Lost at sea

Tales my grandfather would have told me. A sailor's life 1910-1941

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A sailor’s life – 32. Monkbarns, mutiny II

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Bert Sivell, Mr Mate - Monkbarns 1918

Bert Sivell, Mr Mate - Monkbarns 1918

The Old Man was too old and the mates were too young, the ringleaders of the Monkbarns mutiny told the naval court in Rio in June 1918. The old windjammer had sailed from Melbourne in March, bound for New York with flour for the US army, but within a week the new hands decided they did not like the food. The world was at war, but they wanted butter.

“There have been days I couldn’t eat anything,” the Welshman David Thomas protested later, when he was charged with refusing lawful commands to work. “I complained the first day I saw their stores. I don’t know whether they have been cleaned, but the Pantry, the Lazarette and the Galley are well worth seeing. The conditions of the food made me sick.”

Captain James Donaldson was 69 in March 1918, though the men believed him 76 – and all four of his very young mates were his own former apprentices. The chief officer, only 22 and bursting with pride at his new stripes, was Bert Sivell.

Two grinding months later they were still west of Cape Horn, wrestling with sails and high seas – and mutiny.

The sea soaked bunks never got a chance to dry, and down in the fo’c’sle the eight new men signed in Australia knew their rights. The food was bad, and running out, they said. They demanded to put into port. Donaldson tried reasoning. The food was not the very best, he agreed, but it was difficult provisioning sailing ships in wartime. What they had aboard was sustaining, he said. The “bear’s grease” was indeed not butter but it was margarine, and despite the unusually slow passage they were making there was enough of everything to last to New York. He refused to change course.

"Threatened to cut his throat and drop him overboard". From The Wheel's Kick and the Wind's Song, AG Course (1950)

"Threatened to cut his throat and drop him overboard". From The Wheel's Kick and the Wind's Song, AG Course (1950)

The men retaliated by refusing to work. Pressure mounted on the four remaining apprentices to join the boycott (see right). Apart from the boys and the elderly sailmaker and carpenter there was only a single young ordinary seaman, Laurence O’Keeffe, to work the ship.

By May 19th the weather had improved but it took 17 minutes to get the watch out on duty, Bert recorded. “Since leaving Melbourne the crew have been in an obvious state of mutiny,” he wrote, “causing the Master and officers much anxiety.” With the prospect of mountainous seas, ice and gale force winds around the Horn, the safety of the ship was at risk. The barometer fell and fell.

Under cover of darkness, in the middle watches, dwindling stores began to disappear faster. A tin here, a mouthful there, but Edvard Henriksen the cook knew nothing.

On the 30th the Irishman Thomas O’Brien was spotted at midnight stealing pork from the cask aft. The young 3rd mate, Gilbert Cheetham, who witnessed the theft, did not intervene, a forebearance justified in the certified extracts of the mate’s log as having been due to young Cheetham’s “wishing to find whether this kind of thing was a practice”.

Captain G.R. Cheetham of the Blue Funnel Line later claimed he had in fact made the felon put the meat back. “He remembers the incident clearly,” wrote AG Course, a fellow John Stewart & Co apprentice, chronicling the last days of what would be the last British-registered sailing ship line.

Donaldson had issued the younger mates with revolvers and three rounds of ammunition. Although Bert had been officially standing in as mate since the ship left Newport News, Virginia, twelve months previously, William Aplin the acting 2nd had graduated from the half deck only eight months previously and Cheetham and Chown were in fact still  apprentices. When their time expired in June, they were entered on the ship’s papers as acting 3rd and 4th, but by then the ship had rounded the Horn and was heading north again into steadier winds.

Keeping order at sea was not easy at the best of times. Outnumbered, far from land and responsible for all the lives and cargo aboard but with no means of preserving discipline other than force of personality, masters needed to command the crew’s respect — and they needed tough officers to enforce unwelcome decisions. Mates had to be handy with their fists. There were abuses.

(“Nowadays,” wrote Basil Lubbock, “some crews are composed of such villainous scoundrels that unless you take a high hand with them, and show them you are not to be trifled with, they would soon take advantage of what they would call a softy and a reign of terror would begin. Any sort of discipline would be impossible, the men would do just as much work as they felt inclined for, and they would openly sneer and scoff at you if ordered to do anything they did not wish.”)

When an iceberg suddenly reared up dead ahead of Monkbarns at 2am one night as they battled blind round Tierra del Fuego, all hands had turned out at the mate’s bellow and every muscle had strained to pull the yards round, to avert collision. Terror spurred them all. But as the ice mountain closed, and they heard in their minds the sound of the jagged skirts of ice beneath and round them beginning to scrape, nerve broke. A group of men abandoned their hauling and ran for the lifeboats, believing the ship lost, and the officers pulled their guns. Or so Course said.

Oddly, the incident recalled so vividly and convivially in the former apprentices’ later barside chats (and reproduced in his book) was not among the accusations raised at the naval hearing aboard the armed merchant cruiser Armadale Castle in Rio in 1918.

The certified extracts of the log produced in Rio and held at the Public Record Office in Kew record only that on the morning of June 5th, with land in sight north-east of the Horn, the officers hoisted the international distress flags NC under the red ensign.

All cooperation from the fo’c’sle had ceased. But no help came out from shore.

Read on: Monkbarns, mutiny III
Previously: Monkbarns, mutiny I

Work in progress: the book I never wrote about the sailor grandfather I never knew, from his apprenticeship on the square-rigger Monkbarns to his death by U97, presumed lost with all hands aboard the Shell oil tanker Chama in 1941 Blogroll


A sailor’s life – 31. Monkbarns, mutiny I

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Monkbarns 1923 securing lifeboats under heavy seas off the cape

Monkbarns 1923 securing lifeboats under heavy seas off the Cape. Private collection: John Fall

Meals were eaten in silence on Monkbarns towards the end, the little mate chewing grimly with a revolver at his side and the even grimmer Old Man ramrod straight at the head of the table. The old windjammer creaked and moaned around them and the oil lamp swung crazily overhead while the junior officers scraped their spoons, keen to escape back to the wind and the sails. They spoke when spoken to, which was seldom.

Insubordination had begun before the crew even left Melbourne. The last eight men signed on were all older than the other hands, and outnumbered them. And when Monkbarns sailed on March 20th 1918 facing a winter passage round the Horn, they knew their rights.

Within a week, bad weather compounded the ship’s troubles. Huge waves swept the decks, swamping the bunks in the fo’c’sle and extinguishing the galley fire so the men could have neither cooked meals nor hot drinks.  Ten days out, they were still beating across the Tasman Sea.

When Captain Donaldson snapped sarcastically at Soren Theodor Sorensen for poor steering one day as he struggled to brace his sextant to take the noon sight, the Dane did the unthinkable and answered back. The offence was logged, but as word got back to the multinational crowd in the fo’c’sle that the only sanction available to Donaldson under British maritime law was a derisory five shilling fine, respect for the saloon nose-dived.

Only drunkenness merited a 10 shilling fine, and then only for a second offence. For all other infractions the ship’s papers stipulated a penalty of five shillings, unless “otherwise dealt with” by law.

When the order next came to replace sails destroyed in the gale, the crew did not rush.

Monkbarns 1923 Seas coming on board - photo taken from the yard arm

Monkbarns 1923 Seas coming on board - photo taken from the yard arm. Private collection: John Fall

Day struggled into day with the winds wailing around them and no land in sight. Weeks became months, and the rough meals got rougher as levels in the casks and bins fell. In the mugs, the black liquid they called coffee quivered under the waves’ pounding.

Down among the sodden bunks, the men began to mutter. The potatoes were black and uneatable, they said, and the peas were so hard it took a mallet to split them. They had no soft bread, and only flour and molasses in the place of porridge, while instead of butter they had margarine bought in Buenos Aires six months previously, which they spurned as “bear’s grease”.

Eventually a deputation headed by the Irishman, Thomas O’Brien, went aft.

What happened next  is not beyond dispute. Captain Alfred George Course, the first editor of the British Cape Horner magazine, never sailed on Monkbarns, but he spent a lot of time in bars with men who did, recording their tales (and writing them up under the pen name Leigh Forebrace. His little joke.) Course wrote that Captain Donaldson’s mutinous crew invaded the poop during the second dog watch that May, threw the Old Man over his chart table and threatened to cut him to pieces, but – like several of the other lurid accounts he recorded – this was not produced in evidence at the naval court hearing that was held in Rio three months later.

Certainly, the despised “bear’s grease” was taken aft and thrown at the feet of the master, but the men claimed Donaldson had stayed in his chart room and sent the 1st mate out with promises of more food.

The mate did testify that after May 15th he took to carrying a loaded revolver around with him in his pocket whenever he went on deck, day or night. He was just turned 23, newly promoted and at 5ft 2ins a good head shorter than every other man and boy aboard.

The mate in question was, by then, young Bertie Sivell.

Poor Bert, it was to be a baptism of fire.

Read on: Monkbarns, mutiny II
Previously: For those in peril


A sailor’s life – 30. For those in peril

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USS South Carolina, circa 1914 - photograph: US Naval Historical Centre

USS South Carolina, circa 1914 - photograph: US Naval Historical Centre

For merchant seamen, war at sea is never just enemy submarines, mine fields and warships; all the everyday hazards of wind, sea, dangerous cargoes, injury and isolation do not go away because a couple of countries far away are at loggerheads.

In May 1917, the sailing ship Monkbarns – bearing an unfortunate resemblance to a disguised German raider newly reported at large in the southern Atlantic – left Montevideo in Uruguay bound for Newport News, Virginia, and on arrival in the US lost eleven men, including every single one of the hands picked up in South America to replace deserters there. They were left kicking their heels in Newport for weeks while Captain Donaldson struggled to find crew, and out at sea the shipping losses mounted.

America had finally abandoned neutrality that April, and so it was the battleship USS South Carolina that sighted the supposed enemy raider See-Adler early on September 18th en route for Buenos Aires and ordered her at gunpoint to heave to. At breakfast time that morning, Monkbarns found herself being boarded and searched by the US navy, under one Ensign J. Wilkes.

New York Times cutting 1902

Fire aboard Monkbarns, New York Times cutting, June 22 1902

Sadly, Bert Sivell’s surviving postcards make no mention of See-Adler or the US naval patrol, but he does comment dourly on the quality of American coal and the stevedores who stowed it wet. The cargo picked up in Newport News heated badly, he wrote, and they narrowly avoided having to put back into Montevideo  with the ship on fire. Fire in the hold or a cargo that shifted, capsizing the ship, were the stuff of nightmares.

Newport had been all heat and flies, reported Bert, but the Old Man had bought a Victriola and twenty-eight records so they were “expecting some high class music this trip”.

They spent umpteen weeks in Buenos Aires, still struggling to sign enough men to work the ship, and then, two days out of the River Plate and finally underway again bound for Australia, found themselves caught by a pampero.

Suddenly there were hurricane winds and a high, confused sea that churned over and round them. All day they struggled to take in sail, clinging to the yards high above the lurching, rolling decks until, at 9pm, as apprentice Lewis Watkins recalled, the mizzen lower topsail “carried away with a noise like gunshot”.

Watkins was knocked off his feet and down a companionway, breaking his leg in several places, but there was no time for first aid. Every man had his hands full. So the boy was just dumped on his pitching bunk and left, teeth gritted against the pain. All night the men wrestled with the wind and the sails and the sea, and it was not until early the following day that Captain Donaldson, assisted by the carpenter and old Henry Robinson the sailmaker, had a spare hand to cut off Watkins’ sea boot and straighten and set the leg on the still rolling decks. Watkins fainted dead away, he said.

The following six weeks were rather pleasant, at least for him. He spent them in his bunk in the boys’ half-deck, cosy and dry while all hands worked the ship through the Roaring Forties, and he was still enjoying easy duties when Monkbarns arrived in Melbourne at the end of January 1918. At that point, Donaldson called in an Australian doctor – who prescribed re-breaking the leg and resetting the fracture. Recovery was galvanised, and Watkins was back up on the yards with the other boys by the time they sailed again, two months later, bound for New York with flour for the US army.

Eight men deserted in Melbourne and they spent 17 days stuck out in the anchorage fully loaded, ready to sail, while Donaldson tried to find last-minute replacements. Time and again, men signed then failed to appear. “We are still short of four men and a cook,” Bert wrote to his mum on March 5th 1918, “so goodness only knows when we will get away.” The eight who eventually did arrive aboard were “a bunch of stiffs”, according to the apprentices, or as Donaldson put it later “a crew of the most difficult men.”

There was an American, a Peruvian, a Chilean and a Dane, a Norwegian cook, a Welsh former bosun with a good record, and an Irishman who claimed to have spent 30 years in jail. Neither the American nor the Peruvian appeared to have been to sea anytime recently, as there is no date for previous employment against their names in the crew list, and Donaldson’s records show he had to advance them £1 16s each to buy appropriate clothes. The eighth, a Dutchman, pulled a knife on young Watkins the first time they went aloft alone. He had come at him crabwise along the yard, hissing “you’re as bad as those bastards aft,” Watkins said.

Three months later they were all in court, charged with mutiny, in a row that would end Donaldson’s career.

Read on: The mutiny on the Monkbarns
Previously: Friend or foe?



A sailor’s life – 29. Friend or foe, 1917

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Pass of Balmaha, later the German auxiliary raider Seeadler

Pass of Balmaha, later the German auxiliary raider Seeadler

The German sailing ship raider See-Adler had started life as the US-flagged Pass of Balmaha, a Clyde-built full-rigged three master only seven years older than Monkbarns herself. She became a player in the war in 1916, when she was stopped by a Royal Navy vessel north of Scotland patrolling Britain’s blockade of German ports, and ordered to Kirkwall for examination of her cargo.

Even though the ship was neutral, and bound for Archangel on the White Sea with cotton from Texas for an ally, Russia, the British blockade was rigorous. Neutral America was still trading raw materials with Germany and every item on the waybill had to be scrutinised. Under British interpretation of international law, German goods were not to be traded, and Britain impounded anything of potential use to the enemy – or indeed itself – deaf to the protests of her trading neighbours.

The British patrol put half a dozen marines aboard Pass of Balmaha, to ensure compliance with its orders, hoisted the Union flag and left. But they were no sooner out of sight than Pass of Balmaha was stopped again, this time by a German U-boat. As the guns on the grey conning tower appeared, the ship’s American officers hurriedly raised the stars and stripes and hid the compromising British guard in the hold, but the enemy lookout has seen the flags change. Suspicious, the German commander ordered the ship to Cuxhaven, putting aboard a single officer armed with a hand grenade to ensure they did so.

In Germany, the British marines were discovered in the hold and the ship was seized.

Pass of Balmaha turned out to be just what the Kaizerliche marine had been looking for. A sailing ship was a good bleating goat in the shipping lanes, but it also avoided the fuelling problems that dogged the coal-hungry turbine-driven raiders. The vessel was fitted with diesel auxiliary engines, guns, and bunks for 400 prisoners, and she had slipped out into the North Sea the previous December with stolen Norwegian papers, commanded by Felix, Count von Luckner.

Count Felix von Luckner, the Sea-Devil

Count Felix von Luckner, the Sea-Devil

Von Luckner was a flamboyant character, reputed to have run away to sea himself at 12. He had served seven years in sail on ships of various nationalities, including British. When See-Adler’s false identity had to be changed at the last minute, he simply gave the papers a realistic splash of sea water to blur the forgery, and set off to run the enemy blockade with a Norwegian-speaking crew on show and a deck load of timber concealing the gun emplacements. He put up portraits of the Norwegian king and queen in his cabin and was even reported to have dressed one of the crew in a wig and frock, and settled “her” cozily over some domestic chore in a dark corner of the master’s quarters. When a British armed cruiser intercepted them southwest of Greenland four days out, the Norwegian ship with the shy wife was allowed to pass.

By March 1917 as the former banana boat, Mowe, was putting into Kiel with 800 prisoners at the end of her second raiding voyage around the Atlantic, Von Luckner had made his way down to the latitude of Rio. On the way he had sunk eight sailing vessels, including one on which he was reported to have himself served as an able seaman, and three steamers, which he got within range of his guns by various ruses, including pretend fires on board.

However, success brought its own strains: he had collected 203 prisoners and feeding them was becoming a problem. Instead of sinking his next victim, therefore, he cut down her masts and packed all the captives off aboard her, together with one of the British captains to navigate and enough provisions to reach Brazil.

Bert Sivell's postcards from Montevideo, 1917

Bert Sivell's postcards from Montevideo, 1917

Then he made himself scarce, heading south for the Horn and escape into the Pacific, to wreak havoc there, although he hove to briefly off the Falkland Islands – to say a few words and drop a large iron cross marking where Vice Admiral Count Von Spee and his men had died at the hands of the British navy two years previously.

Monkbarns had arrived in Montevideo after a passage of 47 days right through Von Luckner’s war zone to learn that every warship in the Atlantic was now gunning for a three-masted square-rigged commerce raider much like, or indeed very like Monkbarns.

Read on: For those in peril on the sea
Previously: Monkbarns or See-Adler?

A sailor’s life – 28. Monkbarns or See-Adler? 1917

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Monkbarns left Barry Roads, in the Bristol Channel, early in February 1917, racing under full sail behind another British-registered ship, the Mount Stewart. As they drew out of the lee of Wales, the strong northeasterly wind freshened to a gale and the seas grew wilder. The steam sloop escorting them struggled to keep up as the old “windbags” flew along at 14 knots (think racing bike), neither captain fainthearted enough to shorten sail, as the sloop’s RNR commander – himself sailing ship trained – noted appreciatively.

Lewis Watkins, one of eight apprentice boys in the half deck that trip, remembered passing a torpedoed Norwegian tanker off Lundy. The naval escort, wallowing in their wake, her bridge and foreward gun blinded by the sheets of flying water, had peeled off in relief to deal with the wreck. “Proceed independently,” she had signalled to her charges. “Safe voyage and good luck,” and with an answering flutter of their own flags the sailing ships had stood away on their separate courses.

It was the middle of the first world war and aboard Monkbarns they had swung out their lifeboats in case of attack and posted the best watch they could manage shorthanded, Watkins recalled. Other than that there was nothing to do but make their way with all speed past Fastnet and out into the Atlantic, beyond the reach of the submarines. They were bound for Montevideo, Uruguay, with coal from Cardiff.

Three weeks later, John Stewart & Co’s Galgorm Castle was stopped and sunk by an enemy submarine 90 miles west of Fastnet. The crew got away in two lifeboats, one of which, with the captain and his wife, was picked up by a passing steamer the following morning. The captain’s wife, who had borne and raised two daughters aboard her husband’s ships over 16 years, went straight back to sea, was again sunk by a submarine, and amazingly both she and her husband survived the war. But the mate’s boat was not found until ten days later. Only one man in it was still alive.

German raider Seeadler - the former Pass of Balmaha

German raider See-Adler – the former Pass of Balmaha

Within four months of the loss of the Galgorm Castle, four more John Stewart ships had been sunk and by the time Monkbarns dropped anchor in Montevideo on March 25th news of a new enemy in the Atlantic was trickling ashore: a sailing ship raider was reported to be at large, menacing shipping with a hidden engine and guns.

A disguised former banana boat, the steamer Mowe, had slipped the British blockade of Germany’s ports the previous year – and claimed 15 ships, including John Stewart’s Edinburgh, but See-Adler, as the Germans called their new auxiliary cruiser, looked particularly unthreatening.

Indeed, she looked very much like Monkbarns, which would become a problem.

Read on: Count Felix von Luckner’s See-Adler
Previously: Captain Donaldons’ tribulations

A sailor’s life – 27. Monkbarns: Captain Donaldson’s tribulations

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Seamen's mission New York 1915, postcards

Seamen's mission dormitory New York, 1915, and mission launch off Liberty island

In New York, autumn 1915, ten seamen deserted Monkbarns, leaving the old windjammer hanging around in the river for nearly two months. Bert Sivell wrote a dozen postcards featuring the South Street seamen’s institute and the mission launch off Liberty Island, but the log tells a different tale. The remaining fo’c’sle hands “liquored” and whored, and the ship’s steward decamped with most of the stores. One man was laid up with venereal disease after only a month in port. From early September to the end of October men trickled ashore and failed to return — Danes, Swedes, Finns, Norwegians, Americans and one Swiss, smuggling out what possessions they might and abandoning the rest. The very last to go, on October 24th, was out-of-time apprentice Geoff Barnaby, of King’s Lynn, Norfolk. He and Bert had signed their indentures together as boys in London four years previously and Bert felt his loss deeply.

Unlike the others, Barnaby’s desertion is not marked in the log with the official stamp of the shore authorities but is written in by hand, after the ship had put to sea, suggesting either that he disappeared at the last minute, or that Donaldson had given him the benefit of the doubt until the matter was beyond mending.

The Old Man was not always so accommodating. After they sailed, one of the new crew was found to be “quite incompetent and totally unfit” and ruthlessly demoted to £1 a month, “unless he shapes up”. The man deserted in Port Adelaide, Australia, three and a half months later, one of seven more to go.

Port Adelaide, Australia, 1916 - Bert sat his second mate's ticket behind the third lamp post, beside the police station. "Very safe"

As they loaded wheat for Cape Town in Port Adelaide, the mate quit and Bert was hurried packed off ashore to sit his 2nd mate’s exam in a building next door to the local police station. Writing home with the news, he discovered his postcard had been printed in Germany, for which he apologised. He still sent it. It did not occur to either him or his parents to tear the card up and write another. He had already paid for it, and the Sivells respected their money.

On the back of the sea-stained indenture paper that went round the world with him, Captain Donaldson had pencilled “Sivell to serve four years. Time expired on 15th August 1915. Signed AB and still on articles 17th February, Port Adelaide,” expanding it ashore with a letter to the effect that he was “diligent, obliging and attentive to his duties, a good seaman”.

In the log, Donaldson wrote:
Three days have been lost trying to procure substitutes. Then I. Johnson refused to join, and J. Maloney was taken by the military as a deserter from their camp… It cost £3 19s to get R.H. Williams and G. West put on board … which is charged to their account.”

By Cape Town, three and a half months later, drunkenness and insubordination were rife. Two men landed in jail, one twice, and the baldly administrative log becomes quite colourful over the month and a half they were in port loading maize:



Cape Town, 1917

Postcard views of Cape Town, 1917 - printed in enemy Germany, Bert Sivell noted (author's collection)

“July 27th 1916, all day. George West who has a rupture of old standing going on shore drinking, coming on board and using insulting language to the master, and going and coming and raging and doing what he thinks fit.

July 31st, 8.30am A. Harris was insolent and insubordinate, and defying the master and mate, went on shore without leave. Also R.H. Williams.

August 2nd, noon R.H. Williams who was on shore the two days previous without leave is now laid up from the effects of liquor.

August 16th, 10am Fritz Jonson returned to work having been absent without leave since 8th inst., arrested same day ashore. Sentenced to seven days in jail. All expenses to be charged to him.

August 23rd, 1pm R.H. Williams returned to work after being in jail and absent without leave from 7th inst. Men were working in his and Jonson’s place, when they could be found to do suitable work. All outlays and expenses will be charged to them.

September 6th, 10 am R.H. Williams returned yesterday after being in jail for another seven days and is again absent without leave, and have been informed by Sergeant of Police that he is to be charged at police court tomorrow. Expenses, etc.

September 12th, 3pm R.H. Williams was put on board by police. His fine and police expenses were paid by the master and will be charged to him.

September 13th, 5pm, Table Bay, George West was taken on board the ship by police in motor launch…”

This is just one page.

In total, the fines, expenses and surcharges came to £7, but on December 11th 1916, two days before they docked back at Avonmouth, Donaldson cancelled the lot “on account of subsequent good conduct”. It was his way. He shied away from “rows” as he called them. Jones, Jonson, Williams and West left Monkbarns without a stain on their record, and went away to plague some other master.  Bert, meanwhile, travelled to London to sit his Mate’s exam, with £64 11s and 7d jingling in his pocket. “I wish him success and hope he will (be)come 1st Mate of this ship,” wrote Donaldson.


A letter appended to the ship’s agreement offers a tiny personal glimpse of the embattled Old Man. It is addressed to a Board of Trade superintendent, apparently in response to a query about sums of cash Captain Donaldson had advanced to the men who deserted in Port Adelaide. “Sir,” he wrote, as he wrestled with his accounts. “I beg to state that these men kept bothering me for money and threatened to put me into court if I refused it. I gave them the money rather than have a row. Your obedient servant, J Donaldson, Master.”

Eight years previously a seaman had sued Donaldson over pay. He claimed to have fallen from aloft on the ship’s first night out of Middlesbrough, UK, although there were no witnesses and the man had suffered no broken bones or bruises. For four months until they dropped anchor in Fremantle, Australia, the man had refused to work, complaining of pains in his back or his groin or his side, once even under his toes, and with mounting impatience, Donaldson had doctored him, with “salicylate of soda” in accordance with the Ship Captain’s Medical Guide. On arrival in Fremantle however when the seaman, miraculously recovered, demanded to be paid his  £17 2s 6d, Donaldson jibbed – and found himself being taken to court. The Old Man lost, and adding insult to injury was ordered to pay costs of £2 8s 6d. Facing trouble in Adelaide in 1916, Donaldson hadn’t wasted his breath seeking help from the law.

Read on: Monkbarns or See-Adler? 1917
Previously: Out of the half-deck

A sailor’s life – 26. Monkbarns: out of the half-deck

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The iron-hulled three-master Monkbarns, built 1895

Bertie Sivell was still three months short of the end of his four-year sail apprenticeship when Monkbarns entered the Mersey off Liverpool in May 1915, his first time in a “home” (British) port port in two years. The war that was to have been over by Christmas, wasn’t. His father wrote to the master, Captain James Donaldson, for advice.

“I have nothing to write but what is favourable to your son,” the Old Man wrote back. “He is a smart, intelligent, clever, well-doing lad and there is no doubt he will quickly get on in his profession. If this war was over your son would out-distance eight out of every ten, but at present it is numbers only, no matter what their ability is.”

Captain James Donaldson, master of Monkbarns 1911-1919

Captain James Donaldson, master of Monkbarns 1911-1919

Donaldson advised against sending the lad back to school for formal training. “He can do all the problems now,” he said, signing off: “With kind regards, hoping he enjoyed his holiday as it will soon be over, yours truly, Donaldson”.

It was not a disinterested response. After four years working unpaid in the half deck, Bert was a skilled hand the elderly master could ill afford to lose. Which was why the end of his indentures that August found Bert back at sea, bound for New York with a cargo of salt. Donaldson put him on the crew list as an Able Seaman at £1 a month, but in fact Bert had taken over as acting 3rd mate  on £2 10s a month “as per arranged with the owners,” Donaldson noted on the back of the sea-stained John Stewart & Co contract.

It was to be the start of a rapid career.

Read on: Drunkenness and insubordination – Captain Donaldson’s tribulations
Previously: Monkbarns and Lusitania