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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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The Global Pacific Seafarer

The Global Pacific Seafarer

Chapter Eleven The Global Pacific Seafarer
Sailors and Traders

Alastair Couper

University of Hawai'i Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter discusses the employment of Pacific sailors in international shipping companies by focusing on the case of Kiribati. One and a quarter million merchant seafarers were supplied to international shipping in the year 2005, and more than half a million came from the Philippines, Indonesia, China, Turkey, and India. The Pacific Islands supplied only about 7,300 officers and ratings, but this number is of great economic significance for many small islands. Pacific islanders serve on overseas merchant ships that belong predominantly to American, British, German, and French companies. This chapter first considers seafarer selection, training, and crewing in Kiribati before analyzing the 100 crew lists of multinational ships, including twelve vessels with I-Kiribati officers. It then describes the life at sea of an I-Kiribati sailor and goes on to examine the seafarers' occupational safety and health, along with the difficulties they experience upon their return home from the sea. It also looks at maritime trade unions in Kiribati and concludes with an assessment of seafaring paradigm in Kiribati.

Keywords:   employment, sailors, Kiribati, international shipping, overseas merchant ships, crewing, occupational health, maritime trade unions, seafaring

THE ECONOMIC CRISIS after 1973 brought a fall in ocean freight rates and fierce competition within an overtonnaged world merchant fleet. This was followed by increased shifts in the recruitment of seafarers from western Europe and North America to the lower-labor-cost countries of Asia and the Pacific and, more recently, to Russia and eastern Europe. Of the one and a quarter million merchant seafarers supplied to international shipping in the year 2005, more than half a million came from the Philippines, Indonesia, China, Turkey, and India. The Pacific Islands supplied only about 7,300 officers and ratings (table 9). However, this number is of great economic significance for many small islands, and the regular rotation mainly of young men between sea and land has profoundly affected island social and cultural life.

The overseas merchant ships on which Pacific islanders serve belong predominantly to German, French, British, and American companies. Many operate under the flags of convenience (FOCs) of Liberia, Cyprus, Antigua, and Panama.1 FOCs enable owners to recruit from anywhere in the world at reduced labor costs and avoid home-state corporation taxation and social legislation. The less scrupulous FOC shipowners can also disregard the rights of seafarers with impunity; they can conceal their own identities and safely assume that the states whose flags they use have neither the will nor the capability to enforce international safety conventions on their vessels.2

Hiring out their sovereignty as FOCs is a source of revenue for many developing countries, including some in the Pacific. The Marshall Islands by 2006 had moved to fourth-highest place in the world shipping league, with 953 ships, totaling nearly 33 million GT, under its flag. Vanuatu had 419 ships, aggregating 2 million GT; Tonga, possibly nearly 0.5 million GT; and Tuvalu, 60 vessels.3 These Pacific-registered ships trade internationally, have no genuine ownership links with the flags they fly, and, considering the hundreds of ships involved, employ only a few Pacific (p.187) island sailors. The island governments benefit mainly from ship registration fees.

In addition to the FOC system, Germany, France, and Britain register vessels under a second register.4 These ships fly nationally related flags that have to comply with several national laws, but the shipowners enjoy tax-haven allowances and the same freedom to recruit anywhere in the world (“crews of convenience”). Most of the vessels sailing under FOCs and

Table 9. Supply of seafarers to international shipping from the Pacific Islands, 2005




Cook Islands




Federated States of Micronesia








French Polynesia












Marshall Islands




New Caledonia




Northern Mariana Islands




Papua New Guinea








Solomon Islands
















Wallis and Futuna








Source: BIMCO ISF Manpower Update—The World Demand for and Supply of Seafarers (Coventry: Warwick Institute for Employment Research, 2005).

(*) In 2007 there were 180 ni-Vanuatu “catering attendants” (including 50 women) sailing on Carnival Cruise ships out of Australia and about 30 ni-Vanuatu seafarers on other foreign flag ships. None were on any Vanuatu flag-of-convenience vessels, according to SPC Regional Maritime Programme data. Some of the returns in the BIMCO ISF survey on the supply of seafarers in this table must include crews of bigger interisland ships as well as international vessels. There is validity in this, since sailors move from one sector to the other.

(p.188) second registries have multinational crews. The global hierarchical structure is broadly 40 percent officers from countries in the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), plus Russia, Poland, and some of the eastern European states, and most of the ratings from eastern Europe and developing countries, including some Pacific islands.

Increasingly, young men and a few women from the Pacific are moving to officer ranks on foreign-flag ships, as there is a dire shortage of officers in the developed ship-owning states. The shortage is due to both declining interest in careers at sea and the losses of trained personnel arising from demands ashore in business, technology, and administration for well-qualified mariners. One of the several advantages to Germany, for example, of recruiting lower-cost sailors in Kiribati and training some of them to officer levels is the lack of well-paid employment in islands for their skills, which would attract officers ashore. Thus there is a minimizing of wastage from manpower training investments.5 There are twelve maritime training institutions in the Pacific Islands. Only Fiji and Papua New Guinea provide the full range of education and training from presea, rating, and officer courses to Class 1 foreign-going masters and chief engineers. Several other places offer training of ratings and/or junior officers. There is mobility in training, with concentrations for special courses under the coordination of the SPC Regional Maritime Programme.

The example chosen for a case study in global seafaring is Kiribati, for several reasons. Kiribati in 1959 (as part of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands crown colony, GEIC) was already supplying seafarers to the China Navigation Company of Britain. There were also crews and a few I-Kiribati nationals serving as officers, usually with European captains, on colony ships sailing on long-distance interisland routes. In terms of distance, Kiribati shipping was virtually foreign-going. There were the requirements to service 1,000 miles of small islands of the Gilbert and Ellice, and round-trips of 3,600 miles to Christmas Island. The Moana Raoi (250 tons) was one of two vessels making these trips and also connecting with Fiji. Voyages to distant islands were made carrying small quantities of cargo and many deck passengers (figure 11.1). In 1964 the last of the Tangitang vessels, the Aratoba, was finally abandoned, and the crews were seeking work. During 1966 a vessel of the Hamburg Süd line of Germany called at Tarawa, where the captain was impressed by these developments and by the sturdy, amiable young men clearly keen and available to work as sailors. The company followed this up, and as is evident from table 9, Kiribati is now the principal country in the Pacific island region for supplying seafarers. (p.189)

The Global Pacific Seafarer

Figure 11.1. The MV Moana Raoi (250 GT) was one of two interisland/foreign-going vessels of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands. The ship was on a passage from Tarawa to Suva, calling at all islands on the way and working cargo and carrying passengers between them when this photograph was taken. Ship boats are shown landing deck passengers at Funafuti, Tuvalu.

(Photograph by the author, 1964)

Selection, Training, and Crewing in Kiribati

In 1967 Hamburg Süd, with assistance of the British and German governments and the UN, established what became the Marine Training Centre (MTC) at Betio, Tarawa, under the agency of the South Pacific Marine Services (SPMS). It ultimately developed as the leading center for the training and supply of I-Kiribati seafarers to nine German-owned shipping companies. Recruitment is carried out in conjunction with the government of Kiribati, based on a quota determined by the size of population on each island. Selection includes written tests in the English language, and basic mathematics, physics, and geography, together with an interview and a physical examination. These are relatively high requirements for positions (p.190) as ratings, and they form the possible basis for junior officer courses that are conducted in Fiji. Later in their careers they may take senior courses (master mariner and first class marine engineer) available in Fiji, Papua New Guinea, New Zealand, Australia, and the UK financed by foreign scholarships and interest-free loans from German companies. This makes a career at sea highly attractive, and applications for the hundred places available at MTC are received each year from more than one thousand young men. No females had been accepted as of 2007.

While at MTC, students are generally at ages eighteen to twenty-four but are accepted to age thirty. They obtain their keep and receive a small spending allowance of AU$10 per week. There is rigorous pre-sea training, which lasts for fifteen months and includes voyages on a local trading ship fitted with training facilities. Successful students are then allocated to German-owned vessels as general-purpose ratings. Later, as ordinary seamen (OS), they are divided into either deck or engine room duties, according to aptitude and preferences. Voyage contracts are for twelve months. After prescribed sea time, further training courses are conducted at MTC for upgrading to AB and motorman (MM). A similar center, established at Funafuti in Tuvalu after the partition of the GEIC in 1979, also supplies sailors for German-owned shipping, partly through SPMS.6

Analysis of Crew Lists

As in the past, there is considerable mobility of multinational ships’ crews and therefore difficulties in obtaining accurate data. For this reason, determining details of crewing depends on acquiring the crew lists of specific ships at a single port on one day of a voyage. In 2001 there were 874 I-Kiribati ratings on German-owned ships, primarily under the Liberian and Cypriot flags, and 326 under German second register. Other seafarers were on leave. Analysis of one hundred crew lists of ships with Pacific sailors for 1998–1999 indicate that I-Kiribati ratings made up full deck crews on most ships on which they served; on others, there were additions mainly from Tuvalu and Sri Lanka, and especially in the engine rooms there were several Fijians, Filipinos, and Ukrainians. On deck there were also two young Germans as trainees under I-Kiribati supervision. The officer composition on all vessels is more diversified than that of ratings, as indicated by a crew list for the MV Buenos Aires, for example (table 10). A crew list for the MV Columbus Canada shows the wide spread of islands in Kiribati from which ratings were drawn and the positions of I-Kiribati officers (table 11).

(p.191) The one hundred crew lists include twelve vessels with I-Kiribati officers. Table 12 presents positions and average ages of the I-Kiribati and German officers and indicates the potential for the nineteen I-Kiribati junior officers to move upward in rank. The absence of I-Kiribati as engineer officers is also apparent in the table and is probably due to low levels

Table 10. Crew composition on the Buenos Aires, 1999





Chief officer

Sri Lankan

Second officer


Third officer


Chief engineer


Second engineer

Sri Lankan

Third engineer






Ratings (11)


Source: Crew lists.

Table 11. Crew composition on the Columbus Canada, 1998

Officers and petty officers










Chief officer




Third officer

I-Kiribati (Tarawa)



Third officer

I-Kiribati (Abaiang)



Chief engineer




Second engineer




Third engineer







Storeman (PO)



Bosun (PO)

I-Kiribati (Butaritari)

Source: Crew lists.


Table 12. Officer composition on twelve ships that included I-Kiribati officers, 1998–1999


Number (and average age)

Other officers (engine and deck)




12 (54)

Filipino (engineer)

Chief officer

10 (38)

Polish (engineer)

Second officer

4 (30)

8 (27)

Swedish (engineer)

Third officer

3 (29)

11 (26)

Austrian (engineer)

Chief engineer

12 (51)

Tongan (second mate)

Second engineer

12 (40)

Tuvaluan (third mate)

Third engineer

13 (32)

Other engineer


Source: Crew lists.

of technological experience in the Kiribati islands. This contrasts with a more mechanized Fiji, as indicated earlier in the discussion of the crew composition on Pacific Forum Line ships (see chapter 10).

Fijian sailors are in fact more widely distributed over the global fleet than those of Kiribati, as for instance in a crew list of the French tanker MT Henry Martin. This French ship would be expected to employ a preponderance of sailors from French Polynesia. Instead the captain and chief engineer are French, the chief officer Panamanian, other officers Filipino, all the deck and engine ratings Fijian, and the catering staff Vanuatuan. It reflects also the shortages of officers from French Polynesia. Equally counterintuitive is a Vanuatuan-flag ship with a British captain, all Fijian deck and engineering officers (except the Filipino second engineer), and Fijian ratings, with only the bosun, steward, and cook Vanuatuan.

Most of the vessels on which Pacific islanders served are container and Ro-Ro ships trading to every part of the world. The crew list sample also shows them on quite small craft operating permanently in the coastal and short sea trades of northern Europe. The MV Marman (1,782 GT), under the Antiguan flag in 1999, was running from Duisburg on the Rhine to Cardiff in Wales. The crew consisted of a German captain and a Polish mate, while the only others on board were from Kiribati—one MM, two ABs, and one OS. As a small crew, they would have experienced exhausting work and frequently alien, dark, cold, and stormy conditions during (p.193) the winter. I-Kiribati ratings normally sail as groups on SPMS ships, but a few are shown as spread individually on ships under British, Singapore, and Hong Kong flags.

Life at Sea

The life of an I-Kiribati sailor is similar to that of most other Pacific islanders in the global maritime labor market. By virtue of a national recruiting agency, and contracts that are negotiated and monitored by trade unions, most I-Kiribati sailors are spared the worst abuses that some other sailors under FOC endure, including abandonment in foreign ports and deprivation of wages.7 The I-Kiribati sailors face only the generally accepted hazards that all sailors experience from bad weather, ship losses, accidents, attacks at sea from modern-day pirates, infectious diseases, and isolation. This account of life at sea is based on interviews with seafarers, managers, and trade union officials, as well as on personal observations ashore and afloat.

It is generally agreed by managers and officers that I-Kiribati sailors adapt well enough to life on a multinational ship. Nevertheless, some I-Kiribati ways need to be taken into account. The following is a generalized national profile, with all the defects that a generalization involves. The I-Kiribati sailor is considered polite and expects to be treated in a like manner. He has a spirit of competitiveness in trying to be the best on board—which is a tradition markedly displayed by I-Kiribati fishermen in home islands. He expects others to pull their weight in the crew and can be humorously dismissive of less sturdy shipmates from elsewhere. The tough environment of many Kiribati islands has also bred a resilience to hardship; thus, he usually endures strenuous work without complaint. As a sailor, he is willing to take risks, being accustomed to the treacherous sea conditions of the islands, but he does so with care, being conscious of family responsibilities. On the other hand, heavy drinking can release invective and aggression from stored-up feelings of mistreatment—he is more likely to forget a punch than an insult.

In practice, I-Kiribati crews are, like most sailors, quite culturally adaptive and can live and work with others of different national, religious, and ethnic backgrounds. They are not themselves totally homogenous. Those from the northern islands are usually Catholic, and some are accustomed to the hierarchically based governance of the uea (chiefs). Those from the south are generally Protestants and have a more democratic community governance system based on maneaba discussions led by the unimane (p.194)

The Global Pacific Seafarer

Figure11.2. Modern Kiribati sailors on the German-owned container vessel Cap Polonio enjoy clean, air-conditioned accommodations. Their messroom is important for communal eating and socializing.

(Photograph courtesy of the Hamburg Süd line, 2004)

(old men). When they come together on board, they follow the company- approved maritime union rules in electing a spokesman. This would not necessarily be the eldest, nor would a competent youngish bosun from elsewhere necessarily be resented as spokesman. This again shows some-thing of the relative strengths of crew cultural identity, which can override differences in crew compositions.

There are always adaptations that have to be made by most Pacific sailors on foreign ships. Accommodation is good on the German vessels, although food is a problem for those who cannot tolerate for too long soups, stews, sausages, rye bread, cheese, or even potatoes and apples. This diet, while nutritionally beneficial, is a source of complaint, and I-Kiribati make requests for rice and fish. By contrast there is a considerable liking for German and other beers. These are normally for sale at sea, although spirits are banned. In the messroom, beer is the accompaniment (p.195) to talking, smoking, and watching videos, including blue movies obtained in European ports. These limited forms of recreation on longer, boring passages are interspersed with escapist sleep and, very occasionally when at sea, a fight, usually induced by drink and an injudicious joke or remark. Fighting can result in a reprimand entry in the official logbook. For those involved, repetitions can mean dismissal and being sent home, with travel costs deducted from earnings. For this reason, fights rarely happen at sea; when they occur, they are usually in port.

Occupational Safety and Health

A modern ship can still be a dangerous place. Most deaths at sea are from marine disasters, but falls on slippery wet decks and injuries during mooring and in proximity to moving cargo gear are common nonfatal occurrences. Deaths and injuries in port can result from encounters with port equipment and falls from gangways between ships and quay, both of which can occur when returning on board inebriated. Drinking ashore is in fact a major hazard. Attacks take place when sailors are returning to the ship, and the crew try to keep together for mutual support in certain ports. This can equally well lead to trouble—one company manager described how a provoked I-Kiribati crew managed to “turn a bar from north to south.” Of more concern to some sailors these days is the vague recollection of unprotected sex when drinking ashore.

Overall the health of Pacific sailors is probably better than that of home island populations. This may not appear so from statistics, as they often reflect the more frequent medical examinations of seafarers relative to other people. In Kiribati there is measurably less tuberculosis among seafarers. This applies also to hepatitis A, another common ailment in Kiribati. On the other hand, seafarers are exposed to malaria, typhoid, and cholera in tropical ports, influenza and chest complaints in high-latitude winter conditions, and sexually transmitted infections anywhere.

Common injuries at sea include back problems from lifting against ship motions, and general fatigue from poor-quality sleep in bad weather contributes to accidents. Common causes of death from illness among present-day sailors of all nationalities are cardiovascular disease, followed by malignant neoplasms and to a lesser extent cirrhosis of the liver. These are related to lifestyles with addictions to smoking and drinking and, in some cases, to obesity and lack of exercise. The number of deaths from these causes are increased at sea due to the lack of direct medical attention on most ships. Only when the ship is in or near port is there professional (p.196) assistance or, if death occurs, a proper autopsy. A contrast in medical records is also seen. For example, the entry for a Fijian AB, aged forty-three, who died in port read: “Found dead in cabin—cause myocardial infraction, coronary thrombosis.” But when sudden death occurs at sea, the reports may state merely “due to natural causes” or, as in the case of a Tuvalu sailor, “cause unknown, probably heart attack.”8 As in the past, deaths and injuries of seafarers are difficult to quantify internationally and are always underreported. Even less is known about the specific physical and mental problems of women at sea and how to deal with these in mixed-gender crews without medical staff.

Table 13 is an extract of I-Kiribati deaths on ships of British, Singapore, and Hong Kong registers over a period of twelve years. Since it is not known how many I-Kiribati sailors were serving on these ships, the table illustrates only the types of fatal occurrences and the forms of reports, not a statistical measure of mortality.

When an entry is “missing at sea,” suicide is presumed, but usually this cannot be proven, as sailors very occasionally fall overboard accidentally. It is more likely that a depressed or otherwise stressed sailor decided to “go over the wall” rather than use other methods of killing himself. This may protect compensation payments to dependents, since his contract states that compensation is excluded from “death by willful acts.” There are in fact few but regular cases of suicide on board ship. Reasons recorded, mainly from unsuccessful attempts, include loneliness, being shamed or ridiculed, news of a death or crisis at home, belief in the adultery of a partner, or an irrevocable belief in having a sexual disease.

Table 13. Causes of mortality in I-Kiribati seafarers on British, Singapore, and Hong Kong ships (1983–1995), from sample of masters’ return forms


Cause of death



Cerebral anoxia

Died in cabin


Natural causes

Died in cabin


Missing at sea

Last seen in cabin


Missing at sea

Last seen in cabin


Internal bleeding due to knife wound

Stabbed in alleyway by AB in crew when drinking and arguing—ship at anchor

Source: UK Confidential Return Forms for Deaths of Merchant Seamen.

(p.197) Statements by shipmates often indicate morose behavior and heavy drinking prior to suicide. The social defect in the community of most ships is the lack of opportunity for a stressed sailor to talk to someone in confidence about problems.

The very short and busy time of the modern ship in port has greatly compounded the problems of stress. The chaplains of the various missions to seafarers now have less chance ashore or on board to reach those with social or mental health difficulties. On some French ships, “worker priests” are signed on as sailors, often in catering, where they are in contact with all the members of the crew. A few German chaplains also go to sea from the missions. They, like the French, are primarily listeners and trained to give appropriate advice. They do not preach, unless invited to by seafarers, which makes them more acceptable on multifaith ships, and no doubt this reduces the perceived unluckiness of having a priest on board while at sea. On some vessels a trade union delegate will help, and on Chinese ships the former political commissar has been retained as part of the crew. He has several conflicting roles but can act as a nonjudgmental person who can talk to sailors and promote their welfare needs.9

The need for such onboard services, despite recent better access by family to radio telephone and sometimes e-mail communication, is recognized by progressive management. Modern communications can in fact sometimes exacerbate the stress situation, since wives regularly bring up immediate family problems, which are outside the ability of a remote sailor to deal with. Anguish and stress related to mental health problems affect only a relatively small number of seafarers, but proportionately they are considered to exceed those in most shore-based occupations.

These days the major health concerns that reach into the wider Pacific community are those of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), which are frequently attributed to foreign-going sailors. This has continuously been a worry since the time of Cook. The Pacific Islands Monthly in 1964 referred to “the rising incidence of VD [venereal disease] cases … in Fiji, Tahiti, and the Cook Islands” and went on to say that “most of the blame [is] laid at the door of professional seamen.”10 STIs are still on the increase. In 2000, seventy to eighty cases of gonorrhea were reported under treatment in Tarawa, and hepatitis B was being spread through sex, drug needles, and even tattooing. It is possible that the brief and busy time that the modern ship spends in port is exacerbating the problem, since sailors are more exposed to the lower categories of sex workers outside port gates compared with those in the former “sailor town” establishments.

Sexually transmitted disease has taken on a critical dimension with (p.198) HIV/AIDS. Treating this STI is not a matter of simply getting a shot of penicillin on board and medical attention ashore. Rather, death is the likely outcome. The carriage of the infection to small island populations, where medical services are deficient, could clearly be disastrous. The first reported case of HIV in Kiribati was in 1991. There has been a slow spread in the Pacific Islands generally, with 2,345 cases of HIV reported as of 27 May 1999, of which 832 had developed into AIDS. The infection is the most prevalent in Papua New Guinea. Many islands have no reports of the infection, although underreporting is always likely. In Kiribati there were 36 recorded HIV cases in 2001, with a small cluster in the seafaring sector of 18 seamen (11 developed AIDS) and 5 spouses of seamen. This high proportion related to seafarers could be attributed to the frequent routine medical examination of sailors.

The approach to controlling the problem has been to embark on more publicity and education. To focus on this, it was necessary for health workers to consider closely the behavioral characteristics of Pacific seafarers on foreign-going voyages. From December 2004 to July 2005, surveys were conducted under the ministries of health and the SPC in six Pacific island countries, with the assistance of the World Health Organization and other bodies. A summary of the main findings for Kiribati reveals a not unexpected, but very worrying, result for the families of seafarers. The survey was by interview, questionnaire, and some laboratory tests. There were 304 voluntary seafaring subjects, from three sites in Kiribati. This was a very large sample of the total 2,000 serving sailors.

Profile of the seafaring subjects

Age 21 to 54 (mean 37.4 years, st. dev. 8.5 years).

59.3[%] had secondary school education.

3.3[%]had attended university or college.

2/3rds were married and lived with their spouses.

15% of married seafarers reported more than one wife.

96.4% had marine work experience outside of Kiribati.

The average time away from home during last contract was 12.1 months.

The most common job on board was able-bodied seaman followed by motorman and bosun.

52% were current smokers.

75.2% reported drinking alcohol.

12 percent used drugs.

2 (0.7%) had injected drugs in the last 12 months.

(p.199) Sexual behavior

90.1 percent had sex in the last 12 months.

68 (22.5%) had sex with commercial female partner(s) in the last 12 months.

52 (17.2%) had sex with casual female partner(s) in the last 12 months.

111 (36.8%) had multiple female partners in the last 12 months.

3 (1.0%) had sex with a male partner in their lifetime.

26 (38.2%) of the 68 used condoms with commercial female partners.

17 (32.7%) of the 52 used condoms with casual female partners.

18 (6%) reported having a sexual infection (most frequently gonorrhea) in the last 12 months.

80 (26.5 percent) had correct knowledge of HIV protection.11

There have been anti-AIDS activities in Kiribati over several years to induce protection and behavioral change. Churches, trade unions, and the government have been involved. So also in their own ways have some members of the Seafarers’ Wives Association (SWA). This group formed in the early 1990s and is modeled on similar organizations in the main maritime labor supply countries, especially the Philippines. These women are aware of HIV/AIDS, but gender relations make discussion of the subject difficult, and there are strong indications of domestic stress and violence.

Although the details given above are specific to Kiribati, they would generally apply in many respects to Pacific seafarers as a whole. Solutions are similarly applicable. Since 1998, and now reinforced by the surveys referred to, major projects have been aimed at the seafaring population under “prevention and capacity development.” These include training of trainers in the subject of STIs for staff at the maritime colleges and establishing “seafaring centers” at several key places in the Pacific, providing information and incentives for behavioral change and STI preventative measures. Very important in this has been the inclusion of efforts to empower maritime-related women. The Pacific Women in Maritime Association (PacWIMA), which started in Suva during 2005, is raising many issues of awareness and social responsibility in the maritime community. These medical and social pressures will ultimately change what has been regarded in the past as traditional behavior of “Jack ashore” in foreign ports.

Trade Unions

The maritime trade unions in Kiribati have been more stable and influential than elsewhere in the Pacific Islands, other than French Polynesia (p.200) (affiliated with the French Confederation of Labor) and Papua New Guinea. Up until World War II, trade unions were not popular with the authorities in the colonial Pacific. In the postwar period there was some encouragement in promoting “responsible unionism.”12 This was to circumvent any formation of pro-communist labor movements in the Pacific during the cold war. In Kiribati there was also an element of paternalism in promoting unions, as in the earlier development of the cooperatives. The first seafarers’ union was inaugurated in the Betio maneaba on 22 December 1971 as the Gilbert and Ellice Islands International Overseas Seamen’s Union (GEIOSU). It was attended by Harry Murphy, the colony commissioner of labor, who promised some minimal financial help from the British government, including the mailing of application forms to seafarers.13

The newly formed union began negotiations with the SPMS. It was agreed that union membership was compulsory on German vessels, and the company would deduct subscriptions from salaries on behalf of the union. This and other agreements regarding wages and conditions got the organization off to a good start. However, the union records on 16 June 1972 report with some consternation that “the Australian Water-side Workers Federation was refusing to work on ships carrying GEIC crews.” The union resolved to make contact with the AWWF and to write to the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) and apply for affiliation. Affiliation was eventually accepted, and the waterside workers ultimately expressed goodwill toward the GEIOSU and its policies on wages and conditions. Independence came to the GEIC in 1979, and the seafarers of Kiribati and Tuvalu were regrouped under the Kiribati International Overseas Seamen’s Union (KIOSU) and the Tuvalu Overseas Seamen’s Union (TOSU). Both unions continued joint negotiations with SPMS and the ITF on wages and conditions.

The determination of wages for seafarers internationally starts at the Joint Maritime Committee (Unions and Owners) of the International Labour Organization (ILO). On the basis of a forty-eight-hour work week, the minimum wage for an AB is arrived at, which acts as a benchmark for other ranks. The International Shipping Federation (owners) and the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) then negotiate the rate upward, taking into account actual working times and other factors. They agreed, for example, on US$851 per month for ABs in 2002. The ITF makes further upward adjustments to the base rate minimum in relation to sailors serving on FOC ships to cover social security and other payments normally made under national flags. The ITF rate becomes part of a wider collective bargaining agreement with FOC companies.14

(p.201) In the case of Kiribati there are further negotiations between SPMS, KIOSU, and ITF. These take into account the extra costs to SPMS of transporting crews from and to Kiribati. The end result for 2002–2003, for example, was monthly minimums of US$881 for an AB and US$1,781 for a second officer. These examples can be compared with shore employment in Kiribati, where in 2002 a middle-ranking government officer received about US$350 and a permanent secretary US$1,300.15

When they sign on for a voyage, all seafarers are required to leave a monthly allotment from their salary. This is made to a wife, mother, other relative, or girlfriend or goes entirely into their own account in the bank. The allotment money can be spread quite widely among relatives, meeting the costs of food, school fees, uniforms, church donations, feasts, and special occasions. Most seafarers are supporting at least six other persons from the allotment, and many in practice support a good deal more. The sailor can draw on some of the remainder of his salary during the trip, and the final balance is handed over in cash when paying off.

Home From the Sea

When they have completed twelve months’ service, sailors are repatriated by SPMS to Tarawa. Wives who are resident there usually meet their husbands at the airport with children; others are met by relatives and girlfriends, and often by someone from the union. After sailors have been away from Kiribati for a year, it is a time for refamiliarizing with places and rebonding with kin. Those going to outer islands often stay for a time in South Tarawa, sometimes with resident relatives from their home islands. The sailors are all on paid leave for over two and a half months. They already have money in the bank, ready cash they were paid off with, and gifts. Some of the latter are depleted by bubuti requests before they go home, and the payoff and leave money may have been eroded by other diversions.

South Tarawa offers bars, girls, a seamen’s hostel, and the company of other mariners. The returned seafarers are regarded there as something of an elite to be admired, resented, envied, and even feared by different sections of the population. A view much publicized is that of Teuea Toatu, referring to 1977, not long after the first generation of seafarers started to return on leave:

Most of them who were once used to rural life—simplicity, sobriety and good behaviour—are completely transformed. They are heavy drinkers, patronising public bars every day, and of course, they have (p.202) lots of money in the bank. … [I]n the public bar they group themselves together in one corner, and if they are tired of speaking Gilbertese, they speak German. … In view of the luxurious life of these local seamen they have emerged as a new elite group in Kiribati. One can easily recognise these seamen with their long hair, long trousers, shoes (for in Kiribati it is rare to see people wearing long trousers or shoes) and brand new motorcycles. This is resented by some people but in most cases it influences the rest of the local population to try and adopt their way of living, irrespective of their limited resources.16

Some of the “brand new motorcycles” might have a young nurse riding on the pillion. She too might be away from her home village and earning an independent living working in a hospital, an institution not unlike a ship in its structured regime. The seafarers and other “detribalized” young people in South Tarawa have been regarded as a force for change in I-Kiribati society, for better or worse.

About two-thirds of the returning seafarers are from the outer islands, where their parents generally live, and some of the sailors have waiting wives and children. Many reenter a community where decisions are made by the uea in the north and the unimane in the south. Their extended family (kaainga) will have a sitting place (boti) in the maneaba, and the eldest male will speak for the kaainga. A seafarer unwinding from a worldwide voyage of a year and the regime of the ship is often not ready for the control of elders or chiefs, with their more limited horizons. But he will need to pick up family and communal obligations, and eventually he will talk in the maneaba and village, with tact and due deference to elders or chiefs. These days the elders tend to realize their own deficiencies in the ways of the wider world and allow young men to do so, although the women still sit quietly at the back of the maneaba.

While he has been away, his parents and, more so, a wife will have missed his labor. The roles of men in offshore fishing, digging pits to grow babai (marsh taro), climbing and tapping toddy, making house and boat repairs, and performing other male rights and duties would have been carried out, if at all, by kinsmen. The required tasks of a married woman include looking after the children, pigs, and poultry; harvesting babai, gleaning on the reef, washing, and cooking. As the wife of an absent sailor, she would have the additional stress of the family finances, discipline of children, and communal and church obligations, as well as dealing with in-laws. The returned sailor will have to rearrange some displaced domestic matters and repossess traditional tasks and authority.

(p.203) A sailor will enhance his own and his family’s status with money, gifts, and the purchase of expensive items such as a generator, video equipment, a sewing machine, or an outboard motor. This has the effect also of creating a quasi class division in a community with strong redistributive traditions. For the unmarried sailor such affluence also renders him a fitting person for aspiring parents to consider as a husband for a daughter. Previously the main criteria in the matching process would have been the reputation, genealogy, landownership, and reef tenure of the boy’s family and possibly the skill of the young man as a boat builder or an offshore fisherman. His regular cash income as a sailor would now take precedence in their choice. The girl’s dowry (buraenriri) would have included quantities of coconuts in the okai (storage hut) as a measure of wealth and insurance. The dowry would now be mainly money, possibly derived from a seafaring relative.

Marriages to seafarers do not always last. The problems seem to stem from a growing gulf over the many months of separation due to differences in the experiences of both parties. Behavioral frictions are also reported, with sailors trying to impose a shipshape regime on the home living area, discipline of children, and disagreements over how and what food is prepared and presented. There are sometimes jealousies, questions of fidelity, his drinking, and her trouble with in-laws. Clearly, most marriages survive, but if a divorce takes place, it is the sailor who usually initiates it and whose parents by custom take custody of the children on his behalf. The former wife returns to her home village or island. Lambert observed on the northern island of Makin: “A wife may consider herself divorced because her husband, an overseas seaman, does not send for her when he returns to Tarawa on leave. … There have also been a few cases of marriages broken up by the husband’s kinsfolk on Makin or Tarawa because they disapproved of his wife’s behavior while he was away.”17

The social gulf is considered to be minimized if the family moves to Tarawa. They tend to do so, as is common with many seafaring families worldwide who eventually leave distant homes and settle in the more accessible main ports of a country. Life in the urban area of South Tarawa brings its own problems. There are thirty-five thousand people in South Tarawa (7.2 square kilometers); most are on Betio in a very confined area of 1.3 square kilometers. The fragile ecosystem of this part of a coral atoll cannot support such pressures on freshwater supply, sewage disposal, reef resources, and visual and other amenities. There has been the perennial urban drift from outer islands (previously banned by the colonial authorities) and the growth of shanty dwellings, unemployment with accompanying (p.204) pressures on employed relatives, petty crime, hidden prostitution, and drunkenness, along with lower nutrition.

Many sailors eventually are able to purchase a piece of land on Tarawa or nearby Abaiang Island. They have houses built of concrete, brick, and board, with solid roofs and water tanks. These are more prestigious than the traditional thatched dwellings, although less comfortable in many respects. More important, such houses afford greater privacy and safety for the family during a sailor’s absences. The family can, especially in more senior ranks, afford a house girl, their own generator, and many indoor domestic and entertainment units (such as microwave ovens and video equipment). In this change to a near I-Matang (foreign) lifestyle, partners will drink and eat out at some of the few hotels toward the international airport.

If the wives of seafarers adjust to the conditions of South Tarawa, life changes in several ways. There are better educational and medical facilities in the area, and away from the scrutiny of in-laws they have also more control of their money from allotments. Some with secondary schooling become more independent through employment as teachers, nurses, and government officers, and most belong to the Seafarers’ Wives Association. The association helps build up social networks across islands of origin. It provides wives with a meeting place to reduce loneliness, the chance of shared problem solving, and other support and welfare functions. The organization has also given a corporate voice to the women in matters of STIs, especially HIV, and on wages and allotments. A public demonstration in Tarawa by the women over allotment payments was something of an embarrassment to the union, the company, and some of the husbands.

The SWA and other activities in Tarawa may be affecting traditional gender attitudes overall. Many young women have higher school qualifications than young men but are excluded from certain opportunities, including training at the MTC, which has been raised as an issue with PacWIMA. Attitudes toward gender equality may also be percolating to outer islands. It was noted in discussions with seafarers that some wives without children were going fishing beyond the reefs with other members of the family. This formerly has been a male preserve, with all its related dangers and masculine secrecy. It now carries less prestige than working at sea on foreign-going ships and may be more readily given up to women.

The Seafaring Paradigm

The natural resources of Kiribati in modern times are very narrowly based in support of more than 100,000 people. Copra production in the (p.205) outer islands is primarily part-time and employs the equivalent of about 1,000 full-time villagers. This provides fluctuating returns of AU$2 million to AU$3 million per annum. Then there is seaweed and some minor seaweed products, totaling about AU$1.5 million. Such is the sum total of direct productive activities from local resources. The main national income comes from licensing the ocean fishing zone to foreign vessels and from voluntary overseas aid. These together amount to possibly AU$55 million. In addition there is a reserve fund from the interest received on money from previous phosphate mining on Banaba. Of the total population only 11,000 are actual wage earners, of which 7,000 are employed in government services. The only significant other real cash flow into the economy is the AU$12 million or so in allotment remittances, leave money, and goods from I-Kiribati crews on foreign ships.18 This is vital and is often spread widely over extended families in outer islands.

Like most sailors, the I-Kiribati at some stage ceases to see life at sea as permanent, yet there are few opportunities for his skills and experiences ashore. One choice is that of returning to a life of semisubsistence agriculture and fishing in his home island, supported by regular interest from bank savings. It is quite an attractive prospect for many to contemplate. One interviewed sailor was already embarking on this after fifteen years at sea by settling in remote Kiritimati, ensuring also, he said, a refrigerator for his beer.

Other seafarers are more ambitious and have made investments in local enterprises, sometimes with family members, while continuing temporary employment at sea. Such investments may include a shop, café, or bakery, bus and taxi services, vehicle repairs, electrical maintenance, video rentals, and boat and house building. In the distant past, commercial ventures and services have been provided mainly by Chinese and Europeans who settled in the islands. Kum-Kee is well known from the On Chong days, and his descendants own and run the last of his stores in South Tarawa. Some other descendants of European sailors and traders who made their homes in Kiribati and Fiji can be recognized today in the names of ship’s officers, boatbuilders, and owners of domestic shipping companies, including Murdoch, Patterson, Redfern, Schutz, and Whippy. These men made major contributions in establishing commercial enter-prises with their technical skills and relative independence from community pressures. The current generation of sailors are likewise capable of bringing new skills and attitudes ashore.

There is a problem of limited potential for large-scale economic developments in Kiribati, where only the national sea area and people are (p.206) plentiful. Going to sea on international ships is vital in its income reliability and is still capable of considerable advances. The main output of the MTC in Tarawa is ratings. There is, however, a surplus of ratings in the world, estimated at 135,000 in 2005. On the other hand, there was a shortage of 10,000 ship’s officers in that year.19 There is clearly an incentive for the conversion of ratings to officers internationally. In Kiribati the opportunity is certainly there to add value to the local output by more officer training, since the young men and women of Kiribati have good educational and language advantages, as English is the working language at sea.

The other potential for enterprises lies in the sea area under national jurisdiction. Currently this is simply rented out for foreign fishing, with few local people employed (about sixty on Japanese catchers). The maritime skills and knowledge in the seafaring community could change that in many ways. The tourist industry in Kiribati has in turn always tended to be written off in comparison with other Pacific countries, due to the remoteness of the islands. This could well be a main asset in cruising, as could the abilities of I-Kiribati sailors to run adventures under sail and other tourist sea activities, including diving and whale watching. Such marine enterprises are in line with the advocacy of Te‘o Ian Fairbairn in the early 1990s regarding the Kiribati economy, but now they have a stronger foundation in modern maritime skills.20


(1.) UNCTAD, Review of Maritime Transport 2003 (Geneva, 2003), 135–139; Lloyd’s Register of Shipping (1 January 2004).

(2.) A. D. Couper, Voyages of Abuse (London: Pluto Press, 1999).

(3.) Lloyd’s Register of Shipping (1 January 2004); ITF Seafarers’ Bulletin (2005): 28. It was also clear that operating under a FOC is not always easy money for small Pacific states. The Karine A, flying the flag of Tonga, was arrested for illegal arms trading. Tonga had no idea who the owners were, except that the ship was managed by a Greek person. This cost the Kingdom of Tonga in both money and reputation. In 2005 the Solomon Islands was considering introducing an FOC register.

(4.) Second registers (or international registers) have been established by Norway (NIS), UK (Isle of Man), Denmark (DIS), France (Antarctic Territory), Germany (GIS), and the Netherlands (Antilles).

(5.) Many positions ashore require people with seafaring skills and qualifications, and such jobs pay well to attract them. For officers, these positions are found in the fields of education, maritime law, brokering, surveying, marine management, marine equipment, safety, and government, in addition to numerous port positions. For ratings, the demand is in stevedoring, rigging, towage, rescue, and salvage. The most cost-effective way, and often the only way, to fill these posts is to recruit from the sea. Few such positions are called for in small islands.

(6.) The Tuvalu Maritime Training Institute is for ratings, most of whom are supplied to German companies.

(8.) The sample information on mortality of Kiribati seafarers was derived from the data papers of the Study of Occupational Mortality among Merchant Seafarers on the British, Singapore and Hong Kong Fleets, conducted by Dr. Steven Roberts, Seafarers International Research Centre (SIRC), Cardiff, November 1998. The totals of Pacific fatalities on board these flag ships over twelve years: Kiribati, 4; Fijian, 2; Papua New Guinea, 2; Tuvalu, 1.

(9.) SIRC, The Sailing Chaplain and Outreach Welfare Schemes (Cardiff, 2003), 1–64. See also Minghua Zhao, X. Shi, and T. Feng, The Political Commissar and His Shipmates aboard Chinese Merchant Ships (Beijing: Chinese Social Sciences Documentation Publishing House, 2004).

(10.) Pacific Islands Monthly, December 1964, 25. See also Hemantha D. Wickramatillake, Infectious Diseases among Seafarers (Cardiff: SIRC, 1998). The writer notes, “An inquiry in New York revealed that 80 seamen had called at a total of 1,124 ports in 45 countries and had intercourse with 615 women.” See P. Vuksanovic, W. H. Goethe, H. V. Burchard, et al., “Seamen and AIDS,” Travel Medicine International 6 (1988): 18–19.

(11.) Tangaru Central Hospital lab, Kiribati records (2001); World Health Organization, Second Generation Surveillance Surveys of HIV, Other STIs and Risk Behaviours in Six Pacific Island Countries (Geneva, 2006), 46–62.

(13.) GEIOSU meeting, 13 April 1972, from union minutes, Tarawa.

(14.) According to ITF policy, all FOC ships must be covered by an ITF collective bargaining agreement signed by the union in the country of beneficial ownership and control and, often, the unions in the country of labor supply. FOC ships that fall significantly below minimum standards for seafarers are likely to be penalized at ports by affiliated unions. The ITF-affiliated unions have a membership of 4.6 million in 120 countries.

(15.) For comparative levels of crew wages internationally, see Drewry Shipping Consultants, Ship Operating Costs Annual Review and Forecast 2004/05 (London, 2005).

(17.) Bernd Lambert, “Makin and the Outside World,” in Pacific Atoll Populations, Association for Social Anthropology in Oceania monograph 3, ed. Vern Carroll (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 1975), 264.

(18.) For detailed data on remittances provided by SPMS, see Maria Borovnik, “Seafarers in Kiribati—Consequences of International Labor Circulation” (PhD thesis, University of Canterbury, 2003).

(19.) BIMCO/ISF, Manpower 2005 Update: The World Demand for and Supply of Seafarers, (Coventry: Warwick Institute for Employment Research, 2005).

(20.) See Te‘o Ian Fairbairn, The Kiribati Economy (Canberra: AIDAB, 1992), 37. See also Te‘o Ian Fairbairn, Island Entrepreneurs (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 1989).