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The Rights and Wrongs of Seamen
Charles Nordhoff
Harper's new monthly magazine

THE mate of an English ship wrote to his sweetheart:

“DEAR LIZZY,—We sail to-night, and I wish she was going without me, for I don’t like the look of her, she is so deep in the water; but I won’t show the white feather to any one. If she can carry a captain, she can carry a mate too. But it’s a great pity that the Board of Trade doesn't appoint some universal load water-mark, and surveyors to see that ships are not sent to sea to become coffins for their crews. But don’t torment yourself about me. I dare say I shall get through it as well as any body else. Hoping you may continue well,

“I remain, yours fondly,

This pretty little note is printed in an English official report, with the simple words added, “The ship went to the bottom.” Poor “Lizzie!” no doubt her little heart ached as she waited for news of “Tom;“ but the insurance companies paid for the ship and cargo, and the owners probably made a good adventure out of it.

Do men consciously send ships to sea knowing them to be unseaworthy? A Liverpool underwriter recently stated before an official committee that certain vessels were so bad that the companies there refused to insure them. “They are a sort of black sheep,” he said; and in eleven years there was on the underwriters’ list in Liverpool alone a considerable flock of these black sheep, no less than 225; of these thirteen were wrecked during that period, eleven were abandoned at sea, three foundered, and six were condemned, and mostly, we read, “sold to foreign owners,” to begin a new career under some other flag, and drown other poor Toms. There appears to be even a regularly organized business in sending to sea unseaworthy ships. There was cited before an English investigating committee, in 1873, a Mr. Fernie, the leading partner in a Liverpool company, which "owns ships and sails them," and which, it appeared, had lost the following ships in about ten years:

“1863.—John Linn, wooden sailing vessel, abandoned at sea, coming home from Bombay. No lives lost.
“1863.—General Simpson, wooden sailing vessel, lost at the Laccadive Islands, coming home from Bombay. Eight lives lost.
“1863.—Dawn of Hope, wooden sailing vessel, started from Bombay, and was never heard of. All hands (twenty-eight) lost.
"1864.—Royal Victoria, new iron ship, foundered off the Scotch coast on her way to Calcutta. Fourteen lives lost.
“1866.—Royal Albert, iron ship, homeward-bound from Calcutta, lost off Cornwall. All hands drowned.
“1866.—Uncas, wooden ship, run down in the Channel. No lives lost.
“1868.— Viceroy, wooden ship, from Liverpool to San Francisco; cargo, coals. Lost through spontaneous combustion. No lives lost.
“1865.—Malvern, wooden ship; cargo, coals. Lost through spontaneous combustion.
“1869.—Great Northern, wooden ship, lost off Bombay. Sixteen hands lost.
"1869.—Windsor Castle (formerly Emilie St. Pierre), wooden ship, lost off the coast of France; cargo, coals. All hands save one perished (twenty-one). Mr. Fernie never saw the survivor. He was told the vessel heeled over.
“1869.—Golden Fleece, steamer, made water and sank off Barry Island. There were two trials, and in both the jury found for the underwriters against Mr. Fernie, on the ground that the vessel was unseaworthy. One life lost.
“1870.—Woburn Abbey (formerly Bellwood), run ashore off Pernambuco. No lives lost.
“1871.—Denmark (formerly Greek Republic), wooden ship, lost in ballast coming from Rio to St. John. She made water and was abandoned. No lives lost. Cargo of coals insured.—Mr. Cohen. ‘Was she not well known to be a very rotten ship ?‘—Witness. ‘With all ships fifteen years old you would not find every timber sound in them. I have every assurance that the vessel was perfectly fitted for the work she undertook.’ Captain Edgell, one of the commissioners, read a report he made on the vessel in 1810, showing that she was then in very bad condition. ‘She was trussed with transverse bars of iron screwed up amidships, like an old barn or church, before she started on this last voyage —that is to say, that the whole of the fastenings at the beam ends and knees were so rotten that there was no junction on the sides of the ship, and the only way of fastening the ship together was to introduce these enormous amounts of iron.’ Mr. Fernie at first said she was surveyed by an American surveyor, whose name he did not know, but afterward stated that the only surveyor was Captain Rudolf, one of his own partners. The Denmark was purchased for £3500, or about one pound a ton.
“1871.—Royal Arthur, iron vessel, homeward-bound from Victoria, lost near Waterford. No lives lost. Mr. Fernie blamed the captain for mismanagement.
“1812.—Royal Adelaide, iron vessel, outward-bound for Sydney, lost near Portland. Seven lives lost. Mr. Fernie blamed the captain for carelessness.
“1872.—Florine, foundered off Bourbon. All on board drowned.
“1812.—Great Australia, from Rangoon, got ashore and was lost. No lives lost.
“1812.—Henry Fernie, sprung leak coming from Rangoon, and sailors refused to come home in her. Vessel sold at St. Helena.
“1813.—Dunkeld, from Calcutta to Havre. Lost on the Sand Heads.”

Mr. Fernie ought to have said that his company “owned coffins and sailed them.” That is the plain English of it.

When a ship is too old and unseaworthy to be insured, when she enters the decrepit flock of “black sheep,” she may still be a source of profit. The underwriters will not insure her hull; but they will insure the cargo, as though the safety of cargo did not depend on the stanchness of the ship. If no one would insure the cargo, then the ship's occupation would be gone, and she would have to be “sold to a foreign country,” to become some one else’s coffin.

According to an author, the title of whose book is given below,* “thirty years ago ninety thousand seamen were sufficient for the demands of American commerce; now it requires five hundred thousand. In the British and American merchant marine there are employed more than a million men, and at least three millions find employment on the sea in different parts of the world. There are nearly thirty thousand vessels of all kinds under the American flag, with an aggregate capacity of over four million tons.” He adds that sailors are shown by mortality tables to be the most short-lived of all men, averaging only twelve years of sea-service to each man.

That the rapid growth of maritime commerce has very far outstripped the capacity of old laws and safeguards is certain; and most of the abuses of the sea, the sailing of unseaworthy ships, the incompetency of seamen and the cruelty of masters, the loss of life and property, and the suffering of individuals, arise out of the fact that the business has grown beyond the control of those who used to guard it against abuses—who are the underwriters and the governments— just as when a city or town grows too rapidly, its drainage and water supply do not keep pace with its population, and then we hear of typhus, dysentery, and malarious fevers, and presently cholera.

In the old times a ship-owner was almost always a merchant of means and character, who felt his responsibility, who selected his master and mates from men he knew (his own neighbors and friends, most likely), and who had a personal and kindly interest in the crew, whom he expected to welcome home from a two or three years’ voyage without change. His own means were largely invested in the cargo, his own character suffered if the ship was lost, and every precaution was taken that the voyage should be successful. There are still many such ship-owners, careful and conscientious men, just as even in the best of the old times there were men who owned coffins and sailed them. But a change has come over the sea, as upon the land, and nowadays men buy ships as they get real estate, or set up a bank, or marry a wife even, on speculation, with no further interest or aim in the venture than simply to make as much money as they can in the quickest possible time, and to run the greatest risks of loss to others compatible with a very great profit to themselves.

Could it be supposed that any sane man would pay money for a ship declared unseaworthy by competent surveyors, and put on the black list by underwriters? But a great many men, who think themselves very sane indeed, will bid for her, and buy her too, if she goes cheap enough. In the old slave-trading times the wretches who engaged in that business, and who could succeed in it only by outwitting or outrunning the cruisers on the watch for them, used to make a deliberate calculation that if they could land on the Cuban coast, say, one cargo out of three, and lose all their vessels, they still made handsome fortunes, so great were the profits of a slave cargo. Therefore, if the first and second ship had been captured, the captain of the third did not hesitate a moment to run the third high and dry on shore, if only he could thereby gain time over his pursuers to land the survivors of those who had made the middle passage. When a man buys a condemned ship at one pound sterling or five dollars a ton, he also has made a calculation of chances. If he has three such, and if he has the luck to lose only two, with or without their crews, the first year, he will probably make money—that is to say, without insurance he may reap a large return on his investment.

But how can he get freights’? Of course he can afford to carry cheaper than the owners of stanch and sea-worthy ships, and the lowest rate carries the day. The owner of the cargo asks but one question, Can I insure? And if his cargo is insured, it matters not to him whether the ship is or not. So between careless shippers and careless underwriters, and heedless seamen and ambitious captains, this coffin has really a better chance of making money for her owner than a thoroughly sea-worthy ship.

And now, this coffin being loaded and ready for sea, her crew come on board.

I believe it may be stated as a rule, not without exceptions, however—of which I shall speak later—that when a crew has been starved, beaten, or otherwise wronged, it is in a ship of the kind I have been considering, a “black sheep.” Naturally, where a man owns a fine stanch ship, he takes some pride in her. He provides her with first-rate officers, he takes some interest in the crew, he expects his ship to earn money for him not for one year, but for a dozen, and therefore she is found and fitted for a long life. But a ship speculator must make his money quickly. His old hulk, therefore, is skimped in every way. He hires a cheap captain and cheap officers; he puts on board poor and insufficient supplies; and as he knows the law and keeps carefully out of reach of it, and as he has studied his venture and means to make money at every possible turn in it, he instructs the captain that if wages are much lower at his nearest port, he had better drive his sailors ashore and ship a cheaper crew.

Suppose a ship carries twenty men at thirty dollars a month. Suppose at her first foreign port sailors are glad to ship for fifteen dollars a month. Suppose the voyage to last six months, and the outward trip to last a month. If he can get rid of his first crew and ship a cheaper at the first port, he will make fifteen hundred dollars. Of course, under ordinary circumstances, the first crew would not leave. They have shipped for the voyage; they expect to stay. If the captain discharges them regularly, he must pay in before the United States consul three months’ wages for each man; and that the owner of the coffin knows very well would not pay.

What then? If, in such a case, the captain of the coffin is a brute, zealous to please his master; if he is a brute such as was a certain “Bully” who used to leave his ship in the pilot-boat, get landed at Sandy Hook, and skulk in out-of-the-way places for fear of the police until his ship was ready for sea again—in that case his course is very simple. From the day the coffin leaves home until she reaches her first port her "Bully" captain beats and starves and maltreats his crew. Mostly it is not for his own pleasure he does this. It is not very amusing to beat men over the heads with belaying-pins or across the shins with handspikes. Followed day after day, it may become monotonous even to the worst of Bullies. But it is his business. It is one of the duties for which he shipped. Skimp, the owner of the coffin, wants to “make his little fifteen hundred dollars," and there is, unluckily, no other way to make that fifteen hundred dollars. “If any of your men should desert,” Skimp said to Bully, as they shook hands on the wharf “you will easily hire men in their places, and at lower wages, where you are going.” And as Bully nods, Skimp adds, “You may even find men willing to work their way home for nothing.” What a pleasant reflection!

Bully gets a hundred dollars a month. It is almost without exception a cheap captain who abuses his crew; and this because if he were a competent man he would not need to do it. A ship-captain who is a thorough seaman, master of his profession, capable and worthy to command a good ship, may be, and often is, rigid, exacting, a martinet; he may carry on sail heavily; he may require the utmost seamanship from every body on board; he may have a passion to keep his ship neat; but he will hardly ever abuse his crew; and the seamen quickly recognize the character and peculiarities of such a man, and often like him none the less that he is somewhat authoritative and exacting, because they know that if he makes his own rights respected, he respects also theirs.

But Bully, cheap Bully, having taken his cue from Skimp, sets out on his voyage with a declaration of war against his crew. He tells them that he is going to make the coffin a hell for them, he seeks an occasion for a quarrel, he earns his cheap pay, and pleases Skimp.

Do you think this a fancy sketch? Here is a plain unvarnished tale from the book we have under consideration, the experience of no less a person than a United States consul: “On my voyage from Boston to the East Indies in 1869 I took passage in an American bark, commanded by one of the most corrupt men I ever knew. He was a coarse, brawling, lying, swearing, drinking creature. During the seasickness of my family, amidst the raging of the storm, we could hear his harsh voice all about the decks, ‘breathing out threatenings and slaughter,’ uttering the most blasphemous oaths, and calling the seamen the vilest of names. As my wife and little son were on board with me, I took frequent occasion to rebuke this foul-mouthed person for his conduct. I informed him that we were not used to hearing such language; that it was improper at all times, and especially in the presence of ladies and young people. I reminded him that I had paid several hundred dollars to the owners for our passage, and was assured by them that we should have a pleasant and comfortable voyage as far as the ship’s officers were concerned; that I did not bargain to make a long voyage in company with profanity, and, unless he modified his conduct, I should report him to the owners. This changed him somewhat for a short time. He even apologized. But, owing to the secret use of stimulants, he frequently broke out afresh during the voyage, at the table, on deck, every where, using the vilest language, to such an extent that my family did not come to the table for days at a time. I afterward reported him to the ship-owners, but being men of the same nature, they continued to keep him in their service. This captain informed me that he did not consider it perjury to swear to a false manifest; that he had so sworn to one at Hong-Kong, knowing it to be false; and that the owners required him to do so, otherwise they would dismiss him. Since that time the owners (a firm largely engaged in the East India trade) have been prosecuted by the United States government at New York for making a fraudulent entry of a cargo of sugar, valued at $400,000, and for attempting to bribe the custom-house authorities, in what was known at the time (1871) as the ‘Great Sugar Case.’ The captain’s story, therefore, may have been a truthful statement. This officer was a self-confessed perjurer, and so lost to shame as to boast of his infamy. He did not pretend to be honorable in his dealings with his fellow-men, because, as he said, ‘it didn’t pay!’ His usual table-talk was about the poor defenseless seamen he had punished, striking them with brass knuckles, breaking this man’s jaw and fracturing that man’s skull, so that they were knocked out of use for a whole voyage sometimes, always taking good care, as he boasted, to provoke the men to violent speech, that he might have the law on his side. I remember that the poor white cabin-boy, ‘Joe,’ was a special object for him to vent his spleen upon, to curse at during meals, between meals, on deck, and in the cabin, threatening to ‘bust his head,’ to ‘split his nose,’ to ‘mash his mouth.’ All this to a mere boy, in the presence of the passengers! It was cowardly and mean; and yet this man was retained in command of the ship, and all on board, including the passengers, were compelled to endure his coarseness for months. We were unavoidably in this man’s company for over four months, and there was something almost infernal in the association. Not only was he immoral, but he had a very superficial knowledge of navigation. On several occasions he was ignorant of the position of the ship, and many and loud were the wrangles between him and the first mate after they had both worked up the latitude, each contradicting the other. When we were going out of the Straits of Banca, a narrow channel on the coast of Sumatra, this captain, by bad management, came near losing the ship on ‘Fredrik Hendrik Rocks.’ We had to come to anchor in a swift-running tide not more than a hundred yards from these dangerous rocks, and there lie and watch the sea break over them for hours. Again, when entering the Straits of Rhio, in great tribulation he told me, with an oath, ‘he didn’t know where he was—he couldn’t find his position!'"

How curiously this true story covers the whole ground. Like owners, like captain. Skimp and company at home, and Bully on board their ship, were people of the same kidney, and incompetence and fraud went hand in hand with brutality.

So close and so almost invariable is this connection that whenever you read of the brutal treatment of seamen on board a ship, you may take it for granted that the owners are as much to blame as the officers, and that they ought to be united in the same condemnation, and made to suffer with their agent.

It is not extravagant to say that almost if not quite every abuse of the sea it is in the power of conscientious and careful ship-owners to remedy without the interference of old laws or the enactment of new. But all ship-owners are not conscientious, and laws, after all, are not needed for good men.

The wrongs which seamen suffer are comprised under three or four heads. First is the sending to sea of vessels which are unseaworthy, or so deeply or carelessly loaded as to endanger the ship. This could be easily prevented by greater care on the part of the underwriters who insure ships and cargoes. If a cargo can not get insured, few men would risk it in a ship which belonged in the catalogue of black sheep.

Second comes the shipping of the men. The present excellent shipping law has cured many evils clustering around this part of the sailor’s life, the causes of which the public scarcely understands, and which ship-owners and captains could do much to prevent by their own efforts did they choose. Sailors are gregarious; they haunt certain not very reputable parts of the town, where they are apt to spend their savings rapidly, and then they must go to sea again. When a sailor wants a ship he applies not to the owner or the captain, but to a shipping master, an agent who undertakes to secure a crew for the ship without trouble to the owner or captain. It is the shipping master who engages the seamen, selects them, pays them their “advance,” and holds them in hand until the ship is ready to sail. It is the sailor boarding-house keeper oftenest who deals with the shipping master, supplies him with men, and receives the greater part of the advance money. Oftenest the owner never sees the crew on whom depends in a large measure the safety of his ship; and the captain does not see them until he comes on board as the lines are cast off. Suppose they come aboard drunk; suppose a large part of them are incompetent, and others of them diseased? It is too late then to remedy the matter; the ship puts off to sea, and the captain, enraged perhaps at the cheat for which his neglect is chiefly to blame, falls to abusing his men. The greatest atrocities have been committed, and, indeed, are sometimes still perpetrated, in the shipping of men. It is but a few months since a mechanic in Baltimore, an industrious man, with a family depending upon him, was kidnaped, put on board a vessel which instantly sailed, and only returned, after serious suffering and long detention, to find his family in want and himself mourned as dead. Our author mentions another case of the same kind which came under his own observation. When freights are high, and seamen scarce, extraordinary and criminal means are frequently used to procure crews for ships. In New Orleans some years before the war it was no uncommon thing for a ship to be towed to the Pass with a whole crew kidnaped and lying in the forecastle stupefied by opium, with which they had been drugged. There was a story there of an unscrupulous sailor boarding-house keeper to whom had come the day before an uncle from Ireland, a venerable person in knee-breeches. Him his nephew drugged—being compelled to make up the tale of a ship’s crew—and stuffed him into the forecastle as an able seaman, pocketing in his name the hundred and fifty dollars advance money which was just then paid for the “run” to Liverpool; and thus the poor old creature spent but a single day in the new country before he was borne back to the old. The shipping act has put a stop to most of the abuses connected with the shipping of seamen.

Third comes the tyranny of the sea; and here, as I believe, the sailors are themselves to a certain extent to blame. When men submit to blows they must expect blows. The law forbids resistance, and lays heavy penalties on mutiny; but no law in the world can prevent a man from self-defense. There would be less brutality if officers knew that it was dangerous; nor would a jury, in the present state of public opinion, convict a seaman who, being struck and maltreated, should strike back and even kill his assailant. There used to be an unwritten as well as a written law of the sea, and this common law, twenty or twenty-five years ago, was pretty rigidly enforced by crews who knew both their duties and rights. For instance, it was a part of this unwritten law that no officer had a right to come into the forecastle without due notice to the men, and their consent. It happened that an impatient mate, finding the watch somewhat slow to turn out, as he thought, leaped into the forecastle to hurry them up. Instantly the dim lamp was extinguished, boots, tin pans, books, and other objects began to fly about, and the mate, like a prudent man, got on deck as quickly as he could; and as his men were usually alert, obedient,and thorough seamen,he had the good sense to say nothing about the circumstance, while they, on their part, had also the good sense to take no advantage of their victory.

Again, a mate stood upon the quarter-deck, and, with a volley of oaths and threats, ordered some men aloft who had but just come aboard, and had not yet been turned to duty. They happened to be thorough seamen, and they marched aft in a body, stood with hats off before the astonished mate, and the oldest sailor, acting as spokesman for all, said, quietly, “Sir, we have shipped here as able seamen. We know our duty, and mean to do it; if we fail in any respect, do with us what you like. But meantime we demand to be treated civilly. If hereafter you swear at one of us, he will swear back at you; and if you strike one of us,we will kill you.” There was a brief silence, after which the mate said, quietly, "Go forward, men, and turn to your duty. Two of you go aloft and cross the top-gallant yard, the remainder stand by ;" and in a long and tedious voyage there was never even a threat of trouble or abuse on board that ship. The mate, a thorough seaman and a quick-tempered man, had driven one crew ashore in such terror that they went to prison, losing their wages and clothes, rather than remain on the ship. His excuse was that they were not sailors, but skulks. And certainly he treated the sailors who had dared to face him down with careful kindness.

Of course where a man ships himself as an able seaman, and proves to be ignorant of the sea, he is likely to suffer. To beat and abuse even such a poor creature is wrong; but there are extenuating circumstances for it. Half a dozen years ago, wandering along the East River piers on an idle afternoon, I fell into conversation with the mate of a beautiful clipper ship, and asked him if he, too, who seemed a pleasant-spoken and gentlemanly fellow, abused his men. He hesitated a moment, then replied, “You have been to sea: listen to me. At Singapore we shipped a crew of twenty-four men, all rated and paid as able seamen. When we got to sea I found only four of them could steer the ship. The four were good men, and I took care of them. As to the twenty thieving skulks, whose work these four poor fellows had to do, I beat them and hazed them until, I believe, they were fit to jump over-board. Do you blame me ?"

Now, as a shoresman, I blamed the mate, certainly. Mr. Bergh would hardly forgive me if I did not. But as a seaman, familiar with such cases, I confess that I saw extenuating circumstances. Consider: there were twenty-four men, all shipped at the same wages and to do the same duties, yet twenty of them proved unable to perform that one of a seaman’s duties which is the most difficult, the most wearying, the most tedious, and the most dreaded of all, namely, steering the ship; and this labor, exhausting and trying enough when divided among a large crew, fell entirely upon four men.

But beating the others did not mend matters? No; and hanging a murderer does not bring his victim to life again. It is to discourage the others. Providence has not blessed all men with good temper and patience. This mate may have been cruel to the fellows he rightly called thieving skulks; but he saw no other way to redress a most grievous wrong. The law gave neither him nor the four good and true sailors nor the owners any satisfaction. It was a case of Lynch-law.

There are a good many such cases, and there is one remedy for them—a law obliging every ship to carry a certain number of apprentices, young men and boys indentured to the owner, or perhaps to the captain, who should be obliged to train them to seamanship. Such a law, rigidly enforced, would give us presently a more respectable class of seamen. It would give to every owner or captain a following of more or less trusty youngsters, personally attached to him, looking to him for promotion, and to be depended upon in all emergencies. In ships of more than a thousand tons burden such apprentices ought to mess and sleep not in the forecastle, but on the main-deck; and in different ways their relations to the ship and her officers ought to be, and naturally would be, more intimate than those of the crew.

Of course an apprentice law is a slow cure. But it is almost the only way by which we can create a body of seamen; and if to it were added a law, on the one hand, making owners as well as officers liable for the acts of lawless brutality of the latter— not unjust, because the captain or mate is but the agent of the owner—and, on the other hand, punishing with imprisonment at hard labor glaring incompetence in men who ship as able seamen, there would presently, I venture to believe, be but little brutality practiced upon the high seas in our ships. If you say that such penalties are too severe and far-reaching, the answer is that all the laws of the sea are of the same nature, and necessarily so. The omission of a single one of several apparently trifling acts by a ship master or owner on sailing from or arriving at a port exposes him to a heavy fine, and may even forfeit his ship. Why shall not both the owner and his agent, as well as his ship, be similarly held responsible for inhuman treatment of a crew? If the government may protect its rights by the most severe and summary penalties, why shall not the lives and persons of seamen, human beings, be equally guarded?

As to punishment for the incompetency of the loafers, thieves, and roughs who nowadays frequent the sea, and make a forecastle a place of terror for honest seamen, it is, as every good seaman will bear me witness, very much needed. It should be properly guarded, so as to prevent a mean or wicked captain or owner from wronging good men; but its penalties should be so severe as to drive away from the sea the wretches who make the name of sailor nauseous. A trained seaman is a respectable person. He is a good deal of a boy ashore; he probably gets drunk when liquor comes in his way; he may even come aboard drunk; but he is brave; he has a strong sense of duty; he has so great a pride in his profession that he is usually something of a pedant, for he is apt to think that the man who can “hand, reef, and steer, and heave the lead,” is the best of created beings. But as he has traveled far and long, he is sure to have some intelligence, and a good knowledge of men, which gives him tact. A ship’s forecastle filled with a good crew of able seamen is a very respectable place compared with a country store on a winter morning. Such a crew—are there such yet, O Sea ?—such a crew usually knows how to take care of itself. It is when half a dozen good sailors are, by the carelessness of owner and captain, and the rascality of agents and boarding-house keepers, mixed up with a dozen or a score of skulking scoundrels, that the forecastle and the whole ship presently become a place fit only for devils. As in the beginning of this article there are some figures showing the carelessness of English underwriters and the recklessness of British ship-owners, we will give here some figures also of our own merchant marine.

American sea-going vessels are not as well built nowadays as they were thirty, or even twenty, years ago. This is evident from the fact that more American-built vessels are now lost annually, in proportion to the number built, than formerly; and of those lost many are comparatively new vessels. This may seem strange when we consider all the great modern discoveries in nautical science, and the modern improvements in ship-building; but statistics prove the statement to be correct. The author from whom I before quoted obtained from a high official source—the United States Register’s Office, Washington, D.C.—the number of vessels constructed in the United States during a given period some thirty years ago, and the number of vessels lost belonging to the United States during the same period, and it is herewith appended:

Number of Vessels Built.

No. of Vessels Lost.






















By the above statement it appears that there were 4069 vessels built in the United States during the five years enumerated, and during the same period 688 vessels under the American flag were lost, which is nearly equal to seventeen per cent. of the number built. Now, if we take the statistics of five years nearer our present time, we will find that the ratio of loss has increased to a most remarkable extent. Here are the figures:

Number of Vessels Built.

No. of Vessels Lost.






















In the above statistics the number lost is equal to over forty per cent. of the number built, which is an increase of more than twenty-three per cent. over the ratio of disasters indicated in the preceding table.

The question naturally arises, What is the cause, or what are the causes, of this increase of wrecks of American-built vessels? The author answers, as to wooden vessels, that the causes are various. Our wooden vessels are not as well constructed as they used to be. The timber is insufficient in quantity, not so good in quality, not so carefully selected, not so thoroughly seasoned; the timbers are not so strongly bolted together; iron bolts are used instead of copper, and, even where copper heads appear, the shaft of the bolt is frequently of iron. Where in former times it required years to build a ship, it is now done in a few months. When a close-fisted ship-owner desires to build a vessel, he contracts with the ship-builder who will do the work for the lowest possible price. The ship-builder is as desirous to make money as the ship-owner is to save it, hence he never drives a bolt or screws on a nut that can be saved; and some are so corrupt as to put in short bolts, which only go part of the distance required, or the copper head terminates in an iron shaft. All iron in a sea-going vessel, when unprotected by paint or cement, is affected very injuriously by sea- water, bilge-water, and by the gases and chemical action arising from certain cargoes, while copper will remain unaffected, and outlast any wood. Now when a vessel, constructed of knotty, sappy, badly seasoned timber, some of it cut across the grain, improperly bolted together with iron bolts, has been at sea a few years, the wood contracts, the iron becomes oxidized, the timbers rot, and, if the vessel is caught in a storm, it goes ashore or strikes a rock, and falls to pieces like a house built of cards.

“Another great cause of shipwreck—and this is not peculiar to American ships—is overloading. A large majority of vessels go to sea too deeply laden, so that when a storm of even usual magnitude arises they are taken at a great disadvantage, and frequently go to the bottom, carrying down many valuable lives. I know several New York and Boston firms in the China, East India, and Southern trade who have become notorious for overloading their vessels. With such firms a vessel rated of 1000 or 1200 tons burden is made to carry 1500 to 2000 tons. This is almost invariably the case on the home-ward voyage, when the cargo is valuable, and, the distance being great, the owners desire to carry as much as possible, sometimes overreaching themselves and losing all.”

The anxious and even furious competition in trade which has affected all business since the great gold discoveries of California and Australia, combined with the discoveries of new methods and styles of ship-building and the introduction of steam-ships, has greatly changed the manners and customs of the sea. Vessels are no longer so stanch and sailors are no longer as skillful. As with railroads, but in a greater degree, men have not learned to adapt themselves to the changes; and doubtless the whole system of insurance of ships and cargoes, as well as the manner of shipping and employing crews, needs to be revised before the most serious evils which now disgrace our and the British mercantile marine can be remedied. It is to give some hints of the changes required that I have ventured upon this article.

* Among our Sailors. By J. GREY JEWELL, M.D., late United States Consul, Singapore. With an Appendix containing Extracts from the Laws and Consular Regulations governing the United States Merchant Service. New York: Harper and Brothers. 1874.

The Rights and Wrongs of Seamen
Charles Nordhoff
Harper's new monthly magazine 48 (286): 556-562
Harper & Bros., New York
March 1874