Enduring wretched quarters, unspeakable food, and the daily risk of death or injury, seafarers in the age of sail were a stoical band. Even with the advent of steamships, their working conditions remained primitive. But through their sense of mateship, their songs and sayings, and a powerful union movement, they helped shape New Zealand’s cultural identity for over 100 years.
Full story by Neill Atkinson
Main image: Seamen’s Union banner
The Short Story
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Working at sea
From the late 1700s, seafarers came to New Zealand on sailing ships. By the 1870s thousands worked on deep-sea merchant vessels carrying cargo to and from Britain, Europe and America. New Zealand-based seafarers sailed around the coast or across to Australia. Crews would toil day and night – steering, making sails, scrubbing decks, or cooking. Some men would climb high up in the rigging to roll or loosen the sails, even in dangerous seas.
Steamships also began to arrive in the 1860s. One of the hardest jobs was below deck in terrible heat, stoking the coal engine. From the 1900s bigger passenger steamships brought settlers or visitors to New Zealand. These ships were like floating hotels, with bakers, butchers, waiters and nurses on board.
By the early 1900s over 6,000 people based in New Zealand were working on ships.
The motorised ships of the 20th century did not need as many crew. After the 1980s and 1990s the number of seafarers rapidly declined.
Life on board
For most seafarers, the ship was home. On sailing ships their living space was usually dark, cramped, rat-infested, and often swamped with sea water. A good captain would make life easier, but usually conditions were tough. Perhaps the worst part was the food – generally salted meat and hard biscuits, crawling with bugs. Fresh food and water were scarce on long voyages.
On steamships there was more room, but conditions were still unpleasant until at least the 1950s.
On sailing ships, seafarers sang sea shanties to help make their work easier. In their spare time, they did handcrafts such as drawing, scrimshaw (carving whale’s teeth or bone) and sewing.
The men would make the most of their visits to New Zealand ports. Many would get drunk, and some would desert – escaping to start a new life away from the deep sea. Some ended up on coastal ships. If caught, deserters were jailed.
They had special songs, language and humour, and formed strong unions to get better working conditions. Other groups of New Zealand men such as shearing gangs and whalers also developed a rough, hard-drinking mateship, like the seafarers.