So, Your Ancestor was a Merchant Shipmaster?

Of all the men who worked on merchant ships and whose Crew Agreements are stored at the Maritime History Archive, shipmasters left behind the most information. While individuals aboard ships are notoriously hard to find without a ship's official number, masters were important enough to be tracked by both the Board of Trade and Lloyd's, the insurance underwriters. The Board of Trade kept records of their successful examination and of their service, so from these records the researcher can see the ships they served on, their official numbers and years. Lloyd's kept similar records, which were used to factor the reliability of the master into the calculation of insurance premiums on particular vessels and voyages. General knowledge circulates about masters. Perhaps it was novelists such as Herman Melville, Joseph Conrad and Jack London, writing about a fictional shipmaster, who first intrigued some of the users of this site to find out about seafarers. Historian David Alexander quite rightly declared, "there is a huge literature of memoirs written by American and British mariners – far larger, without doubt, than can be found for any other sector of the economy" (1980, 3). Masters were particularly prolific autobiographers and we refer to several of the most informative autobiographies on this site.

In addition, understanding the lives of this group of seafarers is easier for the large quantity of guides. These books include navigational manuals, mathematical books, works explaining the Merchant Shipping Acts, maritime law and insurance, and medical guides. Publishers frequently brought out new editions to cater for a brisk market. The manuals are to be discovered listed in inventories of deceased masters and officers so we know they were carried on board. If your ancestor was a merchant shipmaster, you have the good fortune to have many resources at your disposal to research your ancestor's career and to understand what his life at sea was like.

Next After God

At sea, the shipmaster was considered "next after God," because there was seldom anyone else aboard the ship with greater power. William Morris Barnes, a master himself, declared in his autobiography, "A captain when he's at sea, he's judge, jury and everything else; he has the law in his own hands. If a mutiny starts he can shoot every man of them down to save the ship. And, of course, in some cases we may be called on to do it" (1930, 18).

Envisaging three types of masters, Barnes called some tyrants, and others pushovers, but aligned himself with the happy medium between the two. Yet while Barnes recognized that masters were "next after God" on their ships at sea, he also knew this changed once they were back on land, and were held accountable to shipowners, merchants, and government officials. This section of the website discusses both the responsibilities and rights of masters and the ways which their power and authority was curtailed. Others' lives under sail and steam were greatly influenced by the decisions of the master. Furthermore, masters were the authors of most of the evidence that we gather from Official Logs.