About Maritime careers

Seafarers are a fascinating class of workers. They form a dynamic labour force, characterised over the past 400 years by varying levels of internationalisation.

On this website we showcase the results of our research into the functioning of maritime labour markets and the characteristics of the seagoing workforce, and the changes these underwent over time. We’re interested in questions such as: how did skill levels of seamen develop over the centuries? How international was the maritime sector? And what changes in the level of internationalisation do we witness over time? What differences can we observe between careers of native and migrant sailors?

Seamen in training, Amsterdam, year unknown. Beeldbank Amsterdam
Seamen in training, Amsterdam, year unknown. Beeldbank Amsterdam
Time span and sources

Currently, most of our research covers the 18th and 20th century. For the 18th century, it is mainly based on the Dutch East India Company’s pay records and to a lesser extent on the Prize Papers. For the 20th century, we base our research on personnel records of various Dutch shipping companies. We aim to extend our research into the 19th in the near future.

While Jelle van Lottum frequently posts short updates of ongoing work on his Twitter feed (also displayed on this page), this website provides more background on our research projects and the historical sources used, to be supplemented in due time with discussion of our results and links to the research data.

Grant for research on seamen and their international contacts

Great news: DutchCulture has awarded us a grant of nearly € 10,000 (Shared Cultural Heritage programme) to document and present shared cultural heritage of merchant seamen who sailed on Dutch ships, 1600-2000.

DutchCulture Shared Cultural Heritage logo

Before the age of cheap flights, the vast majority of Dutch who traveled to such faraway countries as Japan, India and Sri Lanka were sailors. Moreover, these seamen had often already come into contact with other cultures on the way to their destination, as the ships they manned usually employed many foreigners—initially mainly Germans and Scandinavians, later many Chinese, Indonesians and Philippines. With the DutchCulture grant, we are going to investigate the international contacts of merchant seamen who sailed on Dutch ships, 1600-2000: how and to what extent have seafarers determined the international image of the Netherlands? And which stories did Dutch sailors bring back from abroad?

To answer these questions, we will compile a series of mini-biographies of a diverse selection of seamen over the next few months. In these mini-biographies, we will focus on their personal backgrounds (who were they? where did they come from?), their social interactions, both on board and ashore, and the heritage they left behind (both material, e.g. in sailor towns, and immaterial).

Reconstructing the career of a 20th-c sailor: the case of Wilfried Julius Lackin

In an earlier post, we explained our methodology for reconstructing careers of sailors from 18th-c data. In this one, Daniël Tuik, researcher on our ongoing Sailors on Dutch merchant marine in the 19th and 20th centuries project, tells about his work with the personnel files of the Koninklijke Nederlandse Stoomboot-Maatschappij (KNSM), a company that operated mainly from Amsterdam between 1856 and 1981.

Jigsaw puzzle

Reconstructing a career is essentially like putting a large jigsaw puzzle back together. There is no clear overview, because the available information is fragmented across different archival records. As an example I will reconstruct the career of Wilfried Julius Lackin, which is notable for both its length and career advancement. Not that climbing up through the ranks in itself is extraordinary–on the contrary, our sample includes many sailors who managed to do just that–but Lackin started at the very bottom and ended his career at the top.

The earliest information we have for Lackin comes from a personnel card in record 1201 (unfortunately unavailable for viewing online because of the GDPR). He was born in 1905 in Paramaribo, then the capital of the Dutch colony of Surinam. In September 1926 he signed up as a ‘matroos onder gage’ (sailor below wage) on the Jan van Nassau bound for Amsterdam. Although his record does not mention any prior experience on ships, it seems likely that Lackin was not entirely new to this. His conduct on board was rated as ‘good’ and about a month later he is listed for the next voyage on the same ship as a ‘matroos’ (common sailor), which doubled his pay to 100 guilders per month. It was probably a good fit, because he continued as a common sailor for seven more voyages until April 1928.

KNSM cargo ship Jan van Nassau. Image: Wrecksite.eu

We pick up the trail in record 960: register of captains and mates for 1925-1935, which mentions Lackin obtaining the diploma for ‘3e rang’ (3rd rank) at the Zeevaartschool (Seafaringschool) Texel island in May 1929. He is listed as a ‘stuurmansleerling’ (mate’s apprentice) on the Haarlem a month later. Although he was earning more as a matroos, that rank would have offered him fewer opportunities to climb the ranks. It appears that Lackin took a temporary step back in order to move forward. His choice did not pay off immediately as he spent the following years going back and forth between ranks with almost all of them paying substantially less than what he earned on the Jan van Nassau.

The Great Depression hits

At least he had a job though. The page on the right bears a stamp with the words ‘28/6 ’33 gageverlaging 5%’. The Great Depression hit shipping hard and KNSM crew were forced to take a 5% wage cut in order to keep the company afloat. With the decrease in shipping activity it was not uncommon for crew to be employed elsewhere at the company or to take leave to focus on their studies. This seems to have been the case for Lackin also: he obtained the diploma for ‘2e rang’ at the Zeevaartschool in Vlissingen after spending a large part of 1933 on leave. Between voyages and watch duty he also obtained the ‘sloepgast’ diploma, which certified his skills in case of emergency situations.

In September 1934 Lackin is listed as non-active, possibly due to a lack of work. This is followed by a long period of leave during which he was studying for a radio operator’s certificate. It appears that he failed the exam as the subsequent register for 1935-1940 (record 961) does not list him having obtained such a certificate. From early 1938 on Lackin makes several voyages as a fourth and then third mate. At the time of the German invasion of the Netherlands he was on leave. Based on the time he is listed as being on watch duty and receiving redundancy pay, it seems that he spent the war years on shore in the Netherlands.

The path to becoming a captain

According to his file in the WWII personnel cards (record 989) he travelled to the United Kingdom in early August 1945, where he waited for a month on a troopship before boarding the Hercules. This is also the moment when he reappears in the regular personnel cards (again record 1201), which lists him as second mate. Over the next five years he continued in this capacity on various ships, before he was promoted to first mate in October 1950.

Next he is listed as a ‘supercargo’ for two voyages on the Adm. Fraser. Supercargos would handle the cargo and its paperwork on ships that were chartered by the KNSM. This temporary position was often given to a first mate. In the following years Lackin mostly served as first mate, with the occasional voyage as a supercargo. Finally, in April 1958, at the age of 53, he was promoted to ‘gezagvoerder’ (captain), a position he would continue to hold until his well-deserved pension in 1966 after forty years of service at KNSM.

Relevance of Lackin’s career

Lackin’s career is just one of many individual histories that can be derived from the KNSM archives. While working with these files it is fascinating to see the larger events of history intersect with everyday life. Heartbreaking at times too. I recall one time of having recorded nearly two decades of someone’s career only to have it end in ‘ship lost’. Careers like Lackin’s are also a great stepping stone for further research. Although we know, to some extent, what he did, it can be difficult to assess why he did so. What factors led to him choosing this path? In what way did his Surinamese origin influence his career? How does his experience compare to that of someone from, for example, Amsterdam? We will be able investigate these (and many other) questions with the data we collect in our ongoing Sailors on Dutch merchant marine in the 19th and 20th centuries project.

First results from project on recent history of merchant marine sailors

We can show some first results from our recently started project on sailors aboard Dutch merchant marine ships in the 19th and 20th centuries. Researcher Daniël Tuik has been working on a sample of personnel records from the archives of the Koninklijke Nederlandse Stoomboot-Maatschappij (KNSM), a shipping company that was based in Amsterdam. He tells more about his work in another blog post.

The map on the right in Jelle’s tweet shows the birthplaces of KNSM crew members in the 20th century, mainly sailing on trans-Atlantic routes, while the one on the left shows where the sailors came from who appear in the Prize Paper dataset, which also mainly contains data on trans-Atlantic shipping. A transition from international crews to a predominantly native labour force is clearly visible. Though not surprising, this change is still very interesting. As Jelle mentioned in a follow-up tweet, it would be followed by another change in the late 20th century, when crews again became more international. Our research focuses on these subsequent transitions. We will first document them and then analyse what they meant for the people directly involved, the shipping sector, and, more broadly, its position in Dutch society and culture.

Our research soon visible in augmented reality

Together with Dirk Bertels / Studio Louter we have been awarded a subsidy of almost € 125,000 from the Creative Industries Fund NL under the Digital Heritage x Public scheme to build the augmented reality experience ‘Zij voeren mee met de VOC’. It will provide easy and engaging access to three existing online data sets about the Dutch East India Company VOC.

Creative Industries Fund NL

In the installation ‘Zij voeren mee met de VOC’ we will unlock three digitized VOC sources for a broad audience in a stimulating way. Visitors will be able to literally ask questions to the crew members of the VOC on an iPad: Where did you come from? What was your chance of survival? Did you participate in the slave trade? To find answers to these questions, visitors are taken on a journey through data from VOC-opvarenden (enriched with data from our research), Dutch-Asiatic Shipping and Boekhouder-Generaal Batavia. Users experience this journey in AR. Guides assist them along the way—experts, representing diverse positions in the debate on VOC heritage, who provide context and assist visitors in interpreting the data. Visitors are then encouraged to find answers to their own questions. They will thus be challenged to reflect on one of the most acclaimed, notorious and identity-forming chapters in the history of the Netherlands.

What the installation might look like

The installation will be launched at the Dutch National Maritime Museum in Amsterdam (date TBA).

Studio Bertels
Huygens ING

Gender issues in the ranks of the Dutch East India Company

Last week, Jelle tweeted about the women who dressed up as men to land a job with the VOC and were fired when subsequently their ‘real’ gender became known.

Several people have asked for more information, in particular about the origins of the women involved. Below is a spreadsheet that lists their (for obvious reasons fake) names, and their place of origin – all other information available about the individuals are also listed. As you can see in the ‘remarks’ column, there are some really interesting cases: a woman going by the name of ‘Hendrik Huijsloop’ married a fellow sailor on board the Petronella Alida, and the ‘Joannes Burghart’ case is even more spectacular, or in any case more successful. She was only discovered to be a woman after having served as a soldier for no less than three years! There might even have been women in the ranks of the VOC who went until safely returning in the Netherlands, but alas the data do not allow us to trace them down… For more information about transvestism in early modern Europe, please have a look at the book by Rudolf Dekker and Lotte van de Pol (it’s by no means our area of expertise!).

Tip: clicking the links in the last column leads you to a scan of the entry in the original VOC payment ledgers. The right-hand side (in some cases you have to go one page up to view this side) shows the reason why the employment ended.

Grant awarded for new research into maritime careers

Samenwerkende Maritieme Fondsen (SMF), a body of six historical maritime foundations, have kindly awarded us a grant of just over € 100,000 to do new research into the life and careers of Dutch sailors. We will use this money to broaden our focus to the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, allowing us to tell new stories about sailors (on this blog, but also in a book on sailors of the Dutch merchant marine), make some more cool maps, and draw lines through history. Watch this blog and Jelle’s Twitter feed for updates on the project (2019-2023).

Jelle’s Twitter announcement of the SMF grant

Visualizing networks and careers

We mostly post map visualizations of our historical data on sailors, but we’re working on other visualizations to gain insight into our data as well.

Markov models

We’ve teamed up with DHLab and Marijn Koolen (@marijnkoolen) of the KNAW-Humanities Cluster to do a thorough analysis of sailor’s careers. As a first step, Marijn produced Markov model visualization of all steps in the career data we reconstructed from the digitized VOC pay ledgers. These visualizations give very good insight into the data. The one pictured below, for example, shows the various ranks from which crew members were promoted to ‘skipper or master’ and the most frequent career steps after having served as a ‘skipper or master’ on a Dutch East Indiaman (most often: ‘end of VOC career’). It also suggests that senior boatswains always climbed up in the hierarchy to become a skipper. This is a remarkable fact, even though we have only four senior boatswains in our career clusters. Thanks to this visualization, we now know that we need to look into our data again to find out whether senior boatswains were indeed without exception very highly skilled, or that something is wrong with these clusters.

Markov model showing careers steps to and from ‘skipper or master’
Markov model showing careers steps to and from ‘skipper or master’

Network visualizations

We’re also working together with Veruska Zamborlini and Al Idrissou. They are experts on automated methods for linking entities from various datasets and subsequently validating the links. We did a pilot on our VOC career data to see if we could devise a way to automatically validate our career reconstructions, which consist of multiple observations from the digitized VOC pay ledgers: is our clustering correct, or did we sometimes wrongly link observations to one individual?

We experimented with networks around captains. They were the highest officials on board and had a significant say in the hiring of crew members. Our hypothesis was that it is likely that a captain would hire sailors that he’d sailed with on an earlier voyage to the East Indies, and that these recurring patterns would help us to validate clusters. Veruska and Al produced network visualizations like the one pictured below. So far, alas, evidence from the network analysis is too sketchy. But the experiment has inspired us to test other crew network hypotheses, so there’s more on this to come.

Recurring captain-sailor relations in Jacob Onkruijt’s network
Recurring captain-sailor relations in Jacob Onkruijt’s network

Daniel Engel: a maritime career reconstructed

Daniel Engel was a young man from ‘Dantsig’ (modern-day Gdańsk in Poland) who travelled to the Dutch Republic in the mid-18th century to apply for a job with the Dutch East India Company (VOC). We’ve written about him before (in this blog post, where we introduced the Company’s pay ledgers, one of our main data sources) and now come back to him once more. Not that Engel is so special–on the contrary, there were thousands of men like him in the ranks of the VOC–but because his story is a good case in point for illustrating our work on reconstructing maritime careers.

1766: first journey to the East Indies
Entry Daniel Engel in VOC pay ledger (1766)
Entry of Daniel Engel in the pay ledger of Dutch East Indiaman Vrouwe Anthoinetta Koenrardina (1766)

A clerk of the Delft chamber of the VOC recorded Engel’s name and birthplace in the pay ledger of a brand new ship called Vrouwe Anthoinetta Koenrardina, that would set sail for the East Indies on 1 October 1766. The VOC hired Engel as a common sailor, on a wage of seven guilders per month. He probably stayed aboard in Asia as he came back to the Netherlands on the same ship in 1768, having worked for the company just long enough to pay off his debt of 170 guilders (which he probably needed to buy his clothes and equipment, and pay for his lodgings prior to departure) and receive a final payment of 11 guilders and 5 stuivers. This is all we can infer about the life of Daniel Engel from his employment record, but we do know more about the environment in which he worked en route to Asia. There were 300 men on board, mostly Dutchmen, as can be seen from the map below, but also quite a few men from the German lands and the Southern Netherlands, as well as a number of individuals from the coastal areas of southern Scandinavia, Malta and Batavia (modern-day Jakarta).

Birthplaces of the crew members of the 1766 journey to the East Indies of VOC ship Vrouwe Anthoinetta Koenrardina. Blue markers: sailors and maritime officers. Green markers: military personnel. This is an interactive map; clicking on a marker reveals employment details of crew member(s). Visualisation: Triply
Interrogated by the English

More than ten years later, in 1781, shortly after the beginning of the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War, a Daniel Engel from ‘Dantzick’ was taken to the Fountain Tavern in Plymouth to be interrogated after his ship had been captured by the English privateer ship Defiance (see this blog post for more on privateering during wartime). He told his questioners that he was 28 years old, worked as a boatswain on a vessel called De Keyser Josephus, and that he had lived in Rotterdam for the past thirteen years. It is likely that this Daniel Engel is the same person as the one who sailed to Asia in 1766, even though he would have been only thirteen or fourteen years old back then. He had switched to the merchant marine: De Keyser Josephus was en route from Curacao to Rotterdam, carrying a cargo of wood, hides, sugar, tobacco, cocoa, coffee and tea.

Report of interrogation of Daniel Engel. National Archives, HCA 32/383-1. Courtesy Brill.
To Asia again

It seems Daniel Engel switched back to the ranks of the VOC in the late 1780s: there are mentions of a Daniel Engel from Dantzig in VOC pay ledgers from 1788 and 1792. While he worked as a boatswain’s mate on his second voyage to the East Indies and back (he returned in the Dutch Republic in 1791), he was an able seamen on his third, from which he did not come back: Engel died in Asia, on 2 October 1798, when the VOC was already in a state of bankruptcy.

Daniel Engel did not rise high through the ranks of the VOC and the merchant marine–he died as an able seamen. By zooming out from Engel, and reconstructing careers of many more sailors, our future research will point out whether it is likely that he lacked the skills to get promoted or changing labour market conditions were to blame.

Newspaper article

Daniel Engel also featured in an article on the Dutch Prize Papers project in Dutch national newspaper Trouw!

Walking through the Prize Paper Dataset

This video provides a tour through the Prize Paper dataset using Kepler. Kepler is an amazing open source geospatial analysis tool for large-scale data sets.

Here I’ve used it get an impression of the geographical scope of the Prize Paper Dataset – focusing on the shipping connections. Every line represents the journey of an 18th century merchant ship. As you can see the main connections are intra-European and Transatlantic. We’ll make the dataset available (hopefully) sometime early next year. Please look at my twitter feed for any updates and other visualisation (maps in particular), using this dataset.