Shipboard discipline

Ships were hierarchical. Captains had complete authority and officers looked down on their crews. Seafarers traditionally suffered from a bad reputation: they were seen as drunken, dishonest and lazy.

Discipline was rough, verbal abuse and violence were common, and because they were trapped onboard seafarers were very vulnerable to bullying. Crew could be bashed by officers or the boatswain as punishment for insolence or disobedience. More formally, they could be taken before the captain and given a punishment that might include being fed only bread and water for three days, confined to a part of the ship or whipped.  They could also be sent to a magistrate onshore or if they jumped ship they could be charged by police.

The severity of discipline depended on the officers and the crew. James Smith, sailing from London to Hong Kong in 1851, was caught stealing passengers’ wine. He was mast-headed; that is, he was sent up to the top of the mast as detention but his punishment was ended on the appeal of a passenger, a twelve year old girl. However on a ship sailing to Hobart, Smith received much harsher treatment. He was bullied by one of the officers and, in retaliation, he refused to work. The officers dragged him out of the crew accommodation and bashed him. Smith wrote that they dared not do it in front of the crew. Smith was then taken before the captain, put in iron chains and sent before a magistrate who sentenced him to sixty days in prison.

However, the 1830s was a time of social change. Working people in Britain were demanding new rights, seafarers were increasingly aware of their power to unite and challenges to authority increased during the decade. Masters called a challenge from the crew mutiny: seafarers were more likely to call it a strike.

Courts usually supported the ship captains in disputes with crews but there was a movement for change. There were public protests about the safety of Britain’s merchant ships and the competence of their officers and a Royal Commission was established in 1833 to examine Britain’s mercantile marine. It saw abuses in the way seafarers were employed, in the safety of shipping and in the navigational skills of officers. In 1836 the Commission recommended that a Seamen’s Register be established to keep records of seafarers’ characters and that tribunals be set up to settle disputes arising onboard ships.

The bill was defeated by Parliament and debates about the safety of ships and the conditions of seafarers continued through most of the nineteenth century.

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