Runaway Sailors, 1839

From Twenty Years Before the Mast, by Charles Erskine (Fossil, 2016), Kindle pp. 54-56:

On many of the islands of the Pacific there were runaway convicts from Hobart Town and Sydney, the Botany Bay of Great Britain. There were also many runaway sailors and many who had not run away, but who had been driven off by bad usage. The next morning after our arrival, an American whaler, hailing from New Bedford, came into port with a red shirt fluttering to the breeze from her fore-rigging.

When a man-of-war’s man sees that signal he well knows that there is difficulty between Jack before the mast and the officers of that ship. Our commodore was soon on board the whaler and listening to Jack’s yarn. He was told that they were two years out; that they were full of oil, had plenty of provisions, and were homeward bound; that they had been put on short allowance; were short-handed, five of the crew having died, and three being sick in their bunks from ill-treatment; and that they were so tyrannically abused that they had taken charge of the ship, confining the officers below in the cabin, and had steered for the nearest port. Our commodore, who acted as arbitrator, soon settled matters, and the whaler sailed for the United States a week afterward, with several of our invalids on board of her.

A whaler’s crew are not paid by the month, but have a lay; that is to say, the captain has one barrel out of every thirty, and Jack before the mast one out of about every five hundred. At the end of a voyage, through much abuse and tyrannical treatment by the officers of the ship, Jack before the mast is often fairly driven from the ship. This is called desertion. Then his lay falls to the owners, if the captain does not contrive some way or other to secure it.

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Filed under economics, labor, migration, Samoa, travel, U.S.

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