Kōrero: Seafarers

Whārangi 1. The seafaring workforce

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New Zealand’s merchant seafarers

From the earliest days of European exploration and settlement until at least the Second World War, merchant seafarers were one of the most important and distinctive groups of workers in New Zealand. By the 1870s vessels working in New Zealand’s flourishing coastal, trans-Tasman and South Pacific shipping trades provided regular employment for several thousand seafarers. From the late 1880s the Federated Seamen’s Union emerged as one of New Zealand’s most powerful trade unions, while other seafaring workers – cooks and stewards, officers and marine engineers – each formed their own unions or associations. The local workforce peaked at over 6,000 in the early 20th century, and then underwent a long-term decline that accelerated in the 1980s and 1990s.

War at sea

In both world wars merchant seafarers maintained essential services around New Zealand’s coast and the South Pacific, where they faced sporadic enemy raids. They also manned British and other overseas ships in more dangerous waters, especially the North Atlantic. Sometimes called the ‘fourth service’, the wartime merchant navy was in reality a diverse collection of private companies and ships crewed by civilian volunteers, ranging in age from 14 to 75. During the Second World War at least 120 New Zealand merchant seamen – two of them aged just 15 – were killed, and 128 taken prisoner.

Visiting seafarers

The local maritime workforce was dwarfed by the tens of thousands of seafarers who visited on deep-sea merchant ships, especially between the 1870s and 1960s. The great majority of these vessels (at least prior to the modern era of containerisation and flag-of-convenience shipping) were British owned and British crewed. Foreign-flagged merchant ships are still frequent visitors to New Zealand ports, but with small crews and a rapid turnaround in port they leave little trace.


Merchant ships, whether powered by sail, coal or fuel oil, have always been complex machines that relied on the skill and labour of their crew. The term ‘seafarer’ covers a huge variety of roles and ranks aboard ship. In the age of sail, the main sail-handling, steering and maintenance tasks were carried out by able or ordinary seamen under the supervision of the master and his executive officers (mates); other workers performed specialised duties such as carpentry, sail making and cooking.

Engine-room staff

The advent of the coal-burning steamship profoundly changed the work of deck seamen and produced a new group of workers in the engine room. Under the close supervision of marine engineers, who were a new class of highly trained officers, a ‘black gang’ of manual workers – firemen (stokers), greasers and coal trimmers – laboured in the infernal heat of the stokehold. In the 20th century, the transition from coal- to oil-burning steamers and then motor (diesel) ships led to a steady decline in the number of engine-room staff – as well as a gradual improvement in working conditions below decks.

The catering department

From the late 19th century a third group of seafaring workers – the catering department – gained importance. As large passenger liners came to resemble floating hotels, this section often dwarfed its deck and engine counterparts, with an army of stewards, cooks, bakers, butchers, waiters, pantrymen and bellboys attending to passengers’ needs. Until the 1970s this was also the only department at sea that regularly employed women, with many passenger ships carrying a small complement of stewardesses and children’s nurses.

Women in the workforce

In recent decades women have been employed in a broader range of roles at sea. In 2001 they made up 3% of ships’ deck officers, 10% of commercial inshore deckhands and 1% of marine engineers, as well as 10% of maritime hospitality (catering) workers.

Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Neill Atkinson, 'Seafarers - The seafaring workforce', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/seafarers/page-1 (accessed 25 July 2024)

He kōrero nā Neill Atkinson, i tāngia i te 12 Jun 2006