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Sailors and TradersA Maritime History of the Pacific Peoples$

Alastair Couper

Print publication date: 2008

Print ISBN-13: 9780824832391

Published to Hawaii Scholarship Online: November 2016

DOI: 10.21313/hawaii/9780824832391.001.0001

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Under Foreign Sail

Under Foreign Sail

Chapter Six Under Foreign Sail
Sailors and Traders

Alastair Couper

University of Hawai'i Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines the complexity of the modern international employment of Pacific seafarers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by focusing on foreign ships on which they served. It first considers the various reasons for shortages of European sailors and goes on to discuss the process of recruitment of seafarers from the Pacific Islands as well as the motives of Pacific seafarers for joining foreign ships. It then explains the reasons why foreign shipowners employed Pacific seafarers and describes the social environment on foreign ships, including the hierarchical structure of the ship personnel, along with the working environment of sailors.

Keywords:   international employment, Pacific seafarers, foreign ships, sailors, recruitment, social environment, hierarchical structure, working environment, Pacific Islands

  • No man will be a sailor who has
  • the contrivance to get himself into jail,
  • for being in a ship is being in jail
  • with a chance of being drowned.

Samuel Johnson, Journal of a Tour of the Hebrides

The aphorism of Samuel Johnson reflected perceptions shared by people in Britain and America of life at sea in the late 1770s. Even in the reforming “rights of man” postcolonial United States, a new federal law of 1790 sanctioned the arrest of merchant seamen who deserted, and a law of 1835 still in effect conceded “beating, wounding, imprisonment, withholding suitable food and other punishments inflicted by the masters justifiable, if done with cause.”1 In 1874, a century after Samuel Johnson wrote, a surgeon in the US Marine Hospital Service was moved to complain: “No prison, certainly none of modern days, [is] so wretched [that] life within its walls [is not] preferable on the score of physical comforts, to the quarters and life of the sailor in the vast majority of merchant ships.”2 As for the safety of the ships, the British Parliamentary Select Committee on Shipwrecks in 1836 reported that many hundreds of lives were still being lost due to the following factors: “defective construction of ships, inadequacy of equipment, imperfect state of repair, improper loading, incompetence of masters and officers, drunkenness of masters and officers.”3

Such was the maritime employment that thousands of Pacific seafarers entered in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. They were recruited, as going to sea was no longer appealing to many of the nationals in the traditional ship-owning countries, other than for the adventurous and the destitute. By first considering the reasons for shortages of European sailors, this account provides also a view of the rebellious attitudes engendered among crews and some of the conditions that then applied to newly (p.101) employed Pacific sailors. Particularly discouraging for those in the maritime regions of Britain and America were the restrictions on the freedoms of merchant seafarers to join and leave their ships at will. Merchant ships arriving off British home ports during the many wars in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries could be met by armed tenders, and the most experienced seamen taken off and shipped out on men-of-war, causing enormous resentment. In such situations, the men also had to endure the loss of leave after a long voyage; the loss of pay, which “threw families on the parish”; and the loss of opportunities for earning the higher wartime wages on other merchant ships. Impressment violated the individualism of the sailor and turned “a youthful venture at sea into permanent bonding to the state.”4 It bred antiauthoritarian feelings, and there were many riots in British port towns. To avoid the press-gangs, British seamen sought other employment ashore, adopted false identities as foreigners, or joined foreign ships. The most popular of the latter were those of the American colonies.

Thousands of British sailors were already manning American ships, but they too were taken as “deserters” when these vessels were ordered to heave to by British warships. As a result there were even more riots in American ports against the authorities that were infringing the “rights and liberties” of sailors, and near-revolutionary ideas spread between ships and ports.5 The press-gangs boarding both British and American vessels were usually met with resistance: “Any who ventured aboard a whaler, in particular, could lose his fingers on flensing knives or even have his head shattered by a harpoon.”6 These embittered sailors were in fact considered “prime movers in the American revolution.”7 The impressment of American seafarers did not cease after the War of Independence in 1783. It was estimated that in 1807 about six thousand American sailors were still serving in the Royal Navy against their will.8 The searching of an American ship off New York in 1811 was in fact a major element in the declaration of war against Britain in 1812.9

For all their actions ashore against unfair administrations, the American and British seafarers found themselves little better off when at sea. Ships continued to be run under harsh and often brutal regimes. When on the high seas, merchant vessels were beyond the reach of national laws. It was only in the late nineteenth century that it was acknowledged that a merchant ship was governed by the law of the state under whose flag it sailed. Even then some of these laws simply legitimized the customary rights of masters to act as judge and jury at sea. They could flog and imprison sailors and make arbitrary deductions from their earnings. (p.102) It was in effect an already outdated, class-structured hierarchical society with no recourse to legal remedies open to the common seafarer (discussed further in chapter 7). Shore employment became more sought after, offering greater freedom and sometimes better pay. Thousands of British and other foreign seamen who had transferred to American ships took a further step to the burgeoning port towns of the United States and joined the migrations westward.10 Even the disadvantaged American Indians were affected: “Native Americans began to find conditions intolerable. As a result the number of Native American seafarers gradually declined.”11

As a result of continued shortages of crew, British and American ships frequently sailed shorthanded for the Pacific. The trips involved passages that were four to five months long, via the Cape of Good Hope or Cape Horn. American ships sometimes picked up a few sailors in the Atlantic Islands, but generally shipowners were not unhappy with depleted crews, which reduced labor costs during these unproductive legs of voyages. Not so for the disgruntled seafarers whose lives were endangered from shortages of experienced shipmates in bad weather and when beating around Cape Horn against strong headwinds.

Arrival in the trading and whaling areas of the Pacific entailed supplementing the crew, all the more necessary because ships would lose many of the original crew during the three to four years the men were employed in the Pacific. Most losses were due to desertion. John Turnbull, during his 1801–1804 voyage, observed “there does not occur a greater difficulty to all European ships in the South Seas than that of keeping their crew together, such is the seduction of the life of indolence, and carelessness, which the several Islands hold out.”12 It was not only the allures of the tropical islands that concerned shipowners. A group of whaleship owners in 1823 wrote to the colonial authorities, “The greatest evil we experience, and which we dread from our ships going to the settlements in New Holland, is that the convict women so demoralize the crews as to make them in a short time, from the best of sailors, become extremely mutinous, and we scarcely know an instance of any of our ships going there without greatly altering the conduct of the crew, many of whom desert.”13 Although the shipowners failed to recognize it, desertions could equally well be attributed to the conditions on board their ships.

There followed a series of memoranda to the British government advocating the formal annexation of New Zealand as an economic and strategic base, and noting the opportunities this would provide for the recruitment of Maori as sailors, “being very powerful, brave, and with strong natural abilities.” To this was added that the Maori was “a docile race,”14 (p.103) possibly in the hope that this self-delusion would get rid of the problem of the so-called sea lawyers and bloody-minded European and American sailors. It was a view that the more brutal captains believed ultimately to their cost.

Other recommendations were also put forth at the time, such as these:

A vessel bound to the Fiji Islands requires a large crew and it is best to touch at the island of New Zealand and take on 10 or 12 of the natives of this place, rather than take men from any other of the south sea islands or from Manila (except such as have been on this voyage previously), and they should be particularly careful not to take any men from the Navigator Islands [Samoa] as they are too treacherous and cannot be depended on.15

The cautionary note on the recruitment of Samoans as sailors reflected the persistent bad reputation of those islands, arising from the massacre of the boat’s crew of La Perouse in 1787. Whalers by the 1820s were likewise returning with stories of treachery and savagery experienced in parts of Melanesia and Micronesia. Such tales led to more misgivings regarding taking crew from several of these islands. The situation was different in Tahiti and Hawai‘i, where local seamen were encouraged by chiefs to serve and showed reliability even in difficult Arctic voyaging. Several Hawaiians are recorded to have been on that coast in 1788 under Captain John Meares.16 The New Hazard increased her crew from twenty-four to thirty-three in 1811 for voyages to the northwest coast, additions that were simply designated as “kanakas” in logbooks and journals.17 The illfated Tonquin had a Hawaiian crew of twenty-four when it was destroyed possibly by the captain after Indians boarded on the coast, and the fur trading ship Beaver took on ten “kanakas” in 1812, together with an experienced island sailor, bosun Tom.18 American whalers subsequently obtained most of their crews in Hawai‘i and Tahiti and also periodically at the Marquesas, the Carolines, and New Zealand.

The British colonial authorities responded to crew shortages by permitting ships to recruit convicts at Botany Bay and Port Arthur under a bond for their return. In 1833 the Tasmanian-based sailor Richard Copping noted seven to eight thousand “ticket of leave” men from the penal colony of Port Arthur serving on British and colonial ships.19 These invariably included experienced seafarers, some of whom had been transported as troublemakers, strikers, and mutineers from the merchant service and (p.104) the Royal Navy.20 Many shipowners were not happy with the prospect of employing men they considered felons. Lord Sandwich also rejected the solution of criminal recruitment to overcome crew shortages in the Royal Navy, believing that it was more likely to increase “desertion and villainy.”21 In fact, convicts from New South Wales and Tasmania captured and sailed away on several merchant vessels, including the Cumberland (1797), Harrington (1808), Trail (1816), Wellington (1826), Cyprus (1828), and Frederick (1833).22 Overall, the most favored solution to crew shortages was to attract more Maori and Pacific Island seamen.

Recruitment of Pacific Seafarers

The motives of Pacific men for joining foreign ships were no doubt similar to those of young men from New England and the traditional maritime regions of Europe. When John Jackson joined the Joshua Carroll in London during 1837 at the age of sixteen, he was “stimulated by the desire of seeing foreign countries and strange manners.”23 He arrived in Hobart in 1838, and so began a life of Pacific seafaring. Some islands readily responded with sailors, and some were particularly favored by captains. It was said of the young men of remote Rotuma, “They loved to visit foreign countries and great numbers of them shipped aboard English whalers.”24 In Melanesia the Loyalty Islanders were equally enthusiastic and were sought after.25 In Micronesia, ships like the Honduras, after an attack in 1836 (see chapter 7), took on almost a whole crew of Ponapeans for the voyage to Honolulu.26

In addition to their enthusiasm for travel and love of the sea, Pacific islanders were attracted by the clothes and the apparent freedom and lifestyles of the sailors they saw ashore, as well as the prospect of accumulating wealth for returning home. Those who returned spread their experiences of distant voyages, good and bad, through the oral channels of communication between islands. Some of the Tahitians who sailed with Turnbull stayed for periods in Hawai‘i, others met a Tahitian in Tonga who had been there for three years, and another in Norfolk Island, lately arrived from England on the ship Albion, looked resplendent as a sailor. In Sydney, Tahitians likewise encountered Maori seamen who had been to England.27

There were also some reluctant recruits, such as Marquesans who were kidnapped,28 and in New Zealand victorious chiefs in the musket wars traded captives with captains.29 Many did not return home. Some died, some deserted, and others were abandoned. Still more joined the transit (p.105) populations of sailors, spending their money in new port centers and finding other ships outward bound. At these growing Pacific port towns, beachcombers established themselves as crimps and arranged girls and ships for sailors of all nationalities. Richard Copping walked off the whaler Endeavour in April 1840 at the Bay of Islands along with several other sailors and three harpooners, as “she was leaking badly.” They sought other berths through the agency of a notorious lodging house in the Bay:

Of all the orgies imaginable it was here. There were nearly 100 men, mainly deserters from different ships, drinking, singing and dancing, and fighting. The captains used to come ashore and get their men but dare not touch one. So when a ship wanted hands, two or three captains would come ashore and be hail fellow well met, call for a quantity of their detestable grog, get them nearly all drunk; and at night kidnapped as many as they wanted.30

Sailors would waken outward bound and in debt to the captain, who had paid the crimp. They would need to purchase more clothing, tobacco, and drinks from the captain’s slop chest at inflated prices against future earnings:

  • The next I remember I woke in the morn,
  • On a three skys’l yarder bound south round Cape Horn,
  • With an ol’ suit of oilskins, an’ two pair o’ sox,
  • An’ a bloomin’ big head, an’ a dose of the pox.31

There were other, more open, informal ways of recruitment. Frank Bullen, who went to sea from England at the age of twelve, describes how at age eighteen he fetched up in New Bedford. Young Bullen heard a voice in the street “looking for a ship stranger,” and he joined the whaler Cachalot bound for the Pacific.32 So it was with many Pacific men in these port centers in the Pacific and beyond.

When the potential recruits presented themselves on board, the captain and mate made selections. The criteria were proven experience (no “sodjers”), good health, strength, and agility, as well as ready acceptance of the conditions being proffered, including the allocation of some clothing, food, and an advance in cash, all to be set against verbally agreed further wages or lays. They would be divided into starboard and larboard (port) watches and, on whalers, allocated to boats under the first, second, and possibly third mates.

(p.106) Captains clearly preferred Pacific seafarers, who were used to compliance toward chiefs and thus unlikely to give captains trouble by demanding seafaring customary rights on board. The islanders were useful too as interpreters and understood the Pacific ways of trade. As sailors they were skillful at handling loaded boats through heavy surf when ships had to stand off and on. On whalers they acquired reputations as good harpooners and for boldness in closing on a whale. The keen eyesight of island sailors earned them the tobacco bonuses for spotting whales, and this, along with reading the signs of the sea for sudden squalls and reefs, made them invaluable as masthead lookouts.

Swimming and diving proved other important assets. Turnbull was impressed when, on approaching Hawai‘i, he encountered people a mile offshore supported only by “a thin feather-edge slice of wood.”33 He refers also to Hawaiians diving from topgallant yards and swimming under the ship. This skill of deep diving was employed on pearling and bêche-demer ships, as well as for making underwater hull repairs and clearing fouled cables. The extent to which island men and women were at home in the sea is further alluded to in dramatic rescues. Copping describes how, when the Harriet of Sydney was totally lost near Te Puna in April 1840, “the crew would have been lost also if it had not been for the Maori women on board the ship swimming them ashore.”34 He relates also that when his own whaleboat broached to, and he was knocked overboard and trapped under the boat, a shark “lay hold” of his shoulder, but “my harpooner a Maori jumped overboard after me.”35 Similarly when James Bagley fell from the topgallant crosstrees, a Hawaiian seaman, John Mowhee, dived after him and told Bagley to hold on to his shoulder until they were rescued.36

For the shipowners a more compelling reason for employing Pacific seafarers was their lower costs in wages and victualing. The whaleship owner F. Parbury, who gave evidence at the British House of Lords Select Committee on the Navigation Laws, readily attested to this and expressed preferences for New Zealand (Maori) crews.37

Numbers and Ranks of Pacific Seamen Employed

It is not possible to establish with any accuracy how many Pacific seamen were employed on foreign ships at any one time. Often their existence can only be deduced in crew lists from the absence of a surname or the use of some comic names. More often there is simply a log entry of taking on kanakas or natives. The maritime press notices are no clearer—the ship (p.107) Charlotte, which arrived in Sydney on 24 June 1818, listed Paddy, Palmo, Moai, Boxho, and Dune.38 Only a little more helpful was the entry for the Endeavour on 12 April 1817; after the names of Browning, Taganne, Tahee, Mairee, Pippo, Poona, and Jack are listed, “all Tahitians” is stated.39 On Dillon’s ship Calder in 1825 the multinational composition is periodically combinations of Chinese, Cook Islanders, Bengali, English, Irish, Tongan, Tikopean, Rotuman, Marquesan, Tahitian, and Maori, and the sailors’ nicknames include “Governor Macquarie,” “Major Goul-burn,” “Buckgarow Riley,” and “Saltfish.”40

In the course of a voyage there would be many changes of crew by dismissal, desertion, abandonment, death, and voluntary transfers. The whaling journal of Captain W. B. Rhodes of the barque Australian out of Sydney is typical. Of the original four officers and twenty-five men who sailed from Sydney in 1836, only three officers and seven of the others were still on board when she returned in 1838.41

Given all the uncertainties, a rough estimate would be that between 1830 and 1840 about five thousand to six thousand Pacific sailors were at sea on any one day on foreign-owned vessels. There could also be as many ashore in ports between ships and at home for long periods. In addition some two thousand or so manned commercial interisland and coastal vessels, and unknown numbers were on indigenous craft also engaged in carrying some goods. At best it can be said that a substantial commercial maritime population existed without which the fur trade, whaling, sealing, pearling, sandalwood, bêche-de-mer, coconut oil, labor transport, and even “blackbirding” could not have been effectively conducted.

The numbers of Pacific islanders that were engaged as sailors in the last-mentioned nefarious activity are particularly uncertain. Some were recruited voluntarily to man the boats for this activity, as Pacific sailors were very adept at handling the boats through the surf and onto beaches. This was the attraction for the blackbirders, who were engaged in deceptive recruiting and surprise kidnapping of young men, and some women, for the guano mines in Peru. The ships were crewed mainly by an admixture of Europeans.

The first vessel recorded in the Pacific Peruvian labor trade, which lasted for about three years, was the 151-ton barque Adelante. It called at Nukuhiva to pick up five Marquesan boat handlers. These ships raided small islands, including removing 1,407 people from Rapa Nui mainly during 1863. Some Pacific sailors were unaware when joining that they were to be slave traders. The 209-ton whaler Grecian signed on fifteen Maoris in Wellington in 1863 to make up the crew. When a European (p.108) sailor and several others discovered at sea that the captain intended slave trading, they refused to sail farther and were eventually discharged in Samoa.42

A good port sample, showing crew numbers by place of origin, age, and rank, is that made by Susan Chamberlain for whalers out of Hobart from 1855 to 1879 and from 1860 to 1879.43 Table 1 shows that there were still seafarers from numerous parts of the Pacific sailing on whalers out of Hobart as late as 1870–1879, after the height of the whaling era had past. Table 2 shows the age range of sailors. Most were eighteen to thirty years old, but some were as young as twelve, and twenty of them were over the age of forty, which seems unusual considering the dangers and lifestyles of whaling crews.

Based on these tables and other data in the Chamberlain study, some further details are also notable:

  • The 183 Pacific boatsteerers shown represent about one-quarter of all boatsteerers on Tasmanian whalers. In rank order, boatsteerers

Table 1. Places of origin of Pacific sailors serving on Tasmanian whaling ships, 1855–1879


New Zealand



Melanesia and other Polynesian islands




















Source: Susan Chamberlain, An Analysis of the Composition of the Tasmanian Whaling Crews Based on Their Crew Agreements 1860–1898 (Hobart, Tasmania: Crowther Whaling Archives, 1982).

Table 2. Pacific Island crews by age and rank on Tasmanian whaling ships, 1860–1879





































Source: Chamberlain, Composition of the Tasmanian Whaling Crews.

  • (p.109) were drawn from Tasmania, the Pacific, Britain, and America. Most of the Pacific boatsteerers were aged twenty-one to thirty.

  • The 78 Pacific men serving as officers are particularly significant. The total number of officers on Tasman registered whalers was 609. Ranked by national origin, they comprised Tasmanians, Pacific islanders, British, Americans, and Cape Verdeans.

  • The ratio of Pacific officers to Pacific seamen in this sample is about 1 to 6, but the typical ratio of officers to other ranks on board is about 1 to 10. This confirms that, given the usual number of crew, Pacific officers had nationalities serving under them in addition to those drawn from the Pacific. It also signifies a fair degree of social mobility on whalers at this time.

There are only a few recorded instances of non-Europeans serving as officers on mixed-crew ships in the Pacific. When the English sailor Frank Bullen joined the American whaler Cachalot, he was confronted by a large black man who told him, “[It’s] yes sir, when you speak to me, I’se de fourth mate of this yer ship and my name’s Mistah Jones.”44 Harry Morton refers to a Maori who was chief mate of the Australian ship Francis, and a Maori second mate of the Earl Stanhope in 1837 who also became a chief mate. Morton adds that such positions disappeared with whaling.45

Most appointments as officers were made informally by captains. Until the mid-nineteenth century there was no legislation requiring certification, and not until the early twentieth century was this fully implemented in the Pacific.46 Promotions during voyages were mainly for replacements. The captain would simply tell a senior apprentice or an experienced seaman to “get your gear aft” and act as a mate. Samuel Lang sailed from Boston as a foremast hand on the New Hazard, and in July 1811, in the course of the voyage, he became third mate, returning on the ship as second mate in 1813.47

Junior officers did not have to be very literate or very numerate. The chief mate would have required more education. On New England whalers he would have been young, possibly related to the captain and certainly to others on board. The position of captain was almost exclusively the preserve of the white Yankee Quaker. On other ships, captains would still usually be from the country of the owner and possibly themselves have investment in the ship. A combination of prejudice, limited education, and lack of capital combined to impede Pacific seafarers from reaching the senior officer level and excluded them from master.

(p.110) The Social Environment on Board

Most Pacific seafarers in the mid-nineteenth century still came from a preliterate society. They could not write any personal accounts of their lives. This is not an absolute impediment to describing many aspects of their lifestyles and work. It was an ethnically diverse, polyglot, and predominantly male society on most ships, and there were a few literate sailors who left accounts of their experiences. They all faced the same dangers, shared the same food and sometimes the same girls, and communicated much of the time in the lingua franca of nautical pidgin. It was not a totally cohesive society even in the foc’sle (forecastle), but it was an isolated world separate from the land and had its own rules. These took precedence over many national customs. The Pacific youth who joined a ship as a deck boy could, when he learned the ropes, become an ordinary seaman. Men drawn from local vessels would soon obtain able seamen’s rank (AB) and progress to foremastmen. Some would become petty officers in the ranks of bosuns and boatsteerers, and very occasionally junior officers on whalers.

The hierarchical structure of the personnel of a ship was replicated in the accommodations. Within the foc’sle the living spaces would be allocated by the sailors themselves according to work status. The foc’sle community represented the lower tier of an onboard class society. On a typical barque of one hundred feet or so in length and weighing two hundred to three hundred tons, the foc’sle would occupy tween decks extending about twenty feet from the bow. It would measure around twenty feet in breadth at the widest, tapering into the bow, and some five feet in height. Here fourteen or more men would be housed with their sea chests and bedding, although at sea about half could be on duty at any one time. The foc’sle was entered from a hatch on deck that had to be closed in bad weather.

Although there was legislation regarding the cubic feet of air in cells for convicts in the mid-nineteenth century, there were no such rules for merchant ships until the late nineteenth century. Consequently tuberculosis was added to the several ailments, including scurvy and venereal disease, considered to be sailors’ troubles. When the sailor Richard Copping joined the Australian whaler Caernarvon at the Bay of Islands in 1842, he noted that the foc’sle crowd “appeared to be a mixture of all nations under the sun, and nearly every colour.” The space he occupied was “about four feet and one half high” and as dark as a dungeon—“you had to keep on a sharp stoop to move about at all, and so infested with (p.111) cockroaches and mice, that you could scarcely move without touching one or the other.”48 Frank Bullen describes joining the American whaler Cachalot in New Bedford: “I entered the gloomy den which was to be for long my home, finding it fairly packed with my shipmates. A motley crowd they were. I had been used in English ships to considerable variety of nationalities; but here were gathered not only the representatives not only of five or six nations, but longshoremen of all kinds, half of them hardly ever set on a ship before.”49

Bullen’s observation of longshoremen was related to the difficulties of getting experienced crews for whalers in America, Australia, and Britain. These ships spent months at sea hunting for whales and, only when they had to, called at remote places for water and firewood. When they obtained a sufficient catch, only then would they return home. Sailors never knew when they joined if they were on a voyage for many months or many years. They were unpleasant, slow ships that even on the open deck constantly smelt of blubber, blood, and smoke, and ships downwind knew they were whalers.

The well-built and more fastidious Pacific seafarers who joined the crowded foc’sles found these spaces particularly uncomfortable and stifling. They generally slept and ate on deck in the tropical Pacific. It was a different matter in colder latitudes. A wood stove and an oil lamp would be provided. These, along with perpetually wet gear hanging around and the normal habit of sleeping in working clothes or long underwear, did nothing to improve the atmosphere. The heating in cold weather was conducive to further infestations of lice, cockroaches, and other vermin in straw beds or mats.

The next class division on the ship was that of petty officers who were located in a deckhouse abaft the foremast. They included the bosun, the carpenter, the sailmaker, and on whalers the boatsteerer and the cooper, together with apprentice officers. The galley stood between the midships deckhouse and the mainmast. Nearby would be freshwater butts, casks for salt meat, and sometimes pens for pigs and fowls, all within sight of the officer of the watch at the after end. The cook would also have a berth near the galley, although he generally was of lower status than the others amidships. Some Pacific men cooked only on ceremonial occasions ashore, and they tended to look down on the cook on board as doing women’s work or that of a slave (kuke). On British ships the cook was usually a disabled or old sailor, and on American ships he was invariably black.

At the after end was the elite of the ship, either in tween-deck or raised (p.112) poop accommodation. They comprised three mates and possibly, on British whalers, a surgeon. The saloon and pantry were located here and also the captain’s cabin and dayroom. On this afterdeck was the steering wheel and main compass binnacle. It was the captain’s personal domain and sometimes that of his wife. The only others regularly allowed on the poop were the officers of the watch, the helmsmen, and the captain’s steward, as here also was the hatch to the lazarette securing the stores.

When at sea, the ship was a twenty-four-hour, seven-day-a-week society. All the sailors worked for at least ten hours each day. On watch there were spells as helmsman and lookout (when near land or whaling). Others on the watch tended the rigging and carried out routine work. Petty officers were mainly day workers, not watchkeepers. There was one easier period of two hours available to each sailor during the dogwatches at 1600–1800 or 1800–2000. Sundays, after the decks were washed down in the morning, were normally free, apart from helm or lookout duties and, on a few ships, a religious service by the master.

The free times on board were utilized for washing clothes, make and mend, and sleeping. These were also important periods socially for bonding in card games, telling tall yarns, and making music. On some ships alcohol was available from the slops (administered by the steward with profits to the captain), along with tobacco and other items. Popular instruments included drums, fifes, fiddles, melodeons, and ukuleles; the latter, along with drums, were familiar to Pacific sailors and adopted as their own. The men also contributed stories, dances, songs, and chants on Saturday evenings and special days. Turnbull remarks that the Scottish bagpipes animated Pacific islanders to rapture. Sailors also had other distinctive art forms based on life at sea and the tools they used. Stitching pictures with wools, painting sea chests, fancy knotting, and, on whalers, scrimshaw designs carved on whale’s teeth with a jackknife and a needle and colored with lampblack as in Pacific tattooing.

New recruits were always the butt of jokes for entertainment. The Tahitians who joined the Margaret were terrified when their shipmates warned they would be harassed by infernal spirits rising out of the water as they crossed the equator. When the hilarity of crossing the line was experienced, the Tahitians were highly amused and ready to relate this, no doubt with embellishments, on returning home.50 The rites of manhood in crossing the line were in effect a time when the hierarchy of life on the ship was turned upside down. Sometimes the ship would be hove to, and a sailor dressed as King Neptune boarded, took precedence, and gave orders. The uninitiated, regardless of rank, who were unwilling to contribute (p.113) grog were suitably shaved and baptized. The court of King Neptune drank, and jostled and lampooned officers with antics and words. Captains generally stayed clear of these ceremonies while the brotherhood of the foc’sle established a brief republic, and even the sanctity of the poop deck was violated. Neptune was often accompanied by his wife, a bizarrely dressed hefty sailor, which brought another ambiguity to the masculine society of the ship.

The exclusively male composition and culture of a crew was also periodically challenged by the existence of a captain’s wife. In 1853, for example, some 20 percent of masters of American whalers were accompanied by their wives.51 How acceptable they were to the crew is difficult to say. Generally, in the folklore of the Pacific Islands, women at sea were considered to be in the wrong place. Some sailors felt, for good or ill, that women reminded them of home, others that women reduced their spartan isolation, while some hoped they might ameliorate the harsh behavior of the captain. Margaret Creighton contends that wives “more often under-scored their own power and that of their spouse” and “they exacerbated class divisions.” This was not just gender antagonism but “resentment of the privilege and power of the after cabin.”52 Sailors were also suspicious that the influence of the wife was such that the crew were serving under two masters. Certainly some of these women were formidable sailors and good navigators, and several kept journals.

There was as much ambivalence regarding all women in the life of a ship. Captain Turnbull had to allow the Hawaiian girlfriend of his second mate to join the ship for the passage from Honolulu to Tahiti, or else the second mate would have jumped ship and stayed with her in Hawai‘i.53 It was the practice on many Pacific-based ships from the time of Cook for women to accompany the crew between islands, to everyone’s satisfaction. At other times women caused troubles. While the New Hazard was on the northwest coast, for example, “Mr Dork, an Indian, lost his slave girl; she went on board [the Lydia] to sleep with Mr Butler the second mate.”54 Dork had his revenge; he retrieved his girl, but in the process Captain David Nye of the New Hazard was shot in the arm. Similarly, on the Cape Packet in 1842 a quarrel “was occasioned by the presence of native females, [and] part of the crew natives of New Zealand, Bora Bora and Oahi deserted taking one of the ship’s boats.” The situation escalated in a very complicated way, resulting in several killings on the ship.55

There are a few instances in the Pacific of the nineteenth century of a woman actually being employed as a member of the crew (as distinct from females disguised as sailors). One unsuccessful occasion was when a (p.114) woman steward was signed on the American ship Golden Cross in 1862. The log describes an altercation with the ship’s officers on 5 October: “She hove a jug at the captain’s temple (lacerating it) and left without liberty.”56 It is likely that she was exposed to the sexual tensions existing on board, a social factor that has contributed to the negative reactions of predominantly male crews in the past to a woman working on board during a long voyage.

There was also the possibility in the ship environment of conflicts over homosexual encounters. Such would not have been condemned in some Pacific traditional societies, although the missionary influences may well have permeated the ships. Certainly the puritan New England captains are unlikely to have tolerated “unnatural acts” on board. It was something they would try to deal with without explicitly acknowledging its existence. An item in the Hobart Mercury on 18 December 1858, which defended a captain who abandoned a man in an inhospitable shore stated, “The particulars of the man’s conduct cannot be given in a public newspaper.”57

The Working Environment

Most sailors were employed in hard and hazardous labor. The levels of work and the dangers involved depended on the rig of the ship, the weather, and the trades in which they were engaged. A common rig in the Pacific on long-distance trades during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was the three-masted barque of two to three hundred tons. Its mainmast stood about one hundred feet above the deck, the foremast around ninety feet, and the mizzen eighty feet. The main- and foremasts each carried four or five yards, on which were set square mainsails, topsails, and topgallants, and the mizzen carried a large fore- and aft sail. In addition there were numerous jibs and spritsails, giving a spread of over fifteen thousand square feet of canvas. All ships, large and small, had standing rigging comprising shrouds and stays, horizontal ratlines to facilitate climbing, and foot ropes attached to the yards to allow sailors to spread out athwartships. Elaborate running gear included halyards for hoisting and lowering sails, braces for training the yards, and numerous sheets, bowlines, and other ropes amounting to about thirty or so separate ends. These were all led through blocks and tackles and operated from on deck at each side of the ship.

For the Pacific sailor these rigs were different from their traditional (p.115) vessels, on which the sail work was done from the deck. Most were used to heights and wind from collecting toddy or nuts on high trees and soon learned the ways of working aloft. The basic systems of rigging were similar on most ships of the same type (barque, brig, schooner, cutter), enabling recently joined sailors to find their places aloft or on deck at a given order. For those working aloft the adage of “one hand for yourself and one for the ship” was not always possible in bad weather and darkness. The reefing and furling to shorten square sails under strong winds and a heaving ship involved keeping feet tight on the footropes and using knees and elbows as leverage to free both hands for gathering up the sail. There had to be confidence between the men along the yard that all would work in unison, that their shipmates on deck would correctly tend the ropes, and that the helmsmen would keep the wind in the right place. Any negligence could mean falls from the high rigging and almost certain death. The sailors on deck were likewise exposed to hazards as they manned the ropes. Each watch would be led by an experienced AB, and all would haul together on a call, while deck boys at the end of the line took up the slack around the belaying pins. A sea breaking on board could sweep any of them over the side.

These operations of handling a big ship in bad weather depended on the combined skills of a few sailors responding to a single command of the captain or mate. Anyone proving incompetent or shrinking would, at best, be resented by the crew as a danger to all their lives. The Pacific sailors with experience on the larger indigenous craft, or who served on the recently introduced smaller interisland and coastal vessels, would not have been surprised at the intrinsic discipline of the crew. The differences were that the barque and other ships carried more sails, had complex systems of rigging, and had more hierarchical divisions of labor than they were used to.58

Samuel Leech, writing in 1812, was overstating the industrial analogy of the big nineteenth-century sailing ship, but he nevertheless provides a graphic portrayal of a vessel with organizational behavior new to Pacific society: “Each task has its man, and each man his place. A ship contains a set of machinery, in which every man is a wheel, a band, or a crank, all moving with wonderful regularity and precision to the will of its machinist—the all-powerful captain.”59

On many Pacific Ocean voyages there were long runs under the trade winds when there would be little routine handling of ropes and sails. Then work tasks would increase in mending, scraping, painting, pulling oakum, (p.116) caulking, splicing, and other not unpleasant individual sailorizing tasks on deck. In fine weather Pacific sailors, wearing few clothes and with coral-and tree-hardened bare feet, would work aloft, overhauling rigging.

It was a different matter in high latitudes under stormy and cold conditions. Pacific seafarers were hampered by wearing gloves, breeches, furs, oilskins, and boots, which must have contributed to accidents when working aloft handling stiff and frozen sails. They suffered also from chest complaints and frostbite. Nevertheless their Pacific maritime culture was such that they willingly shared the masculine bravado of their shipmates against the perils of the sea. The dangers of storms were, in the eyes of sailors, all in a day’s work. Reynolds portrays this in his understatement of the near loss of the ship when homeward bound in the stormy higher latitudes of the Pacific, 550 miles west of Cape Horn:

At five a sea came in on larboard quarter; knocked down the man at the wheel (the same who fell overboard when the topmast was carried away), cut a large gash over one eye and bruised him badly. Broke the wheel to pieces, necessary bulwarks, etc. Called all hands, set trysail and fore-topmast-staysail. At six shipped a sea upon larboard bow, knocked away bulwarks as well forward part of fore rigging and broke tiller. Set fore-sail. Kept before the sea which was most tremendous, but we made excellent weather all things considered. Set main-topsail; it one half tore from foot rope; unbent and bent another; raining most of the time. Spliced main brace twice!!!60


  • We’re homeward bound to the joyful sound
  • With a full ship, taut and free,
  • We’ll not give a damn as we drink our rum
  • With the gals of ol’ Maui.

Stan Hugill, Sailortown

The tensions of a voyage were removed when the ship arrived at one of the Pacific sailor towns. These included Honolulu, Lahaina, Papeete, Kororareka, Apia, Levuka, and Kosrae. Here they had the company of thousands of other sailors of all nationalities, and increasing numbers of women. They were free of captains, the confined hard and dangerous life of the ship, and the constraints of traditional Pacific society.

They spent their accumulated earnings as described by Richard Copping (p.117) in the Bay of Islands, until they shipped out again. Many Pacific sailors became dangerously independent. They had lived as equals in multinational foc’sles, and in overseas ports they encountered dishonest and immoral men and women of the same nationalities as the missionaries and others who preached European virtues in their home islands. There were sailors’ riots in Lahaina in 1827 when the missions tried to get a ban on women visiting the ships,61 and in Honolulu in 1852 as several thousands demonstrated and defied the authorities. These sailors were regarded as a necessary evil for the economies of the growing towns, not least in the transfer of money and goods to the thousands of women who arrived during the whaling season. Gavan Daws also describes how the women “returned home a few months later gaudily dressed, and in many cases infected with venereal disease, which they spread about the district.”62

It was in the Pacific sailor towns that the stereotypical view of the drunken irresponsible sailor was formed by officials, missionaries, new settlers, and the leaders of traditional society. Their perceptions influenced subsequent legislation (see chapter 7). They saw the somewhat riotous ceremonies as multiethnic crews paid off and said good-bye to old shipmates, and when they joined another ship and bonded with new shipmates. William Giles uncomprehendingly describes the sailing day of the Bobtail Nag when he watched the “mixed crew of white men and kanakas sprawling about the decks in various stages of inebriation.”63 But many others went home to wives and families for long periods. Bullen writes about this aspect of the Pacific sailor when his ship picked up Tongan seamen waiting at Honolulu to ship out on a suitable vessel that would eventually drop them off at their home island of Va‘vau.

Being short-handed, the captain engaged a number of friendly islanders for a limited period, on the understanding that they were to be discharged at their native place, Vau Vau. There were ten of them, fine, stalwart fellows, able-bodied, and willing as possible. They were cleanly in their habits, and devout members of the Wesleyan body, so that their behaviour was quite a reproach to some of our half-civilized crew. Berths were found for them in the forecastle, and they stood their places among us quite naturally, being fairly well used to a whale-ship.64 (p.118)


(1.) Craig J. Forsyth, “The Creation and Maintenance of a Stigmatized Occupation: An Historical Analysis of the American Merchant Marine,” Maritime Policy and Management 14, no. 2: 100–101.

(2.) Ibid., 101.

(3.) British Parliamentary Papers, House of Commons Select Committee Appointed to Enquire into the Causes of Shipwrecks, HC Paper, vol. 18 (London, 1836), 373.

(4.) Nicholas Rogers, “Liberty Road: Opposition to Impressment in Britain during the American War of Independence,” in Jack Tar in History, ed. C. Howell and R. Twomey (Fredericton, NB: Acadiensis Press, 1991), 54.

(5.) P. Linebaugh and M. Rediker, “The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves and the Atlantic Working Class in the Eighteenth Century,” in Howell and Twomey, Jack Tar in History, 15.

(6.) N. A. M. Rodger, The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain 1649–1815 (London: Penguin Books, 2004), 62.

(8.) Andrew Gibson and Arthur Donovan, The Abandoned Ocean: A History of United States Marine Policy (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2000), 33.

(9.) Ibid., 35.

(10.) Ibid., 43.

(13.) Enclosure no. 3, letter to Colonel Nicolls from Enderby et al., NSW, 16 September 1823, in McNab, Historical Records, 608–609.

(14.) Colonel Torren’s Proposal, 4 July 1826, in McNab, Historical Records, 664–665.

(15.) K. E. Larson, “Early Channels of Communication in the Pacific,” Ethnos (1966): 117.

(16.) George I. Quimby, “Hawaiians in the Fur Trade of North-west America, 1785–1820,” Journal of Pacific History 7 (1972): 93.

(17.) Reynolds, Voyage of the New Hazard, 33, 42. The Tarquin happens to have sunk when the captain, unable to free the ship of Indian boarders, set fire to the magazine. The explosion killed some one hundred Indians. Most of the crew were killed on board or when attempting to escape by boat. There are uncertainties regarding dates and the explosion. An account is given in the logbook of the Hamilton in the Essex Institute, Salem, MA.

(19.) Richard Copping, “A Narrative of Pacific Seafaring 1826–1892,” typescript (Crowther Archives, Hobart, Tasmania), 25.

(20.) Sailors were considered to be most dangerous people in the penal settlements (p.225) and elsewhere. So also were those from ships in port (see chapter 7). In 1796 sailors from the American fur trading ship Otter rescued the Scottish reformer Thomas Muir from Botany Bay, where he was serving a fourteen-year sentence for sedition in spreading the ideas of Tom Paine in Scotland. Many other convicts were smuggled on board ships and taken to the islands and America.

(21.) Rodger, Command of the Ocean, 397. Rodger comments that the only criminals the navy wanted were smugglers, “who had valuable skills.”

(22.) Robert Hughes, The Fatal Shore (Sydney: Pan Books, 1988), 269–291. The Trail (not mentioned by Hughes) is listed in the Sydney Gazette as arriving on 10 August 1816 from the Marquesas and Tahiti with six tons of pork and twenty tons of sandalwood. She sailed on 28 September and was reported in the press as taken by “runaway convicts.”

(24.) Joseph Osborne on the whaler Emerald (1835), quoted in Howard, “Rotuman Seafaring,” 129–130.

(25.) Examination of Andrew Henry (p. 45) and Captain H. Burns (p. 20), in Inquiry by Royal Commission into Certain Alleged Cases of Kidnapping of Natives of the Loyalty Islands Held at Sydney, 9th August 1869, under C. Rolleston. See also K. R. Howe, “Tourists, Sailors and Labourers,” Journal of Pacific History 13 (1978): 22–24.

(27.) Turnbull, Voyage round the World, 2:71, 3:125. Turnbull also observed the advantages of the trade to the NW coast for Hawaiian sailors who “acquire sufficient property to make themselves easy and comfortable, as well as respectable among their countrymen.”

(32.) Frank T. Bullen, The Cruise of the Cachalot (London: Smith Elder and Co., 1879).

(35.) Ibid., 28.

(37.) F. Parbury, Evidence before the Select Committee of the House of Lords on the Navigation Laws, 23 March 1848, Ordered by the House of Commons and printed 19 May 1848, in Records of Parliament to Questions 1422–1426 of Committee.

(38.) Sydney Shipping Gazette, 24 January 1818.

(39.) Ibid., 12 April 1817.

(41.) C. R. Straubel, ed., The Whaling Journal of Captain W. B. Rhodes of the Barque Australian of Sydney, 1836–1838 (Christchurch, New Zealand: Whitcombe and Tombs, 1954), xxxii.

(42.) H. E. Maude, Slavers in Paradise: The Peruvian Slave Trade in Polynesia, 1862–1864 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1981), 5–6.

(43.) Susan Chamberlain, An Analysis of the Composition of the Tasmanian Whaling Crews Based on Their Crew Agreements 1860–1898 (Hobart, Tasmania: Crowther Whaling Archives, 1982).

(46.) It was the debates over the British navigation laws in the 1840s that highlighted the fact that no examination was required for the position of an officer on board a British vessel. This situation was partially rectified by legislation in 1844, and by the 1870s, legislation also applied to foreign ships in the Pacific.

(47.) Reynolds, Voyage of the New Hazard, 387. Lang, who was promoted at the age of thirty-three as third mate and second mate, was the oldest man on the ship.

(51.) Margaret Creighton, “American Mariners and the Rites of Manhood, 1830–1870,” in Howell and Twomey, Jack Tar in History, 142.

(52.) Ibid., 145.

(57.) Hobart Mercury, 18 December 1858, Crowther Whaling Archives (Press Collection), Hobart, Tasmania.

(61.) The mixture of whalers and missionaries at Lahaina from the 1820s was lethal. The clergy prevailed on the governor of Maui to stop the women from consorting on board with sailors. There were several riots, which are colorfully portrayed in Rediscovering Hawaii (National Geographic Society, Cartographic Division, 1995): “The conflict reached a crescendo in 1827 when incensed seamen whistled cannon balls at the mission house before sailing for less inhibited Honolulu.”

(p.227) (62.) Gavan Daws, “Honolulu in the Nineteenth Century,” Journal of Pacific History 2 (1967): 89.

(63.) Deryck Scarr, ed., A Cruise in a Queensland Labor Vessel to the South Seas, by William A. Giles (Canberra: Australian National University Press, 1968), 34.