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Now these statements may be highly coloured; they may slightly exaggerate the opinions expressed by the Consuls, but, on the whole, they are borne out by the Consular Reports.
Nor does this evidence stand alone.* The Report of the Committee on Shipwrecks, 1836, contains the following passages :
'That the frequent incompetency of masters and officers appears to be admitted on all hands.
"That drunkenness, either in the masters, officers, or men, is a frequent cause of ships being wrecked.'
Contrast with these passages the opinion expressed by Mr. W. S. Lindsay's Shipping Committee of 1860:†
'Your Committee cannot conclude this part of their report without bearing testimony in approbation of the system established in recent years for the examination of masters and mates of merchant ships. A marked improvement is undoubtedly visible in this class of officers, and nearly every witness has concurred in recognising the practical advantages of the system.'
Again, the replies of the Consuls to Mr. Lefevre's questions in 1869 convey an impression of very great improvement in the officers; not so much from any positive statements, as from the general absence of the unfavourable comments which so remarkably distinguished the Reports of 1843-47. In the few cases in the Reports of 1869, where the masters are spoken of unfavourably, it is their bad manners, their carelessness about their cargoes, and occasionally their drunkenness, which are specially mentioned. But these unfavourable comments are few, and are confined to particular classes of ships. The officers of steamers are almost invariably well spoken of.
Finally, the Royal Commission on Unseaworthy Ships say that it is admitted that shipmasters have of late years improved.§
Although, therefore, there may still be too many cases of want of education, coarseness of manners, or even of drunkenness, amongst certain classes of our merchant officers, we may fairly conclude that since 1850 their character and education has, on the whole, much improved. Whether, as some of the Consuls suggest, they are inadequately paid for the responsible functions they have to perform, is a question which we cannot answer, and with which Government cannot meddle. It is, undoubtedly, much to be desired that for this large and
* Report of Committee on Shipwrecks, 1836. Parl. Paper, 567, 1836.
+ Committee of 1860. Parl. Paper, 530, 1860.
↑ Reports of Consuls in 1869. No. C. 630, 1872.
§ Commission on Unseaworthy Ships. Preliminary Report. Parl. Paper, C. 853. 1/73.
important class there should be more of esprit de corps, more of an established rank in society, and more possibility of attaining posts of competency and dignity. Anything which will raise the merchant officer in his own estimation, and in that of society, will do much to raise the character of our Mercantile Marine.
5. Our next point is to compare the condition of British merchant seamen thirty years since with their condition now.
It is scarcely necessary to refer to older records to show that complaints concerning the character of our merchant seamen have been at all times rife. The papers, presented to Parliament in 1849, are full of such complaints; and it must be within the recollection of all who had anything to do with the repeal of the Navigation Laws, or with the discussions and legislation which followed that repeal, how loud and frequent such complaints were. Special temptations to drunkenness, debauchery, desertion, and insubordination have always existed, and have at all times been the despair of the philanthropist and the legislator. And when statements are freely made concerning the recent deterioration of seamen, it is scarcely possible to adopt any standard by which to judge whether these evils are greater or less now than they formerly were. The evidence before the Royal Commission on Unseaworthy Ships consists chiefly of individual opinion, which, as I have said above, is in itself of little value, nor is it at all in the same direction. The opinions of the Consuls in reply to Mr. Lefevre's circular of 1869, like those of the witnesses before the Royal Commission, differ; but the larger number are decidedly unfavourable. Out of about thirty-five who give a positive opinion, two-thirds at least think the condition of the seamen bad, if not worse than it formerly was; and drunkenness, desertion, quarrelling, and insubordination figure largely in their reports. One bright feature, however, there is. In all these reports, except two or three, a very favourable account is given of the crews of steamers. These appear, on the whole, to be steady, well-conducted men, who seldom desert, and give little trouble. And this becomes an extremely important feature in the case when it is considered how large a proportion they form of the whole service. In 1874 the number of men employed in British merchant ships in the trade of the United Kingdom, exclusive of masters, was 203,606, and out of these the number employed in steamers was 74,843, a number forming a third of the whole, and constantly increasing in proportion.
Some other facts are clear. It is certain that the number of men employed in proportion to the tonnage is less now than it
was formerly, and that it is becoming still less. The proportion of men to each 100 tons was in 1852, for sailing ships, 4.55; and for steamers, 8-04. In 1874 the proportion was, for sailing ships, 3.19; and for steamers, 4·10.
But it must not be supposed that the decrease in the proportion of men to tonnage necessarily implies undermanning. A great deal of the heaviest work formerly done by men is now done by machinery, especially in steamers. The steam-winch is the best man in the ship.
It is also clear that the supply of young sailors in the form of apprentices is rather falling off than increasing. The number of new apprenticeships enrolled in 1850 was 5055; in 1860, 5616; in 1870, 4241; and in 1874, 4445.*
As regards the seaman's wages, it is interesting to learn whether they have increased in the same proportion as in other employments. This is not easy to do, because we have no accurate return of the wages of other labourers; and because in the official returns of seamen's wages presented annually by the Board of Trade to Parliament† no distinction is made between the wages paid in sailing-ships and those paid in steam-ships before the year 1869. We have, however, obtained from some large firms the rates of wages paid, in London and in the country, to mechanics and labourers in the building and engineering trades, from which it appears that the wages of London mechanics, which were 30s. a-week in 1849-50, increased to 34s. a-week in 1860-61, or 13.3 per cent.; and to 38s. 10d. a-week in 1873-75, or 29.4 per cent.: that the wages of country mechanics, which were 24s. 2d. in 1849-50, had increased in 1860-61 to 26s. 1d., or 7.9 per cent. ; and in 1873-75, to 32s. 4d., or 33.8 per cent. The wages of London labourers in these trades, which, in 1849-50, were 18s., had increased in 1860–61, to 20s., or 11.1 per cent.; and in 1873-75 to 25s. 1d., or 39.4 per cent.: and the wages of country labourers, which in 1849-50 were 15s. 5d., had increased in 1860-61, to 16s., or 3.8 per cent. and in 1873-75, to 19s. 9d., or 28.1 per cent.
On the other hand, the wages of seamen, which in 1849-50 were 45s. 9d. per month, had risen in 1860-61, to 53s. 6d., or 17 per cent.; and in 1873–75—taking the average of steamers and sailing-vessels-to 73s., or 59.6 per cent. The rise in steamers alone in this later period was to 77s. 5d., or 69.2 per cent. ; and in sailing-ships to 69s. 7d., or 52.1 per cent. According
*Parl. Paper, 214, 1875; Table No. 20.
† See Parl. Paper, 214, 1875. Progress of British Merchant Shipping. Table No. 21.
to these figures, which, however, cannot be taken as completely accurate or as exhaustive, the wages of seamen have increased in a larger proportion than the wages of mechanics or labourers; and if the supply of seamen has fallen off more in proportion than the supply of other workmen, this proportionately greater fallingoff cannot be attributed to a disproportionate increase of pay.
The following is the language in which the Royal Commission on Unseaworthy Ships state their conclusions on the subject of the present condition of merchant seamen. (Final Report, page 8.)
'In connection with the subject of undermanning, we have taken further evidence as to the present condition of our merchant seamen. The growth of trade, and the consequent additional opportunities for employment on shore as well as at sea, have increased the difficulty of obtaining able seamen. The wages of seamen have risen largely within the last few years, but yet shipowners complain that they are often compelled to take such men as present themselves, of whom many prove to be incompetent to discharge properly the duties of seamen. The ignorance and incapacity of these men throw additional work on the good seamen, cause dissatisfaction in the ship, and enhance the dangers of navigation.
The general tendency of the evidence, however, leads to the conclusion that there is a deficiency of British able seamen. Captains of merchant ships could not, it is said, man their vessels without Swedes, Norwegians, and Lascars. The rating of able seamen is often given without sufficient consideration by the masters of merchant ships.
'The British seamen at the present time are not, it is said, wanting in elementary education. It is a rare exception when they cannot write; but, nevertheless, the men do not always seem to have received the benefits which are commonly supposed to belong to education in early life. They are often deficient in thrift, in sobriety, in discipline, and in that self-control which education is intended to promote.
Under these circumstances it is difficult to say whether the condition of seamen is better or worse on the whole than it was in 1850. It was not satisfactory then, and it is not satisfactory now. The growth of steam has separated seamen into classes more distinctly than was formerly the case. And there is, probably, in this employment, as in others, a less abundant supply of efficient men in proportion to the demands of the trade now than there was then.
This question of the supply and condition of seamen seems to us to be the most vital as well as the most difficult point in the whole case. To increase this supply, and to improve the condition and character of British merchant seamen, would not only
be an immense benefit to the nation and to this valuable class of men, but would do more than anything else to prevent shipwrecks.
The evils which beset them are notorious. Want of education; want of homes; crimping; drunkenness, debauchery, disease, and insubordination. The measures which have been suggested are-improved training, a pension fund, prohibition of advance of wages, prompt and early payment of wages, further protection against crimps on landing, the extension to merchant seamen of that protection against contagious disease which has proved so valuable to sailors and soldiers in the public service, and further provisions for maintenance of discipline in foreign ports-an object of great importance, and one which can only be attained by means of Consular conventions with other countries. These suggestions cannot be fully discussed here; but those who know most of the Merchant Service will probably agree in thinking that the questions they raise are more vital to the interests of merchant shipping than those which have recently attracted so much attention.
6. We proceed to compare the loss of ships and of lives at former periods with the loss at the latest period of which we have full records.
To do this as accurately and completely as we could wish is impracticable. The present Wreck Register of the Board of Trade is of comparatively recent origin. We have no accurate and continuous record even of the wrecks happening on our own coasts until 1856; the record of the wrecks of British ships in other parts of the world was not commenced till 1865; and it is not without some experience that any returns of this kind can be made complete. On the appointment of the Unseaworthy Ships' Commission, an attempt was made, with the help of Lloyd's Committee, to get full and complete statistics of wrecks for three years at successive decades, viz., 1850, 1860, and 1870, and the results will be found in the Appendix to the Final Report of the Commission; but for the first of these periods the returns were, to the knowledge of those who prepared them, so imperfect that the late Registrar-General of Shipping and Seamen, Mr. Mayo-a very competent statistician—was unwilling that they should be published, lest they should mislead. The returns for the two later periods may, we believe, be relied upon. As regards still earlier periods, we have returns made by Lloyd's to the Committee on Shipwrecks of 1836, of wrecks in 1816-17-18 and 1833-34-35,* returns
* Parl. Paper, 657, 1836, pp. iii, and iv.