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  • Sweatshops at Sea: Merchant Seamen in the World's First Globalized Industry, from 1812 to the Present
  • James P. Kraft
Sweatshops at Sea: Merchant Seamen in the World's First Globalized Industry, from 1812 to the Present. By Leon Fink. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011. 288 pp. $34.95 (cloth).

Labor historians have studied myriad occupational groups, almost all of which are "landlubbers." In this interesting new book, Leon Fink focuses on seafarers, and more specifically on their changing conditions of employment. Sweatshops at Sea: Merchant Seamen in the World's First Globalized Industry, from 1812 to the Present, shows how a host of American and British labor laws gradually abolished sweatshop-like conditions in the commercial shipping business. It also shows, however, that contemporary maritime workers still face major problems and challenges. The book relies on a wealth of primary and secondary sources, from trade union records and parliamentary debates to fictional accounts of life at sea. The result is a meaningful contribution to labor and maritime history.

The work begins in the early nineteenth century, when the British Royal Navy boarded scores of American merchant ships for the purpose of impressing alleged deserters. By the War of 1812, the Royal Navy had impressed several thousand American sailors (typically the most skilled and capable). The practices of "press gangs" riled up British and American citizens, and brought much needed attention to conditions of employment in shipping. After the war, social reformers increasingly championed "sailor's rights," insisting that public authorities apply national principles to the high seas. In the 1830s and 1840s, the British Parliament finally dismantled a longstanding regulatory regime that showed little regard for the safety and welfare of maritime labor. Parliament consolidated new maritime regulations in the Merchant Shipping Act of 1854, which further liberalized the British economy.

The United States had already embraced relatively liberal, "free-trade" principles, but had done little to advance the welfare and safety of its own maritime workers. Nineteenth-century novels spoke pointedly to the paternalistic and often brutal nature of labor relations in the nation's shipping industry. The riveting, sea-based stories of "realist" writers like Herman Melville and Richard Henry Dana described the tyrannical relationship between many shipmasters and the men they commanded, and thus added momentum to campaigns against sailor abuse. By the Civil War, Congress had passed several bills that improved the lives of seafarers, including legislation that regulated the practices of port-city boardinghouses, where "crimps" had their own ways of exploiting seafarers. Efforts to improve conditions at sea often collided with sectional concerns. Southern legislators successfully [End Page 443] blocked efforts to allow free black sailors to leave ships that docked in Southern ports, and almost prevented Congress from passing a naval appropriation bill that included an anti-flogging measure. The conditions of seafarers were intimately connected to race relations in the South, and to disciplinary practices on Southern plantations.

The future of ordinary seamen looked bright in the early twentieth century. In Great Britain, new legislation had not only provided seafarers with better living accommodations but also eight-hour work shifts and representation on new maritime agencies. It had also required shippers to prove that their ocean-going vessels were "seaworthy" (and not "coffin ships"), which reduced the high casualty rate among seamen. American officials soon passed similar legislation, including a bill that prohibited the imprisonment of maritime workers for desertion. Of the various legislators who supported such reforms, none was more important than Samuel Plimsoll or his American counterpart Robert La Follette. Both men championed sailors' rights in the face of fierce opposition from shippers and conservative politicians, who saw this liberal activism as an attack on the basic foundations of free enterprise.

Trade unions played a major role in this story, especially the International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF). Established in 1896, the London-based labor organization brought a variety of transportation workers under a single umbrella, including dockworkers as well as ordinary seamen. An ITF strike against ocean liners and shipping associations in 1911 produced tangible benefits for the union and created a new sense of global solidarity among maritime workers. But the coming of...


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