Madeleine Mant // In the basement of an unassuming building on the Memorial University campus in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, lies the Maritime History Archive (MHA), curating the employment records of Britain’s Registrar General of Shipping and Seamen (RGSS). Approximately 75% of all surviving logbooks and Agreements from 1857 to 1942 and 1951 to 1976 are housed at the MHA, filling more than 200,000 boxes over 17 km of shelf space. The remainder of these records wait quietly at the United Kingdom’s National Archives, National Maritime Museum, and in various regional archives and libraries, records and reminders of past journeys made by members of the merchant marine from port cities across the United Kingdom. Agreements and Accounts of Crew (Figure 1) were documents used by the RGSS to track the movements of both cargo and personnel; seafarers signed this contract indicating their home address, rank, previous vessel, terms of employment, food allowances, and vessel destination(s) (Figure 2). Logbooks recording important events aboard (births, deaths, accidents, etc.) accompanied the Agreements. Copies printed in bright scarlet ink were kept at home in Britain in anticipation of the potential loss of a ship; if the vessel returned to port the facsimile was destroyed. Thus, these darkly inked survivors were artifacts in motion, page after page capturing the peripatetic nature of seafaring life.

Figure 1: Front page of an Agreement of Crew document (MHA, Clara, Official Number 77402, 1892). Courtesy of the Maritime History Archive, Memorial University of Newfoundland.

After 1844, it was required that trans-Atlantic voyages carry medicines on board (Course 214). The 1867 Merchant Shipping Act (30 & 31 Vict. C. 124 SS 4-5) required that each merchant vessel carry a copy of Dr. Harry Leach’s Ship Captain’s Medical Guide. This book described how incidents onboard could “best be treated by a non-professional man,” since it was understood that a ship’s Master or Mate would oversee any required medical care during a voyage (Leach vii). Despite the knowledge that seafaring was dangerous business, shockingly few vessels set out with a qualified surgeon on board. In 1893, Captain Froud of the Shipmaster’s Society enumerated that 425 foreign-bound ships were carrying surgeons; this left 5,600 vessels with no trained medics (Froud). It is estimated that from 1881 to 1908 only one in 12 casualties at sea was treated by someone qualified (Gorski 166). Medical care found in port, then, was critical to seafarer health.

Figure 2: Contract page of Agreement of Crew (MHA, Sparkling Glance, Official Number 81538, 1896) with Samuel Atkinson highlighted. Courtesy of the Maritime History Archive, Memorial University of Newfoundland.

While transcribing the extant admission records of the St. John’s General Hospital (1886-1899)1 in a study of 19th-century Newfoundland and Labrador general care, I was inspired to chase down the health histories of these “working men who got wet” (Ommer and Panting). Of the 5,995 registered admissions I uncovered, 294 represented unique male merchant seafarers. What had brought these men to seek care? How long were their hospital stays? What might cause a merchant seafarer to be left behind in a port city hospital? My own journey to follow up on these lines of questioning took me across the Atlantic to the National Archives and racked up severe long-distance charges on my mobile phone bill as I sought to discriminate between all the ships named Neptune or Emerald (and there were many) with incredibly patient archivists in Wales.2 The difficulty lies in the fact that the RGSS Agreements and Logbooks were not designed to capture health information. In fact, the woeful lack of reliable statistics concerning the health and sickness of merchant seafarers (as opposed to the well documented sailors of the Royal Navy) was bemoaned by the Medical Office of Health for the City of London in 1902 (Collingridge 183). Some contemporary anonymous summaries, such as those of the Seamen’s Hospital Society, exist and provide clues as to the general themes for causes of admission, but there is little in the way of direct individual documentation. This is where the Agreements caught my eye as a potential source of health histories; as maritime historian Valerie Burton notes, “stories might emerge at variance with the Agreement’s official purpose” (321).

The full story can be found in “For those in peril on and off the sea: Merchant marine bodies in nineteenth-century St. John’s, Newfoundland” (Mant). The seafarers, hailing from Newfoundland and Labrador, the British Isles, Europe, the Caribbean, and Canada (Newfoundland and Labrador did not join Canada until 1949), arrived at the hospital for a myriad of reasons. Seafarers were admitted to the St. John’s General Hospital with salt-water boils, fractured femora, scalp wounds, abscesses, pneumonia, bronchitis, heart troubles, piles, tape worms, gonorrhea, and more, representing acute and chronic issues, with occupational and behavioural causes. Most commonly they were admitted due to trauma, respiratory disease, and sexually transmitted infections (STI). When comparing with the rest of the male admissions to the St. John’s General Hospital, seafarers were statistically significantly more likely to seek admission due to trauma, STI, or fever diseases, reflecting the strenuous physical labour and sailortown-frequenting lifestyles characteristic of many members of the merchant marine (Fingard, Beaven). Cross-referencing of the Agreements with the hospital admittance records (and heavy use of the Crew List Index Project search engine) yielded 36 cases where I was able to trace the journey of an individual seafarer.3 This meant I could track, geographically and temporally, where he signed on, where he called home, his rank, his handwriting,4 where he had docked and for how long, and when he reached St. John’s. Critically, this meant that I could compare the date of arrival in port to the date of admission at the hospital. Injuries or illnesses deemed to have been contracted or suffered not in service of the ship (read: in the period between arrival in port and eventual departure) could lead to a seafarer being discharged in St. John’s and having his wages withheld. Any injury sustained while drunk or evidence of an STI was deemed to be self-inflicted (Carter 19). This differentiation complicates and adds some nuance to the stories of the seafarers admitted to hospital.

One health journey follows Albert Delaserma, a Spanish seafarer suffering frostburn in port during the punishingly wet and cold January of 1899, being discharged without pay.5 The circumstances of his discharge indicate that the merchant marine believed the frostburn was the result of his behaviour in port (perhaps after a late night out in the many pubs of St. John’s?). Frostburn could mark the end of a seafaring career; the only treatment aboard was to “wrap the injured parts in bandages smeared with vaseline, and hope for the best” (Jones 86-7). Inflamed hands and feet could be lost to gangrene. Suffering an injury due to wearing inappropriate clothing for the weather was deemed inexcusable: “we have seen numerous instances of men joining a ship in a foreign port in the thinnest of clothing, which is soon worn to rags, and is quite unsuitable for the cold weather he encounters on reaching colder latitudes” (Anonymous, known to be Leach, 94).

Samuel Atkinson, Able-Bodied seaman aboard the Sparkling Glance, had his wages reduced from 16 July 1896 for “inability + unwillingness to perform his duties, also for being impudent to the Mate + Master on several occasions, particularly the night of the 14th July 1896, when it being his watch on deck the Mate could not find him to haul braces, when found was in the forecastle; from 4h AM to 8 AM it being his watch on deck he remained in his bed. I asked him the reason, he said that he suffered from rheumatism, and intended to look out for himself.” On 14 August 1896: “Samuel Atkinson have been in the forecastle, with swollen feet + pain in the limbs for two days viz the 12th-13th Augt. had his limbs rubbed with Turpentine linament, to day he being sick, I took him to Doctor Harvey who examined him + sent him to the General Hospital where he now is.”6 Atkinson is discharged on August 22 and rejoins the ship. It is noted later that he has made such a good recovery (apparently in body and attitude) that his wages are entirely restored. This vignette begs the question: how much pain might a seafarer have to suffer to risk losing weeks’ worth of wages (Atkinson refused work when the Sparkling Glance was still three weeks away from St. John’s)? Rheumatism was known as “sailor’s curse” (Collingridge 186) and the Ship Captain’s Medical Guide indicated that the cold and damp was the cause, declaring that it “may, in most cases, be prevented by dry berths and dry warm clothing. It is far safer to sweat from heat than to shiver from cold, whether in cold, temperate, or tropical latitudes” (Leach 7). Atkinson might have expected to suffer from this condition during future journeys.

An Agreement of Crew, ostensibly designed for tallies, tariffs, and trade agreements, might inadvertently become a proxy for recording a late 19th-century mental health crisis. The Challenge, sailing from Plymouth to Cadiz, Spain set off for an 18-month voyage on 21 March 1893 with a crew of able-bodied seamen, ordinary seaman, cooks, a boatswain, and a Master. One year later, on 25 March 1894, the Master, Mr. John Davey, committed suicide by jumping overboard while the ship was between Malaga, Spain and Bari, Italy. Though it was noted that “his manner had been peculiar for some time…no one anticipated such a step.” The remaining men “saw him sink immediately.”7 The logbooks capture other moments of mental anguish, such as that of Frank Lidbury, Steward of the Magna Bona, who during its 1864 journey became intoxicated and berated the Master “by calling him a dam.d son of a Bitch and [that he meant] to cut the Masters bloody liver out and take his hearts blood. he was asked wither he knew what he was talking about. he reply’d he knew very well.” Later in the journey several bottles of brandy and gin are discovered missing and it is noted that Lidbury is “as bad as ever.”8 Overindulgence in alcohol is referenced as a contributing cause of death for 44-year-old James Slimon from Edinburgh, boatswain of the Esquimaux in 1894. He dies during the journey and the Agreement notes that enquiries have been made regarding “the circumstances attending the death of James Slimon, Bosun [sic]…on board of this vessel, from which, it appears that he died from Heart failure through Alcoholic poisoning, caused by excessive indulgence in spiritous liquor both before and after joining the vessel.”9

While the Agreements were not envisioned as medical documents, it is clear that rich health histories may be reconstructed through revisiting these sources. Medical anthropological considerations of past health demand creativity in sources. We experience the world through our bodies, we work and play, eat and drink, make decisions and suffer consequences with and through our bodies. Labour and law archives, then, hold fonds waiting to be examined with an eye for health history, particularly for people whose individual stories might otherwise become subsumed into a collective remembering or forgetting.

Cover image: MHA, Ethelaida, ON 99136, 1898. Courtesy of the Maritime History Archive, Memorial University of Newfoundland.


1. Curated at The Rooms Provincial Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador.

2. Every vessel registered with RGSS had an Official Number (just like every automobile produced today has a VIN). The ship carried this Official Number (ON) from construction to destruction, though the ship could have various names throughout its life.

3. Crew List Index Project,, accessed 29 June 2020.

4. And potentially his literacy. Many seafarers signed on with a shaky X in lieu of their signature. Work has been done examining whether or not this is a suitable proxy for literacy (Alexander).

5. MHA, Gloriana ON 106988, 1899.

6. MHA, Sparkling Glance, ON 81538, 1896.

7. MHA, Challenge, ON 63962, 1894.

8. MHA, Magna Bona, ON 11907, 1864.

9. MHA, Esquimaux, ON 52562, 1894.


Alexander, David. “Literacy Among Canadian and Foreign Seamen, 1863-1899.” Working Men Who Got Wet, editors Rosemary Ommer and Gerald Panting, Memorial University of Newfoundland, 1980, 1-33.

Anonymous (known to be Harry Leach). “Reports on the Present Sanitary Condition of the Mercantile Marine: No. III: Accommodation; Forecastles and Deck-Houses; Scurvy in the Spanish Fleet; Clothing and Personal Hygiene; Venereal and Other Self-Inflicted Diseases.” The Lancet, I, 1867.

Beaven, Brad. “The Resilience of Sailortown Culture in English Naval Ports, c. 1820-1900. Urban History 43, 2016, 72-95.

Burton, Valerie. “Sourcing Maritime History over Four Decades: Crew Agreement Scholarship at Memorial University of Newfoundland.” International Journal of Maritime History, 2019, 31, no. 2, 308-29.

Carter, Tim. Merchant Seamen’s Health 1860-1960: Medicine, Technology, Shipowners and the State in Britain. The Boydell Press, 2014.

Collingridge, William. “Health in the Marine Service.” Dangerous Trades: The Historical, Social, and Legal Aspects of Industrial Occupations as Affecting Health, by a Number of Experts, editor Thomas Oliver. John Murray, 1902.

Course, A.G. The Merchant Navy: a Social History, Frederick Muller Ltd., 1963.

Fingard, Judith. “Masters and Friends, Crimps and Abstainers: Agents of Control in Nineteenth Century Sailortown.” Acadiensis, 8, 1978, 22-46.

Froud, Albert. The National Archives: TNA, MT 9/664 File M. 1458/1901 (M.11853).

Gorski, Richard. “Health and Safety Aboard British Merchant Ships: The Case of First Aid Instruction, 1881-1908.” Maritime Labour: Contributions to the History of Work at Sea, 1500-2000, editor Richard Gorski. Amsterdam University Press, 2007, 155-84.

Jones, William Herbert Sidney. The Cape Horn Breed: My Experiences as an Apprentice on Sail in the Full-Rigged Ship ‘British Isles’ as told to P.R. Stephenson. P.R. Stephensen, 1956.

Leach, Harry. The Ship Captain’s Medical Guide, 2nded., Simpkin, 1868.

Mant, Madeleine. “For Those in Peril On and Off the Sea: Merchant Marine Bodies in Nineteenth-Century St. John’s, Newfoundland.” International Journal of Maritime History, 2020, 32, no. 1, 23-44.

Ommer, Rosemary & Panting, Gerald, editors. Working Men Who Got Wet. Memorial University of Newfoundland, 1980.

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