleeping in at night and turning out at daylight; yet he must do ship's duty according to his ability when all hands are called for working ship or for taking in or making sail. “....

-Berth. Standing watch. Care of galley and funiture. Working ship. Duty aloft.
“The cook almost always lives in the forecastle, though sometimes in the stearage with the steward. He stands no watch, sleeping in at night, and working at his business throughout the day. He spends his time mostly in the cook house which is called the “galley” where he cooks both for the cabin and forecastle. This with keeping the galley, boilers, pans, kids, & clean and in order occupies him during the day. He is called with all hands and and in tacking and wearing works the fore sheet. He is also expected to pull and haul about decks in all hands work, and is occasionally called from his galley to give a pull at a tackle or halyards. “...

PAGE 146