"...With the Interests of Those Whom He Represents"

In view of his duty to preserve the lives and property entrusted to him, the master's responsibilities are heavy indeed. Yet he cannot be expected to be otherwise than an ordinary human being, and as such to be subject to the ordinary failings and weaknesses of shore-staying mortals. Some latitude must, however, be given to the shipmaster. He must be reasonably competent. He must not be slothful nor habitually drunken, nor careless of his employer's interests, and, whatever he does, he must do with absolutely bona fides, and with the interests of those whom he represents at heart
- (Ginsburg 1903, 14-5).

Shipping journalist Benedict Ginsburg indicates in Hints on the Legal Duties of Shipmasters that masters, who were hired by the ship owner, had responsibilities over and above those of ensuring the safety of the crew. They were responsible to the owner for the vessel, its cargo, and, when appropriate, passengers. The many demands on the master could be difficult to balance. For example, it was his call to order the abandonment of the ship and cargo if the lives of those on board were in danger. He could also decide what to do with a recalcitrant and mutinous crew, using force if he thought it necessary.

Ginsburg generalized from the case of the master who was an employee of the shipowner, but there were masters who were part owners of the vessels in which they sailed. True, they were rare by Ginsburg's day, at least in the predominantly steam foreign-going fleets at British ports, but even in colonial shipping it was becoming rarer to find the functions of master and owner combined in the same individual. The rise of specialist ship managers was happening too. Both developments were a consequence of the increase of capital invested in shipping and the specialist organization of international commodity and passenger trade.

As the owner's waged employee, the master was the representative of the shipowner on board. He was expected to look after the owner's property and conduct the voyage to make it profitable. Responsibilities varied with the type of voyage, but if the cargo was valuable, or easily spoiled, speed was the goal, the more so when there were government and private mails to be delivered. A ship owner's business strategy in good times was to keep the vessel more constantly in operation, thus earning freights (the payment for carriage) or passenger fares. The faster the turnaround on cargo, the more cargo could be shipped and thus the greater the profit that could be made. Delays cost money and opportunities. Steam, with its reliability, increased the pressure on the master to ensure an equal speediness in port. By the latter part of the nineteenth century, however, the economics of sailing ship operations had diverged from those of steam. In depressed conditions there might be more advantage to the merchant in delaying the delivery of a bulk commodity to overstocked markets.

If speed was the object, however, it had to be balanced with discretion. For the master of a sailing vessel, running to market with a cargo of fruit or of tea, racing in heavy seas and high winds, speed was a certain way to gain acclaim among seafarers, but it was extremely risky: the ship's pitch could be dangerous for working seamen, it could also shift the cargo or ballast. Sails under pressure from strong winds could be shredded if they were of a lighter canvas, but the pressure of high winds on heavy canvas might buckle the masts.

In Port

The responsibility of the ship's master did not end when the ship entered port. The master had to discharge and pay his crew and recruit a new one, and sometimes this could be difficult. In certain ports, Quebec City, for instance, labour shortage meant the prevailing rate of pay was high. The problem was compounded by the desertion of incoming seamen who left ships they had signed on in Britain at a low wage, only to join out-bound Quebec ships at a higher one (Fingard 1982, 49). Larger operators and most steam ship enterprises had agents to do passenger and consignment business in port. Small-scale operators in sail, even late in the period, might assign responsibility to the master for the discharge of cargo and the stowage of new cargo or ballast. Thus Nathan Lewis, owner of the ship N. B. Lewis, sent instructions from Yarmouth to his master Frank Gullison in September 1886,

[you] had better take the best offering and get away [from San Francisco]; don't see no use waiting ... Think [27 shillings, 6 pence for grain] better than anything offering in Manila [Philippines]. Think you got out of Shanghai cheaper than I expected. Shall be glad if we ever get an improvement in freight. Have to live in hopes (Crowell 1979, 93).

Gullison wrote back that,

[I] closed [a charter] today at 27/6 having obtained the highest in the market; that is for soft wood ships/but the prospect is poor enough ... will forward you copy of charter party soon as possible. Shall go to the wharf tomorrow and commence loading ballast. Things in general look blue enough around here. Well, I am trying to do the best I can and you may be sure will get out of this as soon as possible.


Gullison and Lewis communicated by a combination of mail and telegraph, with each being informed of the market and ship's movements through word of mouth and reports carried by specialist shipping newspapers. Shipping and Mercantile Gazette, a daily publication with a weekly breviate, is the most comprehensive of the British publications. Its reports were complied from sightings at sea and from reports of arrivals and departures at ports. The telegraph transformed communication, but it is as well to remember that in 1863 (the start date of the MHA collection), the first successful trans-Atlantic telegraph cables had yet to be completed. A mail system was used before 1866 and continued to serve ports without the telegraph. As Elizabeth Linklater, a shipmaster's daughter, noticed in Monte Video, "the mails were very uncertain. On one occasion, the boat was three days late ... [and] the mails were not landed until the following morning" (1949, 184). But, as the Gullison/Lewis correspondence reproduced in Novascotiaman reveals, a combination of the telegraph and mail could facilitate communications over long distances.

Even for smaller firms, like N. B. Lewis & Co. the telegraph facilitated changes in the organization of business abroad. Contact could be made with charterers of the vessels or with the company's agents in ports before the arrival of their ships. By the time Gullison had arrived in San Francisco in September 1886, Lewis had already chartered a tug to tow the N.B. Lewis to Benicia in the Bay area, where grain would be loaded. Before the telegraph, arranging business between Yarmouth, Nova Scotia and San Francisco, California was much more difficult.

The master's responsibility to the ship owner might, on occasion, be trumped by more urgent concerns. Francis Harber, master of the 689 ton Ward Chipman (ON 23515, 1868) had to decide how far he could expose his crew to risk when, on a passage between Quebec and Limerick, the vessel foundered in heavy seas off the coast of Cape Race, Newfoundland, in 1868. Unable to control the rising water, even while continually bailing with two manual pumps, the master first ordered the crew to jettison the on-deck cargo and then to cut away some of the masts. When the ship Wolfe's Cove (19709, 1868) hove into view and eventually signalled them, Harber decided that the safety of his now exhausted crew, who had been manning the pumps for two days straight, was more important than risking life and limb to preserve the shipowner's property. They took all the provisions they could manage and abandoned the Ward Chipman to the North Atlantic.

The decision to abandon a ship, however, could never be taken lightly. A lot of investment went into both the ship and cargo, and many parties, not only ship and cargo owners, but also government officials and insurance underwriters could hold the master accountable for a poor decision. In 1862, the master of the steamer Euphrosyne on a run between Beirut and Great Britain, ran her aground on rocks along the coast of Spain, after calling at Vigo for coal. The British Board of Trade held an inquiry to decide whether or not to remove his certificate. The master testified that normally he would have been in open ocean but a heavy sea had made him hug the coast for protection. The problem was that his employers had not provided an accurate chart of the coast. In this case no passengers or crew were lost. At the enquiry the mate spoke in the master's favour testifying that the incident was an unfortunate lapse in the career of a man who had otherwise exercised good judgment (Mercantile Marine Magazine 1862, 215-6). The master did not have his certificate permanently revoked, but it was suspended so that for the next year he could not be employed as a master.

The shipmaster had many responsibilities, but his dual role as employee and representative of the shipowner made all his other responsibilities more difficult to manage. When lives or property were lost at sea, it was the master who was held accountable, by the owner and crew, by family, by the government, and insurance underwriters.