Crew Composition of Western Merchant Vessels in the 1860s

Crew Composition of Western Merchant Vessels in the 1860s

In the mid-nineteenth century, global maritime commerce became increasingly widespread and competitive, as improved seafaring technologies attracted Western merchants to the profitable markets of East Asia (in search of exotic goods, spices, minerals, etc.). The emergence of American and British clipper ships during this time enabled Atlantic seafarers to rapidly travel to Asian port-cities, like Hong Kong, and bring back valuable commodities to American/European markets. Despite their speed, clipper voyages to Asian markets were long and dangerous, and required a skilled crew to effectively operate the vessels. However, a successful round-trip voyage could yield enormous profits for a ship’s sponsor, captain, and crew. As such, many sailors were attracted to the profitable clipper ‘Tea Races’ to East Asia in the 1860s.

The crews of nineteenth century clippers were primarily made up of young, skilled seafarers, whose collective physical strength and sailing expertise would be necessary to control the vessel’s sails and maintain optimal weight distribution. While sailing experience and ship familiarity were highly valued qualities for clipper crewmen, talented sailors were not easy to come by, especially while abroad. Thus, many crews relied on recruiting less experienced seafarers, who made up for their shortcomings by being physically capable and eager to work for pay. Due to the dangers of these long voyages, it was common for ships to pick up sailors from the ports along their routes, replacing crewmen who died or were not performing well enough. While shipowners preferred to hire ‘local men’ in positions of authority, less-valued deckhands and stewards were often ethnically diverse, as their roles were more expendable, (Sager). For instance, Cornelius B. Gold’s account of the Oriental revealed that the crew was primarily of European/American descent, although the vessel’s cook and steward were Chinese. This was not uncommon, as Asian workers were sometimes hired while ships were docked in trading ports like Hong Kong.

Although the nineteenth century maritime community largely transcended racial and ethnic boundaries, Chinese crewmen were frequently met with great resistance and hostility, (Grider 468). The maritime mass-transport of Chinese ‘coolie’ workers created longstanding prejudices and resentment among sailors, who viewed the Chinese as a threat to their own livelihoods. Furthermore, the perceived passivity and willingness of Chinese sailors challenged traditional Atlantic maritime values concerning manliness. Chinese sailors appeared to have “too little backbone” and were typically not as skilled at operating the Western clipper ships, (Grider 468). Nonetheless, Chinese workers were recruited for their eagerness to work, although they were typically restricted from achieving high-ranking positions aboard the vessels.

- Morgan Kleyweg 

Works Cited

"American Lloyd's Register of American and Foreign Shipping, 1861." Mystic Seaport: Digital Initiative . Web. 30 Apr. 2015.
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Clark, Arthur H. "Later British Tea Clippers." The Clipper Ship Era: An Epitome of Famous American and British Clipper Ships, Their Owners, Builders, Commanders, and Crews 1843-1869. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1910. 325. Web. 30 April 2015.

Dash, Mike. "The Great Tea Race of 1866." Smithsonian . N.p., 15 Dec. 2011. Web. 30 Apr. 2015.

Grider, John T. "‘I Espied a Chinaman’: Chinese Sailors and the Fracturing of the Nineteenth Century Pacific Maritime Labour Force." Slavery & Abolition 31.3: 46781. Web. 30 Apr. 2015.

Knoblock, Glenn A. "V. Intrepid: Clipper Ship Commanders, Crew and Passengers." The American Clipper Ship, 1845-1920: A Comprehensive History, with a Listing of Builders and Their Ships . N.p.: McFarland, 2014. 11225. Web. 30 Apr. 2015.

Sager, Eric W. "Every Inch A Sailor." Horizon Canada (English edition). N.PAG. CA: De Marque, Inc., 2001. History Reference Center. Web. 30 Apr. 2015.