The New Bedford Whaling Museum's Moby-Dick Marathon is an annual non-stop reading of Herman Melville's literary masterpiece. The multi-day program of entertaining activities and events is presented every January. Admission to the Marathon is free.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Ishmael's Rights, Part II

In my previous post, I talked about the legal recourse that 19th-century whalemen had against mistreatment by their captains.  As it happens, the law did not require seamen (outside the Navy, at least) to suffer every sort of indignity imposed by a superior.  If a seaman felt that he had been punished unjustly, he could sue his captain or the ship once they returned to port.

We have a number of fascinating, reported decisions by U.S. courts from the early 1800s dealing with these issues.  One common theme was whether a seaman's misconduct was sufficiently egregious to justify imprisonment on board or ejection from the ship in port, such that he lost some or all of his wages.  A captain was entitled to eject a seaman if his conduct warranted it, but the captain was supposed to reinstate the seaman if he demonstrated a good-faith willingness to return and behave himself.*

Take the case of Relf v. The Maria, decided in 1805 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Pennsylvania.  (There was only one federal judicial district in Pennsylvania then, as opposed to the three it has now.) The seaman Relf claimed that his captain had (1) wrongfully discharged him from his ship, The Maria, and (2) wrongfully refused "to receive him on board again."  We aren't told exactly what Relf did, but he seems to have been bad news: "Relf showed every sign of a continued, refractory, dangerous and mutinous temper[.]"  He also evidently impeded the administering of discipline by the ship's officers, since the court observes that "[s]eamen ought to know that it does not lay [sic] with them, to interfere between the officers of a ship and any mariner they (the officers or any of them in command) choose to confine, or punish for disorderly conduct."

The court ultimately ruled against Relf, finding that his bad behavior justified his being ejected and not received back (although he still received his wages earned up to that point).  Yet along the way, the court explains that there were limits on what captains could do to their crews.  If conditions passed a certain threshold, a seaman could desert the ship and still be entitled to all his wages: 
When any charge of a criminal nature is alleged, I am, and always have been, ready to examine into it, and pursue the proper measures.  The officers of ships are amenable for improper conduct .... I have been too frequently called on to protect seamen against their oppression.... [A] seaman is justifiable in leaving a ship, if obliged to do so, by continued cruelty and oppression.  I have, under the clear and direct injunctions of the maritime laws, ... often compelled the payment of wages for the voyage, when such circumstances were in proof.  But it does not apply in this case.

*Another interesting background rule, noted in Justice Story's annotations to Abbott on Merchant Ships and Seamen (discussed in my previous post), was that if a seaman absented himself from his ship for more than 48 hours, he forfeited his entire wages "and all his goods and chattels on board the ship[.]"  This law actually serves as a plot point in Melville's Redburn

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