Labour History: A Journal of Labour and Social History

The Low Rumble of Informal Dissent: Shipboard Protests over Health and Safety in Australian Waters, 1790-1900

Labour History: A Journal of Labour and Social History (2012), 102, (1), 131–156.

Abstract

This article charts patterns of informal collective dissent amongst seamen, mainly those on merchant ships but also some involved in pelagic (deep sea) whaling, in Australian waters between 1790 and 1900. It highlights both the widespread nature of collective action (unmatched by any other group of workers) and the importance of health and safety concerns as the single more significant impetus for such action. Much can be learned about the experiences of these workers, and the meanings they attached to their actions, by carefully using sources generally unsympathetic to them, namely contemporary newspaper reports. The Australian experience is not unique and affords insights into the important and neglected role of informal collective action both within the global maritime industry and more broadly. In terms of labour historiography, examining both informal and formal organisation provides a more complete picture of patterns of worker mobilisation.

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Endnotes

1.See, for example,Robin Walker, ‘The Maritime Strike in South Australia, 1887 and 1890’, Labour History, no.14, 1968, pp.3-12;G. Henning, ‘Steamships and the 1890 Maritime Strike’, Historical Studies, vol.15, no.60, 1973, pp.562-93;Frank Broeze, ‘The Seamen of Australia’, Push from the Bush, no.10, 1981, pp.78-105;Rosemary Broomham, Steady Revolutions: The Australian Institute of Marine and Power Engineers, 1881-1990,University of New South Wales Press,, 1991;Donald Fraser, Articles of Agreement: The Seamen’s Union of Australia, 1904-1943: A Study of Antagonised Labour, PhD thesis,University of Wollongong, 1998.Richard Morris, ‘Job Control and Commonwealth Industrial Relations Policy: The 1920-21 Strike and Lockout of the Federated Marine Stewards and Pantrymen’s Association’, Labour History, no.78, 2000, pp.163-78. Google Scholar

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3.Crimping refers to an often highly organised network of persons in ports (including hotel and boarding house operators, brothel keepers and boatmen) who both encouraged and facilitated desertion by seamen in ports and then supplied them to another ship for a fee. The head of the crimping network were referred to as crimps. For a discussion of crimping in the port of Newcastle seeG. Henning, ‘Fourpenny Dark and Sixpenny Red’, Labour History, no.46, 1984, pp.52-71. Google Scholar

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37.Busch, Whaling Will Never Do for Me, pp.53-54. Google Scholar

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46.For instances of industrial action over these issues, see:Maitland Mercury, 20July1853, p.2; andArgus, 17December1866, pp.6;5April1881, p.6. Google Scholar

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48.In the latter case the magistrate agreed to have the ship surveyed.Perth Gazette, 25March1853, p.3; andArgus26July1865, p.5. Google Scholar

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58.See, for instance, Sydney Morning Herald, 26March1867, p.2; andSouth Australian Advertiser, 29March1873, p.2. Google Scholar

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68. West Australian, 2November1891, p.4. Google Scholar

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70.See, for example, Sydney Morning Herald, 29May1848, p.2;30June1851, p.3;5April1859, p.5; andArgus, 12September1851, p.2. Google Scholar

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74.See, for example, the case of Captain Bird, master of the barqueWilliam Clowes, reported in Age, 16March1869, p.6. Google Scholar

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76.See, for example, the Victorian Navigation Board inquiry into rescue efforts following the loss overboard of a seamen named Bran from theMcDuffin its voyage from England, Argus, 9October1877, pp.4-5. For other cases, seeArgus, 30May1881, p.9; andSydney Morning Herald, 9August1884, p.9. Google Scholar

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80.As knowledgeable contemporaries observed. See, for example,A. Gihon, ‘The Need for Sanitary Reform in Ship-Life’, Public Health Papers and Reports, vol.3, 1876, pp.85-97. Google Scholar

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95.Nor did quality necessarily improve over the course of the nineteenth century, with Maenpaa linking poor food to increased desertion by British seamen in the 1890s. The quality and amount of food could also be exacerbated by poor preparation and handling, although the British Seamen’s Union saw this as far less important than shipowners; seeMaenpaa, ‘From Pea Soup to Hors d’Oeuvres’, p.42. Google Scholar

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103.Dunn also that stated this would be corroborated by the officer in charge of the military detachment guarding convicts during the voyage;Hobart Town Courier, 1October1841, p.4. Google Scholar

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Quinlan, Michael