Sail & Steam

The sailing ship of the 1920s differed markedly from its predecessor. With cargo and passenger-carrying capacity in mind, the builders of sailing ships built bigger and to different hull designs and sail plans throughout the nineteenth century. Initially hulls were wooden, but when metal replaced wood, vessels could be built on a larger scale than was conceivable to the wooden shipbuilder. The late-nineteenth century 'greyhounds of the sea' carried four masts or more. They were upwards of 2,000 tons capacity, and steel-hulled. The masters of these vessels were, without any question, skilled professionals. They were daily challenged in the navigation of these vessels, though not least because their crews were some of the most nationally and ethnically mixed, as well as the lowest-paid, of merchant seafarers.

What was happening alongside the transformation of the sailing ship was the greatest technological change in shipping of all time. Between the 1840s and 1880s steam-propelled vessels came to be deployed on all sea-routes. In the course of the 1860s steam eclipsed sail in new tonnage registered. But the more revealing measure is the total number of vessels in use -- for each required a master -- and sailing vessels outnumbered steamships in overseas trades until the end of the 1880s. This picture might be further qualified, however, because from the start the better remunerated commands were in steam. Yet, despite the financial attractions of a steam command, there were masters who claimed to be happier in sail. Some indeed were disparaging of the spread of a technology that called them to devolve some of their authority to chief engineers, "mechanics in corduroys", as they were once called. Mentioned several times already on this site, the Nova Scotian shipmasters, the Gullisons, kept up careers in sail into the 1890s.

As the historian of Atlantic Canadian shipping, Eric Sager, notes in Seafaring Labour the ship as a workplace in the late nineteenth-century was becoming more industrial, and seafarers were losing their informal means of wage-control together with the traditional ways of defending their working conditions aboard wooden ships. For masters, the industrialization of the shipping industry meant professionalization, but class-polarization as well.

Masters' competency tests, made compulsory in 1850, reduced the chances of working-class men achieving the best-paid positions as officers or masters of ships. A written test was instituted and, despite rising levels of literacy in the population at large, studying and sitting written exams was exacting. Spending time at a Navigational School became almost obligatory. Study cost money and additionally there was the cost of wages foregone. A newly gentrified class of navigation officers was in part a response to the advent of other officers with other skills. By comparison with "rude mechanicals" (ship's engineers) officers on steam vessels, or more precisely, passenger liners, set out to appear more cultivated (Burton 1999).

The Board of Trade examinations were instituted in 1845, and were made mandatory in 1850. All masters shipping out of the United Kingdom had to have a certificate of competency (or, in the first generation only, a certificate of service) in order to engage a crew and take command of a vessel. There were consequences for colonial seamen. First they were advised to take their test in Great Britain. In Canada however, once the country secured its own government and passed its own Merchant Shipping Act, masters could be tested. Canadian colonial certificates date from 1871, and Newfoundland, still a British dominion, issued its first certificates in 1877.

Demanding as the tests were, bookish learning was not enough. In order to qualify for the exam, seafarers had to prove they had spent time at sea. The illustrated Reed's Seamanship provides evidence of what masters had to know in order qualify. The candidate for a master's certificate already had to have progressed from Second to First Mate. Holding these previous certificates, he would be well versed in the rigging, in management of the ship and handling the ship's boats; he would be familiar with the rules of shipping lanes, signaling, and how to moor the ship; he would know how to take care of the ventilation of the cargo, how to stow explosives and grains, and be able to deal with accidents. In addition the master was expected to know how to: construct jury, or replacement, rudders for metal and wooden ships; manage food provisions in the case of a wreck; manage the ship in heavy weather; rescue the crew of a disabled vessel; deal with a ship when on its beam ends (listing 45° or more), unmanageable, disabled, or grounded on shore; place a ship in dry dock and direct repairs, or put into port in distress with damage to ship and cargo.

Additional skills had to be demonstrated by masters wishing to qualify for steam or for an Extra-Master's certificate. Once a certificate was awarded, the master was able to take control of British Empire ships, though masters who obtained their certificates through a colonial shipping office were perceived as having passed an easier test. Steamship companies began to require the steam qualification and to block the promotion of officers who did not have it. The passenger liner master W.C. Crutchley observed this during his career in the Union Company of New Zealand, which "For many years [it had] run a line of sailing-ships between London and New Zealand. They consequently had many well-tried officers in their employ who were perfectly competent to command in sailing-ships, yet lacked any knowledge of steam. Certain of them, however, were placed in the new steamers as second officers, and naturally were rather inclined to regard the newcomers as interlopers " (1912, 238-9).

For the families who could afford it, a premium-paid sailing ship apprenticeship gave a son the best start on a career ladder. Apprenticeship had existed before certification, but as a means to ensure that men leaving the service were replaced by new recruits. Until the Navigation Laws were repealed in 1850, it was mandatory for a master to ship a certain number of apprentices in ratio to the tonnage of the vessel. Poor law parishes eager to relieve themselves of young male paupers took the opportunity of apprenticing them (Burton, 1989, 32-3).

After the repeal of this legislation, apprenticeship was a different proposition. It was understood to be related to accelerated career advancement and thus there were families who thought it worthwhile to pay a premium to a shipowner who would take their son for three to five years. Before going to sea aboard real ships, future apprentices could train aboard floating schools such as the HMS Conway or the HMS Worcester and build up sea-time against the period needed to qualify for the first position in which they needed a certificate, the position of Second Mate. Quite different, however, were the floating reformatory or industrial schools which, at best, set up juveniles for an Able-Bodied seaman's or Bo'suns career.

Navigation was part of an officer's training and it was navigation as distinct from seamanship that marked officers off from skilled seamen. Captain William Barnes observed of Caleb, a past shipmate that he "never got any higher than bo'sun, he wasn't educated and he never learned navigation" (1931, 134). Historians have usually noted when a seafarer rose above his working class origins. Samuel Samuels went to sea as a runaway and managed to pass certification as an officer, causing historian David Alexander to remark "given the condition of forecastle on most sailing ships the dint of application would need to be extraordinary indeed. The men who made the transition from forecastle to quarter-deck were the exception, certainly in character and determination" (1980, 4-5). Samuels had the advantage of being already literate when he went to sea.

Class differences were more entrenched in the occupationally differentiated steamship. When sociologist and one-time merchant seafarer Tony Lane went to sea in 1955, he was an acute observer of these differences. Race also entered into class distinctions. Between the late nineteenth century and Tony Lane's time, an increasing number of steamships were manned by Asian or African seafarers, and their obedience to the commands of their white officers was assumed. How the different cultures of engineering and deck officers brought racial superiority into wielding authority still awaits the historian's proper study. "Oil and water didn't mix" Lane recalls.

....mates and engineers were qualitatively different. Some companies either built this expression into their ships or into their social arrangements. Mates tended to come from various sections of the middle class, engineers from the skilled working class, and animosities between the two were based on class (1985, 129-130).

Masters did not possess detailed knowledge of how the engines worked and so were dependent on the Engineering officer for advice. A Chief Engineer's wage was typically less than the Master's but greater than the First Mate's.

Masters in steam had to respect their chief engineering officers or to be uneasy in their commands. Captain Crutchley was thrilled to be able to choose his own engineer, and wrote with relief that despite being "stubborn as a mule he was a first-class man, and not likely to indulge me with any unpleasant surprises" (1912, 259). Indeed, shipping journalist Ginsburg acknowledges that "the less the master interferes with the work of the chief engineer's department the better" but reflects that "he [the master] should see that discipline is maintained in this department" (1903, 30). This was perhaps an oblique reference to the suspicion that the 'workshop' background of engineers left them without respect for seafaring traditions. The trimmers and firemen under their control were thought to look to on-shore forms of agitation to improve their wage and work conditions.

Even as the numbers of firemen, trimmers and engineering officers grew to outnumber the men and officers of the deck departments of steamships, deck officers felt they had inherited the traditions, gentrified and whitewashed, of the old world of sail. The transition to steam occupied the career span of perhaps three generations of officers (1840s to 1890s). During this time the nature of "sailing" was profoundly changed. Deck officers used nostalgia for seafaring traditions to legitimize their authority over the larger engineering department, but the master still gave over some of his authority to the chief engineer. These were times of opportunity for the young men entering the new positions aboard steamships, and of bitter disappointment to the older seafarers who saw themselves and their career eclipsed by the men in iron and steel.