Labour History

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

Labour History (2012), 102, (1), 131–156.


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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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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34.Ibid. Google Scholar

35.Merchant Ships (Crews Committed to Prison): Return of the Crews of Merchant Ships Which have been Committed to Prison in the Years 1870, 1871, 1872, and 1873, for Refusing to Proceed to Sea; Showing the Number of Men in Each Case, the Name of the Ship, Where from, and Where Bound to, the Date of Conviction and Term of Imprisonment, together with the Reason Alleged by the Seamen for Refusing to Proceed to Sea; Showing also in Each Instance the Result of the Voyage (362 in Continuation of Parliamentary Paper, no. 83, of Session 1873), inBritish Parliamentary Papers,House of Commons, HMSO,, 1874, pp.64-65. Google Scholar

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

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45. Argus, 15May1869, p.6. Google Scholar

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

47. Sydney Morning Herald, 23February1872, p.4. Google Scholar

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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50. Ibid. Google Scholar

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52. Argus, 10May1889, p.10. Google Scholar

53. Argus, 16February1853, p.4. Google Scholar

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55. Argus, 3May1876, p.7. Google Scholar

56. Brisbane Courier, 13August1877, p.3 Google Scholar

57. South Australian Advertiser, 2June1880, p.9. Google Scholar

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

59. Argus, 10February1899, p.7. Google Scholar

60. South Australian Advertiser, 19June1878, p.1. Google Scholar

61. Argus, 30April1875, pp.4-5;14May1875, pp.4-5;22May1875, pp.6-7;26May1875, p.6;27May1875, p.7. Google Scholar

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63. Argus, 18June1875, pp.4-6;30June1875, pp.6-7. Google Scholar

64. Argus, 27June1875, p.7. Google Scholar

65. Argus, 25June1875, pp.4-7;28June1875, pp.4-5. Google Scholar

66. Argus, 23July1875, pp.6-7;20August1875, pp.4-5. Google Scholar

67. Argus, 1November1873, p.2, Letter from‘A Passenger’. Google Scholar

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

69. Argus, 9January1889, p.9. Google Scholar

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

71. Sydney Morning Herald, 6March1871, p.2. Google Scholar

72. Sydney Morning Herald, 5April1859, p.5;14April1859, p.4;30April1859, p.5. Google Scholar

73. Sydney Gazette, 19November1836, p.3. Google Scholar

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

75. Argus, 6September1873, pp.4-6. Google Scholar

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

77.SeeJeremy Hugh Baron ‘Sailors’ Scurvy Before and After James Lind: A Reassessment’, Nutrition Reviews, vol.67, no.6, 2009, pp.315-32;C.C. Lloyd, ‘The Conquest of Scurvy’, The British Journal for the History of Science, vol.1, no.4, 1963, pp.357-63;G.C. Cook, ‘Scurvy in the British Mercantile Marine in the 19th Century and the Contribution of the Seamen’s Hospital Society’, Postgraduate Medical Journal, no.80, 2004, pp.224-29. Google Scholar

78. Sydney Morning Herald, 9July1847, p.2; and14January1848, p.2;Argus, 31January1888, p.5. Google Scholar

79. Sydney Morning Herald, 31December1847, p.2;Argus, 6May1853, p.4;8August1865, pp.4-5; and31January1873, p.7. Google Scholar

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

81. South Australian Advertiser, 18June1860, p.2. Google Scholar

82. Argus, 12February1868, p.7;Sydney Morning Herald, 1June1877, p.3. Google Scholar

83. Argus, 29September1874, pp.4-5. Google Scholar

84. Argus, 3July1850, p.2;28June1864, p.5;3January1884, p.5;30December1893, p.10;South Australian, 31October1878, p.6;Brisbane Courier, 28April1893, p.3. Google Scholar

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86.See, for example, strikes by crews onMary Parker, Orient, Sea Snake and Rhudlan Castle, reported in Hobart Town Courier, 21October1853, p.3;South Australian Advertiser, 5October1861, p.3;Argus, 21November1866, pp.3-4; and1December1868, p.5. Google Scholar

87. Argus, 12January1867, p.5;12July1881, p.4. Google Scholar

88. Argus, 14May1873, p.7;16May1873, pp.4-5. Google Scholar

89.See, for example, the claims of the crew of theSouthesk against their shipmaster, Sydney Morning Herald, 15May1900, p.5;17May1900, p.7. Google Scholar

90.Sari Maenpaa, ‘From Pea Soup to Hors d’Oeuvres: The Status of the Cook on British Merchant Ships’, The Northern Mariner, vol.11, no.2, 2001, pp.39-55. Google Scholar

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92. Sydney Gazette, 17October1828, p.2;Hobart Town Courier, 3June1842, p.4. Google Scholar

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94.See, for example, the cases of theEastward Hoin1867and theElizabeth Baufieldin1868, Sydney Morning Herald, 2April1867, p.2; andArgus, 23September1868, p.2. Google Scholar

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

96.See, for example, Sydney Morning Herald, 31March1858, p.3; andArgus, 19February1897, p.3. Google Scholar

97. Argus, 20February1868, pp.6-7. Google Scholar

98.Maenpaa, ‘From Pea Soup to Hors d’Oeuvres’, p.42; andArgus, 20February1868, pp.6-7. Google Scholar

99.See, for example, a complaint by the crew of theFanny Fothergill, reported inArgus, 25September1875, pp.6-7. Google Scholar

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101. Sydney Morning Herald, 7February1862, p.4. Google Scholar

102. Sydney Morning Herald, 17August1877, p.5. Google Scholar

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

104.InMay1849, at the trial of seamen from theChasely, several passengers and the Surgeon-Superintendent Hobbs gave evidence supporting the poor quality of bread supplied and stating that this in combination with exposure to wet and exhaustion meant seamen were often unwell. It was Hobbs’ first voyage and this was used to query his testimony, with the men being imprisoned for 30 days after refusing to return to the ship‘in a most determined manner’;The Moreton Bay Courier, 12May1849, pp.2-3. Google Scholar

105.Again, this is consistent with contemporary research on occupational violence including that involving predominantly third world crews in the maritime industry.Katherine Lippel andMichael Quinlan, ‘Editorial: Regulation of Psychosocial Risk Factors at Work: An International Overview’, Safety Science, vol.49, no.4, 2011, pp.543-46. Google Scholar

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107. Sydney Morning Herald, 22December1858, p.4. Google Scholar

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110.The 13 crew members were sentenced to 30 days on the treadmill for striking after taking ‘umbrage’ at the captain’s‘necessary disciplining’of one the ship’s boys;Sydney Gazette, 15September1838, p.2. Google Scholar

111.Wright later took his charge of assault to the Central Criminal Court which imposed a fine of only one shilling, finding Wright’s sulkiness had provoked the captain;Argus, 16December1876, pp.4-5; and19February1877, pp.4-5. Google Scholar

112. Argus, 27April1867, p.4;29April1867, p.6. Google Scholar

113. Rockhampton Bulletin, 10May1876, reproduced in theArgus, 20May1876, p.5. Google Scholar

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115.Miles was fined £20 for falsifying the logbook entry;Argus, 12February1864, pp.4-5. Google Scholar

116. Argus, 21December1864, p.5. Google Scholar

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119. Sydney Morning Herald, 19May1855, p.5. Google Scholar

120.The bench rejected the evidence of three seamen relating to the assault, including being pulled down the hatchway while manacled and dragged along the deck, and also refused to allow a passenger to give evidence for the defence;Argus, 16June1865, p.5. Google Scholar

121. Argus, 3October1882, p.10. Google Scholar

122. Argus, 13October1882, pp.4-7. Google Scholar

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124.Including charges of assault and subsequent efforts by the seamen to obtain both their wages and a discharge;Port Philip Patriot, 16December1845;26and27December1845;7and9February1846; andMelbourne Courier, 9and16January1846. Google Scholar

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126. Moreton Bay Courier, 5March1861, p.4. Google Scholar

127.Quinlan,Gardner andAkers, ‘Reconsidering the Collective Impulse’. Google Scholar

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Author details

Quinlan, Michael