The grit and the grog, Gerry Evans

Crew Culture: New Zealand Seafarers under Sail and Steam
Neil Atkinson
Te Papa Press, $39.95,
ISBN 0909010818

An Errand of Mercy: Captain Jacob Eckhoff and the loss of the Kakanui
Redmer Yska
Banshee Books, $29.95,
ISBN 0473076993

“For more than a century merchant seafarers were one of the most important and distinctive groups of New Zealand workers. Their dynamic, vibrant subculture, with its own language, music, social codes, rituals, and mythology, has exerted a major influence on the development of New Zealand.” So says Neil Atkinson in his introduction to Crew Culture, a book that fills an important gap in the literature of New Zealand’s working seamen – so long the stormy petrels of society and the New Zealand union movement.

It has always surprised me that so little has been written about working seamen from their point of view. What little has been written seemed to stop with the advent of the steamship. It is the same, internationally, with a few notable exceptions in both fiction and non-fiction. Richard Dana’s Two Years Before The Mast and Melville’s Moby Dick were stories told through the eyes of a working seaman. Conrad’s The Nigger of The Narcissus contains a superb account of the misery of a sailing ship’s crew in heavy weather, and the joy of pay-off day. However, most books about the sea seem to focus on officers and the loneliness of command. Yet seamen lived a more interesting life than the officers did; they tended to wander from ship to ship, and weren’t too particular about what flag they sailed under. They often missed their ship or deserted in the strangest of places; when stuck ashore, unable to ship out, they were “on the beach”, in their words. They also saw the inside of jails all over the world. Crew Culture captures the grit and the grog of the working seaman’s world.

Neil Atkinson’s research is a delight. He quotes the diaries of Henry Monson, Dunedin’s jailer from 1851-1861: “During this decade, more than half – 355 out of 677 – of the gaol’s inmates were seamen from visiting ships, imprisoned for disobeying orders or desertion.” Despite the draconian powers of ship’s masters, seamen were always prepared to have their say.

Crew Culture is not about the romance of the sea. Seafaring was a hard and dangerous living. It was this danger that created a brotherhood, and eventually a union with an élan that few shoresiders would ever understand. The Tasman Sea and the New Zealand coast experience savage gales in summer and winter. The NZ Pilot, a mariners’ guide published by the Admiralty, says that “Deep depressions move in succession across the Southern Ocean to the South of New Zealand, an area that has the reputation for being the stormiest in the world.” It was in these waters that the New Zealand seamen learnt their trade. The loss of life was appalling, yet they went back, voyage after voyage.

The sailing ship sailor’s motto that they were the last seamen, and that the steamship men who followed were just unskilled labourers, is repeated in this book. This is understandable. There was a grace and beauty about sailing ships that often won the affection of the men who sailed in them, and they despised the ugly steamships that replaced them. It was untrue, however, that steamship men were unskilled: the cargo-gear on a steamship required skilled seamen to maintain it. New Zealand seamen who had sailed in steamships proved this when they successfully manned the four-masted barque Pamir, after she was taken as a prize in the Second World War.

Neil Atkinson’s book covers in detail all aspects of seamen’s life from the 1840s until the Second World War. He describes the life of working seamen on deep-sea sailing ships, scows, Tasman schooners and ketches, and the steamships that replaced them. Even life in the stokehold is revealed – that mysterious world of firemen and trimmers, legendarily known by seamen as the “black gang”, hard, tough men who toiled in the hellish heat. He celebrates that near-secret life with the poem “Trimmers” from an early issue of the Bulletin. It was from the stokehold of a Union Company ship that Fintan Patrick Walsh seized control of the Seamen’s Union and went on to become the most powerful and controversial union official in our history. The book covers the birth and struggles of the Seamen’s Union, and the bitter strikes and defeats of those early years.

Crew Culture is a well-researched and well-produced book, and superbly illustrated. It is also sprinkled with verse and old shanties. I like the idea of notes at the end of each chapter, which make it so easy to check quotes and sources as you read. This is one of those rare books that made me feel a pang to finish it.


“Fortnight’s stores for three men, and very bad at that.” In 1890, a telegram with these grim tidings forced the New Zealand Government to mount a mission to collect a party of ten Dunedin sealers abandoned – and thought close to starving on desolate Macquarie Island. On board the rescue ship was a Dutchman, Captain Jacob Eckhoff. Eckhoff was a tough, stubborn Dutchman, an experienced seaman who seemed to have had more than his share of shipwrecks and strandings. The book backgrounds Eckhoff’s attempt to rescue the party of sealers.

This is a taut little tale of hard, stubborn men, and women. Eckhoff had been employed by the infamous Joseph Hatch, former Invercargill MP, who was involved in the business of boiling up Macquarie’s penguins by the thousand for oil. His vessel the Awarua was affectionately dubbed the “Poacher”. In March 1890, Eckhoff had landed the party at Macquarie, which comprised ten people, including Henry Melish and his wife. Melish had managed the Macquarie depot since 1875. He and his wife, who was the cook, had agreed to remain on the island for two years. They must have been tough characters. Two years on Macquarie Island in those days would have been a hard life by any standards.

The party had been landed with six months’ stores. On his return to New Zealand, Eckhoff complained that the Awarua was not suitable for the mountainous seas of the Subantarctic, and he refused to make another voyage to Macquarie on the vessel. Hatch purchased a larger vessel in Sydney, and asked Eckhoff to join him there to take command of the new vessel. Eckhoff did so but because the vessel was delayed in a maritime strike, Hatch placed Eckhoff on half wages. Disgruntled, Eckhoff returned home, sued Hatch for lost wages, and began a feud that was to end in tragedy. By early December of 1890, the party landed by Eckhoff from the Awarua had been stranded eight full months without fresh supplies. No-one had any way of knowing whether the men were starving. Eckhoff made the fatal decision to intervene on their behalf.

On 19 December, the Government decided to mount a relief expedition to the island. Within a day, the small coastal steamer Kakanui was made available for the trip. Eckhoff was part of the rescue party. It was a strange decision on his part, because if the Awarua was not suitable for the subantarctic seas, then the Kakanui was even less suitable. She had to carry a massive 63 tons of coal to make the 2200- kilometre return journey. It took her nine days through heavy seas to do so. Eight of the shore party eagerly boarded the vessel for the return trip, but Melish and his wife refused to leave. (Melish was not concerned about food shortages: there were rabbits, wild ducks, mutton-birds and eggs available.) Melish fired a gun in salute as Kakanui sailed into a rising gale. He was the last to see her for she was to disappear without trace. A clue to her disappearance is the statement made to Melish by the vessel’s Captain Best, when he indicated he had used mainly sails on the outward leg. Thus the vessel, with much of the coal unused, was still dangerously low in the water when she left Macquarie, now loaded down by eight extra men and their belongings.

This is an untold chapter of our maritime industry, set in one of the loneliest and wildest parts of the world. The rescue attempt in the little Kakanui was a heroic endeavour, tragically doomed. An Errand of Mercy is a good story well told, and deserves a larger readership than I suspect it will get.


Gerry Evans is a Wellington writer. He is currently completing a book of the personal stories of those involved in the 1951 waterfront lockout.


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