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by  Neill Atkinson

Enduring wretched quarters, unspeakable food, and the daily risk of death or injury, seafarers in the age of sail were a stoical band. Even with the advent of steamships, their working conditions remained primitive. But through their sense of mateship, their songs and sayings, and a powerful union movement, they helped shape New Zealand’s cultural identity for over 100 years.

The seafaring workforce

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.

Life at sea

Unlike most workers ashore, the seafarer’s place of work was also, at least temporarily, his home. Indeed, some knew no other home than their ships, spending their whole working lives at sea, apart from brief, hazy sojourns in waterfront pubs and boarding houses. Although living conditions varied greatly according to the vessel and voyage, life at sea was especially wretched aboard the British deep-sea sailing ships that visited New Zealand in the 19th century.


Of all the hardships and discomforts endured by seafarers, none has aroused such strong feelings as food. For centuries the two main elements of their diet were ‘salt junk’ (salted beef, pork or horse) and hard, baked biscuits –euphemistically called bread. Providing fresh food and water on a non-stop sea voyage of three or six months without refrigeration was difficult enough, but the problem was compounded by tight-fisted shipowners and masters, fraudulent ships’ suppliers and faulty preservation or stowage. Much also depended on the ability of the cook, a vital but frequently maligned figure.

The development of steam power, which could be harnessed to run refrigerators and produce fresh water, led to welcome improvements, but complaints and protests about food persisted. Even in the 1940s many steamship seamen had to hold their bread up to the light to check for cockroaches and weevils, and strain their soup through cloth to sift out unwelcome intruders.

Living quarters

Seafarers’ living quarters were often equally unpleasant. On deep-sea sailing vessels the crew traditionally lived communally in the fo’c’sle (forecastle), in the bows of the ship – a dark, cramped space frequently awash with sea water and infested with vermin. Again, the advent of the steamship (and enforcement of legal minimum standards) led to a significant improvement in shipboard accommodation in the 20th century, with the fo’c’sle gradually superseded by cabins aft or amidships. Nevertheless, living conditions on many ships remained primitive until well after the Second World War.

Crew culture

Delinquents and deserters

Although most deep-sea ships spent only a few weeks or months in New Zealand ports, their crews left a lasting imprint, often for the wrong reasons: between 1851 and 1861, for example, 355 out of the 677 inmates of Dunedin jail were seafarers, imprisoned for desertion or disobeying orders. Runaway sailors were among the first Europeans to settle in New Zealand, and British merchant seamen continued to jump ship in large numbers until well after the Second World War. Most found work ashore but others returned to the coastal shipping trade; according to an Auckland union official, half of New Zealand’s coastal seamen in the early 20th century were deserters from British ships.

Songs of the sea

Sea shanties were sung by merchant sailors to help lighten the hard physical labour aboard sailing ships in the 19th century. Their words were frequently adapted to local conditions:

I’ve traded with the Maoris,
Brazilians and Chinese.
I’ve courted half-caste beauties
Beneath the kauri trees;
I’ve travelled along, with a laugh and a song,
In the land where they call you mate,
Around the Horn and home again,
For that is the sailor’s fate.

A common bond

As a floating supply of labour, deep-sea seafarers seldom sailed twice on the same ship or with the same shipmates. They were bound together, however, by their communal work organisation, social customs and powerful subculture, with its own language, humour, songs, and codes of conduct. This crew culture of the sea was crucial in shaping the work and social habits of other male crews in 19th-century New Zealand, including shore whalers and sealers, shearers, timber workers and navvies. Seafarers’ culture, which combined disciplined devotion to duty at sea with drunken binges and other disreputable behaviour ashore, quiet stoicism with dogged protest, and self-sufficiency with egalitarianism, has also exerted a major influence on the development of New Zealand’s cultural identity.

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Neill Atkinson, 'Seafarers', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 July 2024)

He kōrero nā Neill Atkinson, i tāngia i te 12 o Hune 2006