According to The Merchant Shipping Acts

The first Merchant Shipping Act (1834), and subsequent legislation in day-to-day business made merchant shipping one of the most regulated industries in the British Empire. A concern for property and life motivated the Acts and in turn legislation generated documentation. Our knowledge of the lives of those who worked at sea would be poorer but for this. The second half of the nineteenth century was the height of Victorian laissez-faire policies, yet shipping legislation was not designed to regulate trade, rather its purpose was to regulate matters of security and safety in the day-to-day business of shipping. This legislation contributed to the primacy of British shipping, but not by regulating trade. Nineteenth-century Acts changed the experience of merchant shipmasters in three ways:

  1. Laws of increasing scope and complexity created formal obligations where once masters had enacted customary practice;
  2. more paperwork was required and the documentation produced made masters accountable for their actions while at sea,
  3. from the mid-century, masters worked under the threat of revocation of their professional certificates: without these they could not hold the position of master.

The Acts did not actually constrain the powers of the masters, but rather restated them in official terms, restricting corporal punishment and tasking masters with making themselves accountable. In James Lees' guide to The Laws of Merchant Shipping , the author opined that masters wielded a lot of power. Lees declared that "...over seamen on board, the authority of the captain is great, like as a parent over a child, or a master over an apprentice, or scholar. They are bound to obey his commands, in everything relating the navigation of the ship, and the materials, stores, and cargo, whether on board the ship, in boats, or on shore; and a ready and prompt obedience to these commands, is essential to the due navigation of the ship and the preservation of good order on board" (1865, 81).

Infringing on Traditional Rights

The master was supreme at sea, but is it possible that legislation curtailed their authority? In a moment of despondency, caused by the ineptness of the crew shipped on the Wickwire (ON 52098) in 1870 Captain George William Murray confided in his Log, "We stand Idly looking on whilst our sailors do as they think proper. One half of the wrecks in the Western Ocean is the fault of such crews as I have now got. We hear of New Laws every day for so called Sailors. But protection for Captains, Officers, Shipowners or Underwriters is a thing of the past" (Log Entry, ON 52098, 1870, 15 MHA).

The Merchant Shipping Acts meant masters were not just answerable to shipowners, they were also accountable to officials for observing legislation. To be an employee, but also a state-certificated professional, created contradictions. The tensions between safety and profit could also produce difficult circumstances. For example if money were saved by reducing the size of the crew, the greater workload placed on the crew might put the ship in danger. Statistics of seafarers' deaths from the 1866 reveal that 1219 men died from accidental drowning, in a year of 4866 total occupational deaths in the shipping legislation (Return "Showing the Number, Ages, Ratings, and Causes of Death of Seamen”). If the numbers of seafarers who drowned during shipwreck is added, the proportion increases to almost 60% of the total (RGSS). Legislation made masters responsible for securing sufficient labour for their ship, stowing cargo properly, feeding crew on foreign-going voyages, treating sickness or injury, and safely navigating their vessels. Obliged to follow the laws of merchant shipping, masters at the same time had to satisfy shipowners that their vessels were operated expeditiously and cheaply. A difficult crew, as in George William Murray's experience, surely made the master's job harder.

Paperwork, Paperwork, Paperwork

The contents of the MHA and many other archives, museums and private collections result from processes of documentation that were daily events in nineteenth-century shipping and trade. In addition to the Registrar General of Shipping and Seamen's [RGSS] interests in documenting vessels and crews, customs officials treated cargoes in ways that produced systematic records. Commercial agencies required documentation of property in transit. Just as the Agreements and Logs were completed according to formal stipulations, commercial law imposed recording routines. Commodities transported were traced by paper. A Bill of Lading, for example, was negotiable against the cargo in advance of its arrival in port, so it was important that the master was accurate and prompt in filling it out. Guides for masters have extensive sections on commercial law and there were other specialist publications that might have been in his working library. Stevens on Stowage, for example, was the standard Victorian work on the appropriate ways of loading cargoes. But the details of labour administration are featured more prominently on this site.

The master attended at the local mercantile marine office of the port of departure to sign on a whole crew in the presence of a shipping superintendent. Time-consuming as this might be, tracking down the British consul to witness the engagement or discharge of a single seafarer in a foreign port might require more patience and perseverance. Masters had to be scrupulous in respect of official requirements to complete, carry on board, and then return Agreements and Logs to the RGSS via the superintendent of the local marine office where the voyage ended. And then, in addition to seafarers' articles, there were Logs to be maintained. Apprentices were sometimes called upon to practice their penmanship by transcribing entries into the log, but the details were for the master to decide.

Official log books differ from Captain's navigation logs. Unless requested by the shipowner, the latter were voluntary. A few of these unofficial logs arrived at the RGSS's office and, though only occasional holdings of the MHA, they are represented on this website: see Thalaba (ON 37174, 1867). These logs contain information on cargo, stowage and ballast as well as the weather. Official Logs required no navigational details save for vessel draft, but heavy weather and storms are in evidence because accidents to the vessel or injuries to the crew had to be reported. The Official Log might be presented as evidence in court enquiries into the conditions which had, for example, caused a collision at sea.

According to merchant shipping acts, the master was responsible for recording:

Having to record disciplinary measures and accidents meant that masters were often on the defensive when writing entries into the log. Deaths might easily find the master writing to absolve himself as in the case of the drowning of an AB seaman employed on the Nile (ON 48437) in 1874. He drowned in the mid-Atlantic and the master wrote,

James Repeese Fell overboard from m. topgallant yard the fall appeared to kill him could not save him there being a heavy sea at the time and a gale of wind comeing on suddenly
R M Newcomb
F N Morris
A S Curry

Entries in the log required corroborating signatures. In instances where crew misbehaviour was recorded, the master was required to read the entry to the guilty party and note any response made. As James McMullen, master of the Dennis Horton (ON 38187, 1866) discovered, sometimes the reply could also be subversive of his authority,

This Log has been Duly red to the above two men their reply in a varry Lancy Manner was "is that all[?]"
Jos W MCMullen Master
Charles Duke Steward
John Lane Boatswain

Another time the master of the Alipore (ON 12547, 1863) with a potential mutiny on his hands found the procedure unexpectedly useful: it allowed the seafarer accused of neglecting duty to set the record straight. Able seaman Charles Clark was said to have refused work and was put in irons for his misconduct. TThe crew downed tools in solidarity and were then confined to the fo'c'sle by the officers using threats of violence. However, when the master read the entry to Clark he discovered that "he [Clark] never refused duty, that the Boatswain threatened to strike him with a Mallet" (1863, 18). The master, having the seaman's statement confirmed by the crew, sided with them over the bo'sun and released Clark.

Next After the Next After God

The Registrar General of Shipping and Seamen monitored what was being recorded in the Crew Agreements and the Log Books. If he felt something was missing, masters were called to account for their mistakes. Recording the wages and effects of deceased crew, and reporting changes in crew seem to be the two most common subjects on which master were negligent. Letters to the RGSS are filed frequently enough with the Crew Agreement for us to know that masters were genuinely intimidated by the possibility of infringing the law. These letters are not defensive, as are the log entries, but are better described as submissive. Matthew Dunn, master of the Queen of Beauty (ON 38730, 1870), had to explain two oversights, one about the discharge of crew members,

You have drawn my attention to some omissions in the official Log Book of the "Queen of Beauty" (of which vessel I am Master) concerning the discharge of several of my crew in Foreign Parts:–
I beg to say that the above are duly recorded on my Articles, but in the hurry of loading & despatching my vessel at the various Ports, I quite omitted to enter them in my Official Log Book.
I am sorry for this mistake and will take care that the same does not occur in future.
I am
Matthew Dunn

and the other about not recording a death,

Having called my attention to my having omitted to enter an account of John Sullivan, who was drowned on the passage out in my official Log Book. I beg to state in future I shall enter all such occurrences.
Your obedient servant
Matthew Dunn

Occasionally these notes are the result of comic circumstances. No doubt J. H. Kewely of the (ON 89852, 1911, MHA) was quite embarrassed when he sent in the following,

Dear Sir
I am sorry having to return my Log + agreement in a mutilated condition but it was caused through Rats getting into the Captain's drawer
Yours truly
JH Kewely

He had reason to apologise, however. While forgetting information could result in a fine of up to £5, and neglecting to pass in the Agreement on time, a fine of £30, mutilating or defacing a Crew Agreement could result in the charge of misdemeanour or even the revoking of the master's certificate of competency.

Thus, while the master was "next after God" on his ship, once he returned to a British or imperial port he surrendered dominion to the RGSS. Charles Stratford, substitute master of the Veronica (ON 28192, 1872) had to grasp this when he failed to stop (and was probably the main cause of) a mutiny aboard his ship.

In virtue of the powers vested in this Naval Court by Article 23 of the Merchant Shipping Amendment Act 1862, Paragraph 1, we have found it our painful duty to suspend the Certificate of the Master, Mr. Charles Stratford, for the term of twelve months from this date.

Merchant shipping acts made masters accountable for what happened to their crew and for how they treated the men who served beneath them. This, in turn, means masters are in greater part the authors of much we see and read in the Agreements and Logs.