The Working Seafarer: Early Legislation

Mar 29, 2011

by Johnathan Thayer, Associate Archivist

Enlisting on a merchant vessel in the 19th century was a rough deal for the working seafarer. In exchange for the low wages offered to them, seafarers could encounter cramped living quarters, bad food, and abuse on board. Seafarers worked under the constant threat of corporal punishment at the hands of their superiors, the likes of which have been notoriously depicted in the works of Herman Melville, among many others (see White Jacket (1850) and Billy Budd (1924 [published posthumously]). Perhaps the most unjust aspect of 19th century seafaring were the effects of a law established in 1790 defining a seafarer's decision to abandon his ship for any reason as "desertion" punishable by arrest and imprisonment. Bounties were issued for "runaway" sailors who were often captured by hunters and returned to their vessels in chains where they would be left at the mercy of their superiors, dually empowered with the whip in hand and the brig below deck.

Even when on land, seafarers faced hardships unique to their line of work. Crimps, also known by the telling name "land sharks," competed for the sailor's business at their establishments where both drink and prostitutes were available for purchase. Crimps and their agents were often so eager for the sailor's business that they would row out in port to meet incoming vessels, climbing aboard to offer the sailor their services before his feet even touched land. In response to such practices, early seafarers' advocacy groups began to emerge in the latter part of the 19th century, eventually leading to the passage of the Shipping Commissioner's Act in 1872, requiring that seamen on American ships sign their articles in front of an appointed United States Shipping Commissioner, only after having proved their sobriety. It was the hope of the Act's supporters that the legislation would prevent shanghaiing, or the practice of enlisting a sailor on board a vessel while he was drunk or otherwise impaired. In reaction to the Act's passage, boardinghouse keepers refused to furnish crews for ships in port, effectively bringing the shipping industry to a halt and minimizing the effectiveness of the legislation.

The leaders of the Seamen's Church Institute (then known as the Protestant Episcopal Church Missionary Society for Seamen) dedicated themselves to the cause of seafarers' emancipation since the organization's earliest years. One of the most vocal of the Institute's early champions of seafarers' rights was J. Augustus Johnson, elected Lay Manager of the Board of Managers in 1882. Johnson would also Chair the Joint Conference of the Interests of Seamen, a consortium of seamen's groups concerned with legal advocacy that included the American Seamen's Friend Society, the Maritime Association and the Marine Society, in addition to SCI. Building on the Maguire Act of 1895, which abolished the imprisonment of "deserting" sailors on coastwise journeys, the Conference resolved to work towards the passage of further legislation and the enforcement of laws already in existence.

The opinion of the Joint Conference, simply put, was that the legislation in place did not go far enough. Troubling anecdotes from around the world regarding the treatment of sailors continued to appear. In 1897, a Supreme Court decision ruled that, because they had travelled to a foreign port, the Maguire Act did not protect four sailors who had abandoned the ship Arago while in Chile—even though they cited unsafe working conditions. Furthermore, the ruling stated that sailors were "deficient in that full and intelligent responsibility for their acts which is accredited to ordinary adults and as needing the protection of the law in the same sense which minors and wards do." The decision was widely condemned by advocacy groups, and pressure to address the legal status of seamen in the United States increased.

Johnson's reaction was to draft a bill that would comprehensively secure fundamental rights for working seafarers. The bill established the right of seamen to quit their vessel without fear of imprisonment—regardless of the location of port—as well as ending corporal punishment and establishing minimum requirements regarding provisions and living quarters on board vessels. Having recruited Senator Stephen White of California, the "White Act" passed in 1898. The Rev. Archibald R. Mansfield, himself secretary of the Joint Conference for the Promotion of the Interests of Seamen, would later comment that "it is no exaggeration to say that [Johnson] was the one man responsible for the passage of the bill in its final form." The text of the Act was printed and distributed by the Joint Conference with the following introduction: "Seamen ought to make themselves familiar with the whole of the following law... an effort will be made to put copies of this law where sailors can get them, and copies will be mailed free to all who may apply to the American Seamen's Friend Society, 76 Wall Street, New York."

SCI's involvement in seafarers' rights did not end in the 19th century. Johnson would establish a Seamen's Branch of the Legal Aid Society that operated during the early 1900s out of SCI's headquarters. Additionally, Johnson served as Chairman of SCI's Committee on Legislation, a position from which he sponsored a 1908 bill that required increased inspections and safety provisions for barges. More recently, in 1982 SCI founded the Center for Seafarers' Rights, the world's only full-time, free legal aid program for merchant mariners. The work of CSR is vast and varied, providing international aid and advocacy on behalf of the seafarers who work in an industry that continues to be dangerous and challenging for the people on deck.