Story: Seafarers

Page 3 – Crew culture

Delinquents and deserters

Although most deep-sea ships spent only a few weeks or months in New Zealand ports, their crews left a lasting imprint, often for the wrong reasons: between 1851 and 1861, for example, 355 out of the 677 inmates of Dunedin jail were seafarers, imprisoned for desertion or disobeying orders. Runaway sailors were among the first Europeans to settle in New Zealand, and British merchant seamen continued to jump ship in large numbers until well after the Second World War. Most found work ashore but others returned to the coastal shipping trade; according to an Auckland union official, half of New Zealand’s coastal seamen in the early 20th century were deserters from British ships.

Songs of the sea

Sea shanties were sung by merchant sailors to help lighten the hard physical labour aboard sailing ships in the 19th century. Their words were frequently adapted to local conditions:

I’ve traded with the Maoris,
Brazilians and Chinese.
I’ve courted half-caste beauties
Beneath the kauri trees;
I’ve travelled along, with a laugh and a song,
In the land where they call you mate,
Around the Horn and home again,
For that is the sailor’s fate.

A common bond

As a floating supply of labour, deep-sea seafarers seldom sailed twice on the same ship or with the same shipmates. They were bound together, however, by their communal work organisation, social customs and powerful subculture, with its own language, humour, songs, and codes of conduct. This crew culture of the sea was crucial in shaping the work and social habits of other male crews in 19th-century New Zealand, including shore whalers and sealers, shearers, timber workers and navvies. Seafarers’ culture, which combined disciplined devotion to duty at sea with drunken binges and other disreputable behaviour ashore, quiet stoicism with dogged protest, and self-sufficiency with egalitarianism, has also exerted a major influence on the development of New Zealand’s cultural identity.

How to cite this page:

Neill Atkinson. 'Seafarers - Crew culture', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 13-Jul-12
URL: http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/seafarers/page-3