The Scotsman Digital Archive        Monday 28th December 1891

The Desertion of English Seamen Abroad

The Dunkirk correspondent of the Evening Standard says:-
Public attention is not infrequently directed to the many improvements still to be realised on behalf of the seafaring community, and, as a matter of fact, much has been done to ameliorate the condition of the class to which England owes, in great degree, her supremacy on the seas and her commercial prosperity. Homes have been opened up at nearly every English port, and at some foreign ones, and means placed at the disposal of the seamen in the United Kingdom, not only to transfer his wages to those who are dependent on him for support, but also to escape temptation by starting for home as soon as his services can be dispensed with on board ship.

At home crimping has, to a great extent, been put down, and the "middle man" instead of being, as formerly, a disreputable character, is, in large shipping ports, an official appointed by the Board of Trade. In spite of the protection thus afforded him both against his own weakness and those who pander to them, the seaman often manages to get into bad hands, and lose his money on leaving the ship at home ports. It can, therefore, be easily inferred that in many foreign ports, and more especially those of the United States, where little or nothing has been contrived for him, the seaman is practically defenceless.

Amongst the many evils from which the mercantile marine thus suffers, desertion should occupy the first rank. Abetted and led on by the crimp, the sailor leaves his ship, abandoning the wages due to him. After spending a few days in a boarding-house, he is, in the United States, and particularly in the Western ports, shipped again with an advance of two months wages - little, if anything finding it's way to his own pocket. The practice which is universally prevalent on the other side of the Atlantic is debasing to the last degree. The seaman, who is working with the prospect of only being able to earn, owing to the preposterous advance - a few pounds at the termination of his voyage - carries out his duties without zest - in a listless manner. On the other had, when discharged from his ship through the termination of his service, having a very small amount due, he is compelled, when shipping again, once more to have recourse to an advance.

As a matter of fact, the seamen engaged at San Francisco, New York and Philadelphia are merely slaves of the boarding-house masters on either side of the Atlantic. The loss of self-respect attendant on their permanent impecuniosity renders them absolutely indifferent to the report of character they may have to show at the end of a voyage, and they often develop into insubordinate men, who crave for one thing - namely, drink. The sketch is not overdrawn, as anyone can testify who has been brought into contact with the class referred to. As an example it may be mentioned here that a ship recently lost all her able season (seamen?), fifteen in number, who deserted at San Francisco, having respectively 7 or 8 pounds due to them. They were earning 5 pounds per month, and on shipping again would only receive a monthly wage of 4 pounds. This instance, by no means unprecedented, shows how powerful is the hold of the boarding-house crimp, and further demonstrates the urgent necessity of something being attempted to rescue Jack from his enemy.

In New York alone, during the year 1889, no fewer than 4111 men deserted from English ships. It is impossible to give correct figures for San Francisco, but it is not an exaggeration to class it as the worst port on the West Coast for desertions. Those unacquainted with the subject can hardly imagine what motives lead a sailor to leave behind him money already earned, knowing furthermore full well from previous experience that the advance he will be compelled to take on reshipping will be of no profit to him. If the life of a sailor is, however, taken into consideration, the matter becomes less incomprehensible. After a voyage lasting on average four months, during which the crew have been closeted in a not too comfortable forecastle, with the wearisome recurrence of the daily salt beef, only alternated by salt pork, on arriving in port they are simply pining for a change. The crimp, who is fully acquainted with the seaman's besetting weakness, supplies him with drink, and the man is easily induced to leave the ship and abandon his wages. It is to be feared that in some instances, the master does not discourage the seamen from deserting, and cases of "running the men out of ship" are not infrequent. How is it effected? A sailor's own words throw some light on the subject: - "I was then" stated my informant, "in an English four-masted ship. We had been out for some months, and I had about 18 pounds due to me. Well when we arrived at San Francisco, no leave was granted. We were denied any advance of cash, and kept to our bare allowance, pint and pound. The captain would not even give us tobacco. On the other hand, the crimps were continually at us, and the upshot was that one by one the whole lot of us deserted. The skipper wanted to run us out of the ship and he succeeded."

It should be added that the wages of deserters are forfeited to the owner, and that, in the case above referred to, considerable profit would accrue to the ship, owing to the desertion of the crew. If a report is to be believed, a ship cleared this year upwards of 250 pounds by her men leaving in a like manner.

How fares it with the men when he is once ashore? He is allowed to pass a few days in a boarding house, where liquor is liberally supplied, and he is then transferred to another ship being compelled at San Francisco to take forty dollars (8 pounds) advance, an amount equivalent to two months' wages. Out of that he receives, practically, nothing. An example of the scale on which charges of the "sharking brotherhood" are modelled is afforded by the significant fact that the bonus to the shipping master - deducted from the advance - varies from five dollars to ten dollars (one pound to two pounds). The master on the other hand, is reported to pay an exorbitant rate for the supply of the men. Exaggeration has been studiously avoided in what precedes, and the plain facts of the case have been stated for no sensational purpose, but in order to call attention to an evil which gives no sign of abating, and which is the curse to the mercantile marine.

The remedy, however difficult it may appear, is not impossibility. Great Britain has no treaty with the United States for the apprehension of deserters, and the master is therefore powerless to compel his crew to carry out their contract in the ports of that Power. Some nations enjoy, on the grounds of reciprocity, the privilege of arresting their seamen in the ports of the United States. What he Federal Government has conceded to others might be obtained for England. The wages of deserters being forfeited to the ship constitutes an inducement to the unscrupulous not to do their best to stop desertion. The paragraph of the Merchant Shipping Act dealing with the matter should be repealed, and deserters wages, suitable allowance being made to owners for the expense incurred, should be accounted for to the Board of Trade, and go to swell the pension fund for aged seamen, as very rightly suggested by Mr, Taylor, Consul at Dunkirk in his report for 1891.

It my be incidentally pointed out that, in the event of the law being altered, supplies made and cash advanced by the master to his seamen would be less open to dispute were the practice of obtaining in "the wages book" the sailors initials in confirmation of each item rendered compulsory. This provision would prove highly satisfactory in many cases, and particularly in those concerning the wages of deceased seamen. Reforms of the nature of those suggested above would certainly meet no opposition on the part of English shipowners and shipmasters, who would, on the contrary, hail with satisfaction the enactment of a measure which, while tending to put an end to desertion, must undoubtedly be powerfully instrumental in raising, both morally and physically, the standard of the mercantile marine.

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