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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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Companies, Colonies, and Crewing

Companies, Colonies, and Crewing

Chapter Eight Companies, Colonies, and Crewing
Sailors and Traders

Alastair Couper

University of Hawai'i Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines the impact of colonization on merchant shipping companies, seafaring employment, and crewing in the Pacific Islands. It first looks at foreign merchant companies that competed against each other but cooperated when it was advantageous against island producers; these include Godeffroy and Son of Hamburg, which established the model for future Pacific commerce, as well as McArthur and Company, Henderson and MacFarlane, Deutsche Handels- und Plantagen-Gesellschaft (DHPG), and Nippon Yusen Kaisha. The chapter then considers the colonization of the Pacific that partitioned the islands between several colonial powers, along with technological changes in island trades, especially the shift from wind power to coal in propulsion and from wood to iron in ship construction. It also discusses government support such as subsidies to national companies and concludes with an analysis of three factors that eroded seafaring skills and reduced crew employment by Pacific people: administrative restrictions, technical change, and the so-called “yellow peril” effect.

Keywords:   colonization, merchant shipping, seafaring employment, crewing, Pacific Islands, foreign merchant, technological changes, administrative restrictions, yellow peril effect

THE COMMERCE, TECHNOLOGY, and imperial politics of the mid-nineteenth century transformed seafaring generally and had major repercussions for the sailors of the Pacific. The period was one of increasing industrialization of merchant shipping in Europe and America. In contrast to the near merchant adventuring voyages of past centuries, ships now became parts of a structured world system for the distribution of manufactured goods from the centers of industry, and for the transportation of massive tonnages of raw materials and foodstuffs from peripheral areas of the world. In turn, ocean passenger ships of the period, in both sail and steam, moved millions of people between places in an enlarged global economy. Sailors in the ship-owning countries were similarly becoming more industrialized. They acquired new skills for mechanization on deck and for steam propulsion. They also faced, as they saw it, unfair competition in wages by crews drawn from less developed countries in Africa, Asia, and the Pacific, and they combined in defense of wages and conditions under new industrial trade unions.

The overseas trading areas of the industrial countries were increasingly being demarcated as spheres of interest through resident commercial enterprises, agencies, and consuls and coming to be served by national shipping. These commercial developments were precursors to political annexation. The actual processes of colonization of the Pacific region is beyond the scope of this study, but it had such significance for Pacific seafaring employment that it needs to be summarized before considering crewing.

The progress from informal trading to more structured shipping, and on to large company dominance, moved quite rapidly. In Fiji during May 1839 the missionaries Cargill and Calvert remarked that a few Europeans were based at Levuka: “These men lived with native women, built boats, (p.137) made chests, planted food, and traded with the natives for biche-de-mar, turtle shell, coaconut oil and arrow-root, which they sold for articles of barter to vessels principally from America. Several of them chartered their small schooners, and hired themselves to these trading vessels.”1

By the early 1860s around two hundred Europeans were more widely settled in Fiji as traders and planters. The British consul at Levuka reported on methods of trading, which had moved from itinerant buying and selling on board to serving small-scale island traders: “The masters generally make the tour of the several groups of islands, calling at each of the trading stations, and replenishing the stock of the resident traders as they may require to have it renewed. The cargo is seldom consigned to any merchant residing in the islands, but is left for the master or supercargo to dispose of to the best of his judgment.”2

Already political intervention in these activities was emanating from distant foreign governments with no real authority in the country. The British consular record book of Fiji from 1863 to 1865 includes warnings to chiefs: “Now it is your duty as chief to keep your people in order and protect the property of the white traders. … [T]hink well over these matters and punish all evil doers.”3 By the late 1860s a wider dispersion of settlers had occurred, and it was necessary to have regular communication with bigger firms and overseas ships at the port town of Levuka. In 1874 a local fleet with Fijian crews owned by foreign traders and planters included “36 ketches, cutters, and schooners from 2 to 12 tons; 27 other vessels under 5 tons; and many larger ranging up to 60 or 70 tons.”4

As island economies diversified, so did the volume and types of shipping. New craft were built in New Zealand and ultimately elsewhere in the region. They were designed specifically to meet the physical and economic conditions of the islands. Mainly these were three- and two-masted schooners between 70 and 200 tons (such as the Samoa, shown in Figure 8.1). They carried small square topsails and two or more fore and aft mainsails and had streamlined hulls for speed and low draughts for access. The topsail schooners could sail closer to the wind than the previous foreign-built traders and whalers, they were nimble at tacking, and seldom did sailors go aloft to shorten sails in bad weather. Crew sizes were reduced on average to a master, one or two mates, and six or so sailors.5 This was a considerable economic advantage at a time of social and political pressures to recruit higher-wage sailors from the growing European populations at places of shipbuilding and ship owning in Australia, New Zealand, and America. (p.138)

Companies, Colonies, and Crewing

Figure 8.1. The Samoa, a typical three-masted auxiliary topsail schooner of 171 tons, measuring 106.8 by 25 by 11.2 feet. Built in Whangaroa in 1902, she plied as a German recruiting vessel in the Pacific. During 1922 she was acquired by Burns Philp for trading in the Gilberts.

The drawings are by Captain G. Heyen, who was mate of the Samoa from 1922 to 1923. She was lost in 1924.

Major Merchant Shipping Companies

With the rise in the demand for island products and the profits to be derived from this, and even more from the sale of trade goods, there was greatly increased interest from large European trading houses. The company that established the model for future Pacific commerce was Godeffroy and Son of Hamburg. Its ships of the White Falcon Line were already engaged in passenger and cargo carriage to the American West Coast and to New South Wales. They entered the Pacific island trades from a depot in the Tuamotus in the 1850s and Samoa in 1857.6 The company recruited (p.139) local beachcombers or established new resident traders, irrespective of nationality, in networks over most groups of islands.7 They purchased coconut oil and ultimately copra on commission, and the goods were then carried by Godeffroy’s ships and chartered schooners mainly to Apia for onward transportation to Valparaiso en route to Europe.

A sequence of other foreign merchant companies followed that competed against each other but cooperated when it was advantageous against island producers. Most of the companies were financially supported by their governments as they consolidated commercial spheres of interest. The new companies built on the trading patterns of the schooner era. They went on to employ ships of increased tonnage and introduced technological changes from sail with auxiliary engines to fully powered steamships. Over this period British trading interests were served by vessels direct from the United Kingdom and through Australasian transshipments.

Merchant shipping companies operating from Australia in the 1850s included a Chinese firm in Sydney, On Chong, which sailed to the Gilberts, and Burns Philp, which traded to New Guinea in the 1880s and thereafter to most of the Pacific (except Tahiti). From New Zealand came McArthur and Company, Henderson and MacFarlane, and the Union Steamship Company, sailing to Fiji, Rotuma, Ellice, the Gilberts, the Cooks, Samoa, and Tonga. Henderson and MacFarlane had already taken over most of the Maori commercial coastal routes around New Zealand in the 1850s.

The German companies that followed Godeffroy included the Deutsche Handels- und Plantagen-Gesellschaft (DHPG), Jaluit Gesellschaft, Ruge, Norddeutscher Lloyd, Hernsheim, and the Capelle Company. They operated from Ponape, Yap, and Jaluit in the northwest and from Apia and Sydney, to New Guinea, the Solomons, Fiji, the Gilberts, the Marshalls, and Tonga.8 The French Société Française, Ballande and Son, and Messageries Maritimes covered the New Hebrides, New Caledonia, and the Society Islands. Japanese merchant companies arrived in the 1890s, mainly the ships of Nippon Yusen Kaisha (NYK). They traded into the Marianas, the Carolines, the northern Gilberts, and Sydney but were effectively excluded from the Marshalls by the Germans. The Dutch vessels of Koninklijke Paketvaart Maatschappij (KPM) Line also operated from Southeast Asia to Sydney, calling at New Guinea. The French had services direct from France to New Caledonia and New Hebrides, from which large fleets of schooners belonging to settlers operated more widely.9

American companies, including Messrs. Crawford and Messrs. Wight-man, operated out of Jaluit in the Marshalls and Butaritari in the Gilberts, and John Rothschild, sailing from Samoa. Several American sailing ships (p.140) ran from San Francisco, calling at Hawai‘i and crossing the Pacific to the Far East. These fast clippers dominated most of the long-distance routes until the Civil War in the 1860s. Smaller American schooners were very active in Hawai‘i and periodically traded from there to Tahiti and to the Marquesas. During the 1830s about ten schooners were still owned by the Hawaiian royal family. By the 1850s these were sold to private investors. Of the sixty-five ships then registered in Hawai‘i, only a few were owned by native Hawaiians; most belonged to Americans, many of whom were by then Hawaiian citizens.10


The managers of the major merchant companies based at the main entrepôts in the islands were often ex-sailors. Several acted as consuls for their governments and supported the companies in many ways, including evoking gunboat diplomacy. A prime example is John Bates Thurston. He served at sea in the island trades, was wrecked at Rotuma in 1865, became British consul in Fiji in 1867, was highly influential in the negotiations for the ceding of Fiji to Britain in 1874, and became governor of Fiji in 1887. The companies, the new settlers, and their sympathetic consuls pressed for annexations. The French were the first to act and took Tahiti, the Marquesas, and the Tuamotus as French protectorates in 1842 and New Caledonia in 1853. These were declared colonies in 1880, and the Australs and Wallis and Futuna in 1887.

The British annexed Fiji in 1874 and established protectorates over southeast New Guinea in 1884, Gilbert and Ellice in 1892, most of the Solomons soon after, and Ocean Island in 1900. They agreed that New Zealand would exercise authority over the Kermadecs in 1887, the Tokelaus in 1889, and the Cooks and Niue in 1901. The Dutch took western New Guinea in 1848. Germany annexed northeast New Guinea in 1885, along with the Bismarck Archipelago and the northwest Solomons; took possession of most of the Carolines in 1885; and ultimately purchased Yap and other islands in the Carolines and Marianas from Spain in 1899. The Germans also acquired the Marshall Islands in 1884 and took over Nauru in 1888. Chile obtained Easter Island in 1888.11

America, after its disastrous Civil War, had not recovered a significant merchant fleet and showed little inclination for acquiring Pacific territory. American guano companies had already secured legislation in 1856–1860 that allowed claims over some small Pacific islands, and the US government went on to secure others, including Baker, Jarvis, Johnson, Midway, (p.141) Palmyra, and Wake. In 1893 the influential American maritime geostrategist Alfred Mahan wrote that it was “imperative to take possession, when it can be righteously done, of such maritime positions as can contribute to secure command.”12 In 1898, Hawai‘i was annexed (US citizenships were granted in 1900), as was eastern Samoa with Pago Pago as a main naval coaling station, while Guam was captured from Spain by the US Navy in 1898.

The Pacific was now effectively divided between several colonial powers mainly by agreements. In the final carve-up, it was confirmed that Western Samoa was a German colony separated from American Samoa in the east. In turn Germany agreed to relinquish claims for Tonga. As a result, in the closing days Tonga appeared to survive as the only independent Polynesian kingdom, although not quite. It was declared a British protectorate in 1900, and in 1905 it was decreed mandatory for the king of Tonga to take advice from the British consul on all matters of importance.13 Finally, in 1906 New Hebrides was divided as a condominium between Britain and France.

Technological Change

The companies secure within colonial territories made more capital investments in land, stores, and shipping. A major item was the shift from wind power to coal in propulsion and from wood to iron in ship construction. In many ways sail was still more suited to Pacific conditions. Distances were great—some 6,500 miles from San Francisco to Sydney. By then more information was available on favorable winds and currents for passage planning under sail, where calms had always been of more concern than storms. The early steamships, carrying around 1,500 tons of cargo, were disadvantaged, as they burned about thirty-five tons of coal per day to give a speed of seven knots. This meant coaling stations were required across the Pacific, including Honolulu (2,100 miles from San Francisco), Suva (2,800 miles from Honolulu), and to reach Sydney, another 1,700 miles away. Coal was expensive whereas wind was free. Bunkers took up cargo space and added weight, as did the engines, which required spares, skilled engineers, and technical maintenance. Coal in turn had to be brought to bunkering ports by other ships and stockpiled. By the 1870s there were bigger steamships with more efficient engines, requiring a coal consumption of fourteen tons per day at nine knots. Sail then focused internationally on low-value bulk but continued on some Pacific routes.

(p.142) In the island trades the strategies adopted by several companies were to continue using sail for the long-haul supply ships from main ports, ultimately with auxiliary engines, and steam vessels for trading permanently around the islands, for a time with auxiliary sail (figure 8.2). The advantages of steam and diesel propulsion in the islands included improved schedules, greater maneuverability in reef areas, ability to work clear from a lee shore, and the facility to leave lagoons regardless of wind direction. On Chong employed the barque Loongana for the 2,500-mile passage from Sydney to the north Gilberts, and steam vessels such as the St. George for trading around the islands. It was such a successful division that when the Loongana was lost, she was replaced by the sailing ship Alexa, until she too was lost in 1924.

Companies, Colonies, and Crewing

Figure8.2. The ship’s company of the Janet Nicholl, a 600-ton steamship with an auxiliary topsail. She replaced several Henderson and MacFarlane sailing vessels. There were nine European officers and a deck and engine crew of forty from the Solomons and the New Hebrides. The ship sailed from Sydney on 11 April 1890 on a round voyage via New Zealand to the Henderson and MacFarlane trading stations in the Pacific (and delivering Niue Island labourers home). On board were the charterer Harry Henderson, R. L. and Fanny Stevenson, and her son, Lloyd Osbourne (photographer).

(Courtesy of the Writers’ Museum, Edinburgh)

(p.143) By the 1890s the more energy-efficient steamships of Burns Philp (BP) had made complete trading circuits from Sydney northward to the Solomon Islands and on to Jaluit, then south through the Gilbert and Ellice and Fiji groups and back to Sydney. The BP trading vessel in the German-controlled Marshall Islands dealt directly with island people through its trade room. Over six weeks or so, it called at twenty islands with some sixty stopping places, covering about 1,900 miles in the group.14

The original companies in the Pacific were still primarily merchants who owned ships for the carriage of their own cargos. They delivered “tea and sugar” to their island trade stores outward and loaded copra for sale on the world markets. Costs of carriage and insurance were added to the consumer goods delivered and were deducted from the prices paid to producers for copra. The resident traders of all nationalities who were employed in their island stores worked on selling and buying commissions. Many of them married local women, and some wives and offspring were great assets in the business; others believed there were too many obligations to relatives.15 A normal procedure was for the vessels to anchor in the lagoons or to stand off and on at sea. Supercargoes would use work-boats to reach each trade store. Where there was no company store, they would weigh and bag copra on the beach and issue a chit to the producers for the value of their copra. People would then go out to the ship and exchange the chit for an equivalent value of goods in the trade room.16

Government Support to the Companies

Shipping services were essential for the maintenance of the island empires in the movements of officials, mail, and cargo. Subsidies were provided by governments for these purposes and to support the competitive position of national companies. The P&O Line and the French Compagnie des Messageries Maritimes operated subsidized services from Europe to Australia, with connections and transshipments at Sydney. The German Norddeutscher Lloyd did likewise, and the Dutch KPM made onward connections to Australia and New Guinea from the East Indies under subsidy. In the late 1890s the Japanese government financially supported ships operating from Yokohama via Hong Kong to Sydney and calling at several Pacific islands. The transshipment services from Australia and New Zealand to and from the Pacific Islands were likewise subsidized.

Competitive subsidization, cargo reservation, and flag preferences were thus common between the imperial administrations. They favored (p.144) the largest companies, which could maintain mail and passenger schedules and provide ships of the required standards.17 But the demands of the schedules often caused problems. N. Chatfield of Burns Philp describes how in 1907 the schedule of the SS Malaita (929 tons) involved Sydney-Vila-Tarawa (where she met the BP regional vessels Kerry and Titus), then through the islands groups south of Tarawa and on to Vila. The ship made twenty-three calls in twenty-two days in the islands, the crew had little time to trade and on occasion refused to load copra from noncompany traders.18

These mail runs were important for administrators and they strengthened the power of the merchant companies, but they were unpopular with small-scale traders, and even more so with the people on several remoter islands that had lost all their resident traders by the early twentieth century. There were a few small unsubsidized companies, such as that of Captain Allen, that picked up trade in very small, distant places. His supply brigantine Jeanette ran from Sydney to Funafuti, and the SS Dawn, with a trade room, made the rounds from there. Similarly, small Chinese vessels, including the auxiliary schooners of Tiy Sang and Company, increasingly competed with the companies, as did their very small trading stores, which soon were the most prevalent in the remoter islands.19

The major companies operating from colonial territories gained other advantages from colonial policies. The administrators concentrated all overseas shipping at specific ports in order to levy custom duties, port and light dues, and control matters of security, health, and immigration. This reduced foreign political and commercial interventions in outer islands. In Fiji, Suva and Levuka were designated ports of entry in 1882, and all other ports were closed to direct overseas calls.20 The German consul at Apia wrote to Bismarck: “In Rotuma the company monopolised the whole trade, until that island was annexed by England. Since then, vessels proceeding to Rotuma are obliged to call at a port of entry in the Fiji group; and this restriction necessitated a stoppage of the trade, and the company’s buildings on the islands have recently been sold with great loss.”21

As German trade to Rotuma receded, the High Commission in Fiji wrote to the major New Zealand firm of Henderson and MacFarlane:

In the event of the Archer coming to Fiji there is no reason why your firm should not also resume trading at Rotuma, with which island there is very little connection with the outside world, of where there is every reason to suppose you might do a profitable business. As regards this (p.145) part of the question I am to say that the HC, as Governor of Fiji would make arrangements by which you would be relieved of customs duties leviable in respect of that island. The island you are aware exports about 600 tons of copra annually.22

The US government agreed to subsidies in 1867 for steam packets from San Francisco to Honolulu and onwards to Australia. The Australian and New Zealand governments did likewise for their ships to link with Hawai‘i and the American West Coast.23 Burns Philp complained that when an Australian ship called at Hawai‘i, she was not allowed to take cargo to San Francisco or any other American port. The company complained also in 1904 that the German authorities at the port of entry Jaluit were charging 2,700 pounds for trading licenses to foreign vessels and 100 pounds to ships flying the German flag. The BP ship Ysabel was refused fresh water at Jaluit; and the Jaluit Gesellschaft tried to prohibit BP from trading in the Carolines and the Marshalls.24 In New Caledonia, port dues were heavy on all vessels except those of the Compagnie des Messageries Maritimes. The Japanese trading in the Mariana and Caroline Islands imposed similar restrictions.

Displacement of Pacific Seafarers

The erosion of the seafaring skills and the reduction of crew employment by Pacific people were some of the results of these commercial and colonial policies. In this period seafaring became more nationally homogenous to the countries of ship owning, and elements of racism now entered into the relationships between multiethnic seafarers. This undermined the traditional unity of the foc’sle that had prevailed on most ships. There were several reasons for these changes, both intentional and unintentional. They may be summarized under three headings, as follows.

Administrative Restrictions

The colonial administrators were from the start ambivalent about the movement of indigenous craft within their own island groups and across political boundaries between islands. They could not always grasp the extent or purport of the noncommercial exchanges, which had taken place for centuries. Sir Arthur Gordon, who became the first governor of Fiji in 1875, adopted at best a condescending attitude toward the great Solevu exchanges by simply tolerating them on the grounds that “they would form a substitute for commerce until the natives should become better accustomed (p.146) to money as a medium of exchange, and it was inseparable from the quasi-communal institutions in which the race had been raised.”25

By 1896 Gordon’s successors had decided that solevu was a burden on the people, and in any case had “lost much of their native character,” adding with disapproval that “at Rewa a cutter filled to the hatches with cases of kerosene formed the contribution of the Toga district.”26 Attempts followed to curtail large-scale interisland exchanges in Fiji.

It was much the same story in several other parts of the Pacific. In 1896 Telford Campbell, resident commissioner of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands reported that he had managed to obtain a check “on natives who formerly travelled indiscriminately on what were nothing more than predatory voyages.”27 Arthur Mahaffy, who carried out an official survey of the colony in 1909, commended this prohibition. He deduced that the equatorial current was too hazardous for native vessels and people, and that “the government has wisely declared that all interisland voyages save on trading steamers are unlawful.”28 This suited the shipping companies. However, it not only destroyed local vessel building skills and navigational knowledge but also negated a nursery for young men with a love of adventure and the sea, thereby keeping them from entering commercial shipping with experience in the future.

In Hawai‘i there was already a considerable body of native Hawaiian seafarers serving on local commercial vessels. Some were captains and officers, but the majority were sailors particularly skilled under sail and in workboat handling through heavy surf. Soon after Hawai‘i’s annexation in 1898, American regulations were brought into force. All captains and officers were required to pass examinations for US marine licenses before they could continue serving at sea. The Hawaiian mariners had their own less formal practical training systems, and few could attend the new maritime training establishments. Other than on small vessels, their positions were taken by licensed men from the mainland Pacific coast who received higher rates of wages but had less experience.

Vessels were also subject to US survey standards of hull and equipment, and strict limits were placed on the carriage of cargo and passengers. It was necessary to refit ships, and although steamship companies such as Wilder met most of the standards, others went out of business. Along with the high rates of wages to mainland officers, these costs raised freight rates and fares, to the disadvantage of island people in agriculture.

To make matters worse, regulatory changes coincided with an outbreak of bubonic plague in Hawai‘i. The indigenous population as a whole was already depleted, and the decrease was being compensated for by immigrants (p.147) from Asia. Japanese in particular were now recruited as sailors from new arrivals to overcome shortages of crew. Like the officers from the mainland, they were unfamiliar with the difficult conditions on the Hawaiian coast, and especially at the fifty or so open boat landings. Consequently there were “many accidents.”29 To give one typical example, when the engine of the auxiliary schooner Surprise failed on a lee shore at Koloa, the officers and the ten Japanese crew did not have enough experience to bring her clear under sail and she was totally lost.30

Impact of Technical Change

The decline in sail and the use of steam became widespread in the Pacific at the turn of the century. Sailing vessels that continued in island work were generally retrofitted with auxiliary engines along with power-driven winches and windlasses. These were laborsaving and safety developments that reduced deck crew size. On the big steamships changes in social structure and divisions of labor were considerable. Not only were there fewer sailors on deck, but an engine room component was also added with a crew of about twenty, including a chief engineer and four engineer officers. The technology involved was beyond the everyday experiences of most Pacific islanders. They were still employed in the skilled and dangerous tasks of working cargo and handling boats at landings, but increasingly they were hired locally and cheaply on a part-time basis. The permanent white crews of the trunk line ships were recruited in Australasia and on the Pacific coast of America. A manager of Burns Philp noted in 1913: “A number of natives do nearly all the work on board in the islands, boating and landing copra etc, and the white crew usually have a very easy time.”31 The impact of steam and mechanical deck power was similar in whaling employment. The introduction of mechanized whale catchers and the gun harpoon in 1865, the reductions in the demand for sperm oil against mineral and vegetable products, and shifts of much of the whaling out of the Central Pacific all reduced the demand for Pacific island crews on whaleships.

The “Yellow Peril” Effect

The reference by Burns Philp to “native” and “white” crews touched on a topical issue that negatively affected the employment of Pacific island seafarers on the ships of some countries. The white working classes in Australasia and California were increasingly agitated by influxes of Asians as cheap labor. This became a major political issue and a focus of the emerging trade union movement. By this time the populations of Australia (p.148) and New Zealand included descendants of transported convicts, along with free workers, mainly from the British Isles, who had left Britain in search of a better life. A culture of militancy among them was fuelled by oral traditions, including stories of the Scottish martyrs of 1793, transported Irish dissidents in the 1800s, the arrival of the first British trade union (Tolpuddle Martyrs) in 1834, and the Eureka rebels in the Australian goldfields during 1854. The nineteenth-century Australian proletariat was wary of any threats that cheap labor posed to newly won advances in working conditions.

Much of the Californian working class had similar backgrounds of European radicalism. There were disillusioned gold miners, many of whom were ex-sailors who had jumped ship in 1848 and were now seeking work. The European working population as a whole saw as a threat—termed the “yellow peril”—the Chinese who were brought in for railway construction and ended up in the West Coast. There were seamen strikes in the 1850s over wages and conditions, and attempts to build unions, but these were defeated because of a plentiful supply of labor willing to man the ships. The traditional negotiating procedures of individual crews trying to fix wages and conditions with masters and agents continued to prevail at this time, and strikes were usually ship-specific incidents.

In the late nineteenth century there were amalgamations into bigger companies owning many vessels. These operated scheduled services and had crews that now contained European engine room ratings of working-class origins, all of which facilitated the establishment of seafaring unions as unified negotiating bodies. The Federated Seamen’s Union of Australia was founded in 1878, and the Federated Seamen’s Union of New Zealand in 1880.32 In America the Coast Seamen’s Union was formed in 1885 by a Norwegian and a Swede (members of the Industrial Workers of the World, or IWW) and became the Sailors’ Union of the Pacific in 1889. These and other unions of industrialized maritime countries were linked internationally, ultimately through the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) in 1898.33 At this time ships in the Pacific trade normally had island sailors and European officers (see figure 8.2).

Some maritime unions in the Pacific Rim had already become more exclusive nationally and racially in response to non-European immigrants and the threats of cheap crewing. When the Australasian Steam Navigation Company introduced a low-wage Chinese crew on one of its ships in 1878, the new union brought Australian seamen out on strike and the Chinese were discharged.34 A few union officials were blatantly racist; others evoked more egalitarian principles, advocating “equal pay for (p.149) equal work.”35 In 1901 the Australian government, responding to wider political pressures in the country, legitimized racial discrimination under the White Australia Policy.36 This policy became applicable to Pacific seafarers as government subsidies were awarded only to companies that included the contract clause “No coloured labour shall be employed on board [named ship] except that coloured labour may be employed in and around the islands, but solely in connection with boating and the landing, handling and discharge of cargo.”37 Similarly in New Zealand in 1906 a court ruling “effectively prohibited New Zealand shipowners—notably the Union Company—from employing ‘foreign seamen’ on their overseas routes.”38

In America there was a series of seamen strikes, some of which involved the “coolie issue.” The unions were eventually successful in achieving major improvements in wages and conditions under the articles of the 1915 Seamen’s Act. Part of their objective of “US jobs for US sailors” was also met by the introduction of a language test and the setting of crew qualifications for foreign seamen. According to Andrew Gibson and Arthur Donovan, this was “an indirect way of outlawing the hiring of Chinese crews, such as those that had served very effectively on many American ships sailing in the Pacific.”39 The law also caught some Pacific sailors in its net.

In effect, and sometimes by default, discriminatory actions and legislation from the 1880s up to the First World War that were directed mainly at Asians contributed to the loss of employment among Pacific island seafarers. Conrad Bollinger, who wrote the official history of the New Zealand Seamen’s Union, remarks that “the Union’s name was put to some very dubious policies in the perfectly legitimate defence of members’ jobs and conditions.”40

Clearly, the political partitioning of the Pacific, new laws, company strength, and the advancement and protection of European employment at sea greatly curtailed the free mobility and choices of Pacific people, and much of their cultural relationships with the sea. As massive as these events were, they were not altogether overwhelming. Traditional voyages persisted in several places, and there were protests and many attempts by Pacific island societies to compete in maritime commercial enterprises. (p.150)


(2.) Consular Letter Books, Western Pacific High Commission, National Archives of Fiji, Suva (hereafter “CLB”), 26 December 1865, 469–486.

(5.) See David Young, “Sailing to Levuka: The Cultural Significance of the Island Schooners in the Late 19th Century,” Journal of Pacific History 28 (1993): 36–52. This paper provides a detailed account of the types of vessels used. See also Hawkins “Passage of Sail,” 1.

(6.) F. M. Spoehr, White Falcon: The House of Godeffroy and Its Commercial and Scientific Role in the Pacific (Palo Alto, CA: Pacific Books, 1963), 46–47.

(7.) Area, Population, Trade, etc., of the Principal Groups of Islands, report by Mr. Steed (1874), in New Zealand Parliamentary Papers (Wellington; here-after “NZPP”), A-3A.

(p.230) (8.) R. W. Dalton, “Reports on the Trade of the Fiji Islands” and “Trade of Western Samoa and Tonga,” typescript (Suva: Central Archives of the Western Pacific High Commission, 1918, 1919).

(9.) See also K. Buckley and K. Klugman, The History of Burns Philp (Sydney: Burns Philp and Co., 1981).

(11.) There are numerous accounts of colonization. Useful for this summary were W. P. Morrell, Britain in the Pacific Islands (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1960); Lal and Fortune, Pacific Islands; and Denoon, Mein-Smith, and Wyndham, History of Australia.

(13.) Peter Hempenstall and Noel Rutherford, Protest and Dissent in the Colonial Pacific (Suva: University of the South Pacific, 1984), 49.

(14.) K. Buckley and K. Klugman, South Pacific Focus (Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1986), report 1 of January 1910, 14.

(15.) See Frank Burnett, Through Tropic Seas (London, 1910), 98, for an account of Breckenfeldt on Nanouti, who had to padlock everything against the depredations of his many wives, in comparison with Captain Randall of Butaritari, whose wife was from a royal family and often acted as his super-cargo. Described by J. J. Mahlmann, “Reminiscences of an Ancient Mariner,” Japan Gazette (Yokohama, 1918), 22.

(16.) N. Chatfield, “Recollection of the Shipping Department of Burns Philp and Co. 1883–1914,” typescript (Sydney: Mitchell Library, 1957).

(17.) Detailed information on subsidies is provided in “Memorandum re the Future of Australian Interests in the Pacific” (Sydney, 19 January 1915), in Burns Philp Papers, University of Sydney Library. See also Buckley and Klugman, History of Burns Philp.

(19.) G. B. Smith-Rawse, Ellice Islands Annual Report, no. 9 of 1913 (London: Colonial Office).

(20.) Fiji, Return of Customs Dues, Exports and Navigation 1881–1884 (Suva, 1885).

(21.) Dr. Stuebal to Prince Bismarck (1885), correspondence, NZPP, A-4D.

(22.) Henderson and MacFarlane, letter, 16 August 1893, Western Pacific High Commission, Central Archives, Suva.

(25.) Fiji, Report of the Commission of Inquire into the Decrease of the Native Population (Suva: Government Printer, 1896), 59.

(26.) Ibid., 60.

(27.) W. T. Campbell, Gilbert and Ellice Islands: Report for the Years 1896–1900 (London: Colonial Office 225/61, 30340; Mitchell Library, Sydney).

(p.231) (28.) A. W. Mahaffy, Report on a Visit to the Gilbert and Ellice Islands in 1909, Cd. 4992, CO225 (London, 1910).

(30.) Ibid., 99–100.

(32.) Conrad Bollinger, Against the Wind (Wellington: New Zealand Seamen’s Union, 1968), 86.

(33.) Stephen Schwartz, Brotherhood of the Sea: A History of the Sailors Union of the Pacific, 1885–1985 (San Francisco: Robert Matlock Printing Co., 1986). Also see National Maritime Union, On a True Course: The Story of the National Maritime Union (New York, 1967). Conrad Bollinger makes the point that militant New Zealand seamen were impressed by “the propaganda of the American Wobblies [IWW] on the Pacific coast”; Bollinger, Against the Wind, 90.

(34.) Charles Price, “White Restrictions on Colonial Immigration,” Race 7, no. 3 (1966): 222.

(36.) Myra Willard, History of the White Australia Policy to 1920 (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1974), 51.