KNSM cargo ship Jan van Nassau. Image:
Methodology,  Sailors on 19th and 20th-c Dutch merchant marine,  Shipping companies’ records

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:

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.