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Merchant Seamen's Health, 1860-1960

Merchant Seamen's Health, 1860-1960: Medicine, Technology, Shipowners and the State in Britain

Tim Carter
Copyright Date: 2014
Edition: NED - New edition
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 272
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  • Book Info
    Merchant Seamen's Health, 1860-1960
    Book Description:

    This book examines successive campaigns fought by reformers to improve seamen's health and fitness, sometimes aided by, often opposed by, bureaucracies and vested interests, such as ship-owners. It shows how these campaigns originated, how reformers, bureaucracies and vested interests interacted, and how far the campaigns succeeded. Among the many successes were the controls for infectious diseases such as malaria, yellow fever, tuberculosis and venereal infections, reduction in the safety and health consequences of alcohol, improvements to diet and medical care aboard ships, and improved assessment of seamen's fitness, including for colour blindness, an essential requirement following the introduction of coloured navigation lights. During this period up to three quarters of all merchant shipping was British-owned and, while some British approaches in the field of maritime safety were widely adopted internationally, it was often the case that other nations could teach Britain much about protecting the health of seamen. Tim Carter recently retired as the Chief Medical Adviser to the UK Maritime and Coastguard Agency. He is a Professor in the Norwegian Centre of Maritime Medicine at the University Hospital in Bergen. Previously he was the Medical Director of the Health and Safety Executive.

    eISBN: 978-1-78204-348-5
    Subjects: History, Health Sciences

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Acknowledgements
    (pp. xiii-xiii)
  6. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. xiv-xv)
  7. Glossary of nautical terms used
    (pp. xvi-xviii)
  8. Introduction
    (pp. 1-8)

    The maritime industry differs in many ways from onshore sectors of industry. It was the first truly global enterprise, crossing national boundaries as soon as nations were invented, and encircling the world for the last 500 years. It was the first industry to create and develop many of the methods for the financial management of business risks that are now in widespread use, for instance shared ownership of ships, with profits allocated in proportion to the share owned, and insurance for ships and cargoes as a risk-sharing device. The complex of trade, financial services, logistics and subject expertise that is...

  9. 1 Health at sea before 1860
    (pp. 9-22)

    The new regulatory measures to help protect the health of seamen developed in the 1860s have to be seen in the light of many centuries of concern, and occasionally action, to safeguard their health and fitness. The dangers of seafaring have been recorded since the dawn of history, as witnessed by biblical references and texts from the ancient world. Shipwreck and drowning predominated in early sources but the illness and injury risks to ‘they that go down to the sea in ships’ must have been known from an early date.¹ Maritime law has similarly ancient roots. TheLex Rhodia, which...

  10. 2 Unseaworthy seamen
    (pp. 23-36)

    An anonymous article appeared in theBritish Medical Journal on12 January 1867 titled ‘Report on the hygienic condition of the merchantile marine and on the preventable diseases of merchant seamen’.¹ It was the first of four such articles and the tone was set by the first paragraph:

    The unsatisfactory condition of that very important section of our community who man the merchant fleets of Great Britain, has now for some months occupied general as well as special attention, and has formed the subject of many leading articles in the principle daily journals. The scarcity of competent sailors, and the...

  11. 3 The health of merchant seamen in the nineteenth century
    (pp. 37-50)

    The 1867 Merchant Shipping Act contained a range of provisions aimed at improving the health of seamen, but was only specific about one condition – scurvy. Here was a disease with a known remedy – lemon or other citrus juice – that, if used, was often adulterated and so not fit for purpose. What were the other health problems in seamen that this Act aimed to remedy? This is not easy information to find. It is difficult to relate the disease descriptions then used, especially by non-medical people such as ship captains and British consuls, to present-day terminology.

    The most detailed records are...

  12. 4 Injury and disease at sea in the nineteenth century
    (pp. 51-67)

    A ship’s captain confronted with serious illness or injury at sea had no recourse to any form of help or medical advice, but had to act on his own initiative and experience. He had to decide on diagnosis and on any treatment at a time when he had few diagnostic aids or effective medicines. He then had to see through the course of an illness or of recovery from an injury until the ship reached port, sometimes a matter of months for a sailing ship. If there were several incapacitated seamen this could affect the operation of the ship. If...

  13. 5 The seaman ashore: victim, threat or patient?
    (pp. 68-84)

    The health of seamen was at risk not only while at sea but possibly even more so whilst in port. The Merchant Shipping Acts could require arrangements to be made for disease prevention and treatment at sea but the seafarer ashore had no such protection. They became legitimate prey for a wide range of predators, from the disease-bearing mosquitoes of tropical ports and anchorages to the nexus of boarding-house keepers, bar owners, crimps, pimps and prostitutes in all the port cities of the world. The risks to the health of seafarers whilst in port were a pressing practical issue in...

  14. 6 Bad food and donkey’s breakfasts
    (pp. 85-100)

    Concerns about the health of seamen have a long history, as described already. The main focus appears to have been on ratings rather than officers, although this differentiation is only rarely made. The poor state of health of seamen was seen as a threat to safe navigation; as a potential cost to shipowners, or failing that to the state, for treatment and repatriation; as a threat to the public health from importation and transmission of infections; and as an affront to public morality from drunken and debauched behaviour.

    Regulatory measures were put in place that aimed to minimise some of...

  15. 7 Fit for lookout duties
    (pp. 101-115)

    The reasons for the concerns about unseaworthy seamen in the 1860s were rather diffuse, but they appeared to have their origins in the adverse consequences of illness, drunkenness and debauchery on safety at sea. Some activists also linked the causes of this lack of seaworthiness to the quality of accommodation and food or the lack of medical examinations prior to embarkation. However, with the exception of scurvy as a consequence of adulterated or poor-quality lemon juice, none of these aspects gained sufficient public or political credibility for improvements to be required until much later.

    By the end of the nineteenth...

  16. 8 The long-term health of seamen
    (pp. 116-135)

    Prevention of illness and injury in seamen and the management of their illnesses and injuries had developed over the years such that in the early twentieth century it was the province of many different agencies, including several departments of government, individual shipowners, public health authorities and voluntary bodies. But by the 1920s there was an expectation of a co-ordinated and consistent approach and one apparently simple question had become dominant: who is responsible for the health of British seamen? It was a question that was in reality far from simple, and there were a lot of interest groups seeking to...

  17. 9 War, manpower and fitness for service
    (pp. 136-152)

    From the 1860s merchant seamen, and sometimes officers too, were commonly seen by shipowners and the state as a commodity to be purchased at market rates, with terms of service that were limited to a set period, usually three years in the deep-water trades. Prior to the 1850s, while seamen were still casually employed on merchant ships the state took the view that seafaring manpower should be maintained and developed as a national resource serving both naval and commercial requirements. The state intervened by requiring indentured apprentices to form part of the complement of merchant ships, on a scale dependent...

  18. 10 Seamen’s health in the welfare state
    (pp. 153-170)

    As the hostilities of the Second World War were drawing to a close, a new conflict arose in a scientific journal that related to the frequency of illness in seamen as compared to other groups of workers. This was perhaps a reflection of the importance attached to this topic during the war, and also shows a move away from the earlier neglect of seamen’s health by those in the maritime world to a new concern that any risks to their health might be exaggerated. Exaggeration would bring the dangers of public campaigns for reform – a threat to both government and...

  19. 11 Retrospect and prospect
    (pp. 171-188)

    British seamen and their health have been the subject, or perhaps, given the lack of many identifiable seamen’s voices, the object of the preceding chapters. This lack of seamen’s voices is significant, as ill health is by its nature personal and those who claim to speak on behalf of seamen will usually be doing it to make a political point rather than fully expressing the hopes and concerns of the individuals directly affected. In parallel those representing business interests will seek to rationalise away any suggestion that cost-cutting is the main reason for any shortcomings in seafarer health provisions and...

  20. Bibliography
    (pp. 189-204)
  21. Index
    (pp. 205-216)
  22. Back Matter
    (pp. 217-217)