A sailor’s life – 68. Pyrula and the seamen’s strike, Curaçao 1925
The Shell oil tanker Pyrula – formerly the White Star liner Cevic, ex Admiralty oiler Bayol/Bayleaf and one-time decoy battleship HMS Queen Mary – left New York on 21st August 1925 for a new life in Curacao in the Dutch West Indies.
She was manned by a mainly Dutch skeleton crew of 16, including three catering staff and four South American “firemen” (stokers) being repatriated to Maracaibo in Venezuela and Puerto Rico. The young master’s only officer – and the only other Brit on board – was his Scottish chief engineer, George Andrew of Airdrie.
Pyrula was a 30-year-old British steamer with a nominal horsepower of 708 and a working crew of 50, but after four years rusting off Staten Island as a floating oil depot for the Anglo-Saxon Petroleum Company, she faced a final journey of nearly 2,000 nautical miles (3,500 km) down the east coast of the US and across the Caribbean at the peak of the hurricane season, to a small Dutch island possession 40 miles north of Venezuela.
The voyage, the crew agreement notes, was to last for a period not exceeding six months and the sailors were to stand by until the ship was safely moored.
Rocky, dry Curacao was booming. The refinery had opened in 1918 and by 1925 beside the growing tank park, water plant and pending drydock, a little wooden Dutch town had sprung up with its own club house, tennis courts and golf course. Every four days a “mosquito fleet” of tiny tankers poured in from Venezuela with the oil bonanza discovered under shallow Lake Maracaibo, and by July the Isla was processing 5,500 tons of crude a day.
As the oil trade expanded internationally, increasing numbers of tourist steamers too were calling at Curacao, which was handily placed for the Panama canal and the Pacific, and Willemstad was starting to rival Amsterdam for ships and tonnages handled.
Once again,Shell needed Pyrula for bunkering. From the main harbour in the Schottegat lagoon she would eventually move out and round the coast, east to Caracas Bay, as a floating oil pump to the bigger ships unable or reluctant to traverse the narrow St Anna channel between the pretty Dutch gables.
And there she would end her career, overseen by a new master, Willem Hendrikse, and his growing family from a comfy stone bungalow built at the waterside. No more Shell wives made their homes among the old panelled staterooms of the former passenger ship, with their electric fans and bells to the pantry.
Hendrikse would eventually have two retired British steamers in his charge. Satoe was one of eight shallow-draft Royal Navy Monitor-class gunships bought up by the Curacaosche Scheepvaart Maatschappij after the first world war. As Monitor 24, Satoe had seen service on the Dover Patrol in 1918 and in the White Sea in northern Russia during the allied intervention after the October revolution, but the “flat irons” as the Dutch called them, were so unsuited to the tropics that the Chinese stokers used to faint from the heat in the holds, he said.
No ship’s log survives in the tidy blue cardboard folder in the National Maritime Museum archives in Greenwich, where Pyrula’s particulars for 1925 have lain crisp and apparently unvisited since the merchant navy records were carved up in the 1970s. The two pages for certificates and endorsements are blank.
Lloyd’s List reports she was one of 13 ships to leave New York that day, and the only one bound for Curacao. So the first hint of anything untoward on Pyrula’s last long passage south is a single undated line on the front of the crew agreement, where her chief officer/acting master, Hubert Stanley Sivell, my grandfather, has added: “Vessel in tow and not under own steam” .
Arrived in Curacao “to be a hulk”, reported Lloyd’s baldly on September 8th.
Twenty-four hours later the men were paid off – in dollars. A small fortune in dollars: $744, worth £153 at the ambitious new exchange rate set that April by the chancellor, Winston Churchill, when Britain disastrously rejoined the gold standard.
Although Pyrula’s crew agreement was the standard UK form, with the usual pre-printed scale of provisions (a pound of salt pork on Monday, a pound and a quarter of salt beef on Tuesday, preserved meat on Wednesday, plus lime juice “as required by the Merchant Shipping act”) and the usual puny 5 shilling fines for everything from possession of firearms to mutiny, Bert’s sailors that trip were not on standard National Maritime Board rates.
Instead of £9 a month – a rate controversially reduced from £10 only that August, and still not including clothing, bedding or time ashore – the Anglo-Saxon Petroleum company paid Bert’s seamen an astonishing $62.50 a month. £12 15s. His firemen were on $67.50, or £13 15s.
In fact the chief steward, H Mulder, 25, who had signed on as humble mess room steward at $50 a month and been promoted to $120 a month before the ship even left New York, was earning only £2 a month less than the Old Man himself – although young Captain Sivell did not advertise the fact. The column for pay against his name in the crew agreement is prudently blank.
Over in North Shields, in the north of England, the British crew of the Shell tanker Acasta – which was shortly to arrive off Curacao to collect Bert Sivell and two other “spare” Anglo-Saxon officers and take them home – would have been highly interested in the pay aboard Pyrula.
Acasta’s pantry boy, 20-year-old Albert Black of Dene Street, North Shields, was on £3 10s a month. He took a £1 15s advance when he signed up, probably to buy oilskins and bedding as he was listed as a “first tripper”, and set up a £1 15s “allotment” to his mother, which left not much. In Tilbury, forty days later, he would be paid off with just nine shillings.
Throughout September seamen with families had run the gauntlet of pickets and opprobrium at dock gates and railway stations up and down the UK to sign on for the new low rate. There were 1.2 million registered unemployed that autumn, but on £9 a month even fully employed seamen found themselves needing to apply for “relief” between ships.
A letter to the editor from a seaman’s wife in Hull in July demands to know how she is expected to pay rent, insurance, coal and “keep respectable” on £1 6s 3d a week. “Now then, all you sailors and firemen, buck up,” she wrote, the night before the cut came in. “What do you pay 1s weekly to your union for, and never one word of protest from none of you? Buck up some of you. Scandalous such treatment for a British sailor.”
By the time Bert Sivell paid off his crew in Willemstad with their wedge of dollars in the second week of September, British shipping was in chaos.
There were pickets on wharves from Southampton to Glasgow, and unemployed men from Cardiff to the Tyne waiting in tugs in the Bristol Channel and off the Isle of Wight to make up numbers as ships sailed shorthanded.
Across the Dominions thousands of British seamen had walked off their ships – 2,500 in Sydney alone – leaving steamers, mail and precious perishable cargoes, including refrigerated meat, maize and 15 million oranges, laid up from Wellington to Durban SA. Thousands of seamen were camped in meeting halls and private homes, fed by the generosity of local families and unions, while the Australian and New Zealand courts sentenced hundreds at a time to jail with hard labour.
And all for the sake of £1 and a vote.
The dispute had begun very low-key on August 1st, when pay on British ships was cut overnight by 10% in an agreement struck between the shipowners and Joseph Havelock Wilson, the president and founder of the National Sailors & Firemen’s Union. It was the seamen’s fourth pay cut in four years, but there was no vote on it, neither for the NSFU membership nor for men in smaller unions not represented on the official national Maritime Board.
When the cut was announced there had been protest meetings and speeches. Letters to local papers outlined the long hours and poor conditions aboard British ships (“only fit for seamen of an Eastern nation…”) and in Hull a disorderly NSFU meeting carried a vote demanding Mr Havelock Wilson’s resignation, which the union officers ruled out of order.
On “Red Friday”, July 31st, as the coal and rail unions were celebrating victory over the government of Stanley Baldwin, 200 seamen in Hull voted to strike.
The miners and railway workers were big hitters who had threatened a general strike over the mine owners’ plans to cut pay, (which was £3 a week in Staffordshire and up to 13s a day in Scotland) and faced with the prospect of the country being brought to a standstill Baldwin had backed down. He agreed to subsidise the industry for nine months, pending an inquiry (- which would lead to the general strike in May 1926, when the royal commission came back with a recommendation to cut the miners’ pay anyway, but by then the government had emergency plans in place – and volunteers on standby to drive buses and trains.)
But there was no similar support for the seamen. The NSFU stood by its sweetheart deal with the shipping companies, so the TUC – and even the breakaway Amalgamated Maritime Workers’ Union – considered the action “unofficial” and would provide no fighting fund. Within weeks, seamen refusing to sign on at the lower rate were deemed “unavailable for employment” and cut off from the dole.
Newspaper reports of the meetings of the workhouse guardians record debates about basic food relief, to prevent the wives and children of strikers “actually starving”. The men, it was agreed, should get nothing.
On August bank holiday weekend the Hull Daily Mail’s man at the dockside described the crowds of happy day trippers who piled unmolested onto the steamers Whitby Abbey and Duke of Clarence, despite the seamen’s strike. “There was no disturbance beyond a fight between two small dogs; a policeman on duty yawned continually, apparently bored with the inactivity of the ‘strikers’,” he sneered.
Up and down the country for the first three weeks of August ships sailed, and wherever men refused to sign on at the lower rate there were plenty of others hungry take their places.
Times were hard. The first world war had cost Britain her export markets. As the chancellor, Winston Churchill, wrestled with reparations and repayments, his overambitious return to the gold standard was having a depressing effect on Britain’s balance of trade. (Nations united by the gold standard, he had said that April, would “vary together, like ships in harbour whose gangways are joined and who rise and fall together with the tide…” Eurozone countries please note.)
Struggling to compete on price, British manufacturers cut pay. And kept cutting.
Even on the Isle of Wight unemployment was rising, from 1,000 in January 1925 to 1,538 by Christmas, but the situations vacant column in the local paper there (mainly seeking servants) was still three times the length of the situations wanted. Niton needed a gas lamplighter, the County Press reported, and a married woman teacher in Dorset had won a ruling in Chancery preventing the school governors terminating her employment, “even though there were single women teachers wanting for work”.
Seamen were largely casual labour, and even on £10 a month often could not lay enough by to feed, clothe and house a family during the growing gap between ships. To strike against the NSFU, cut off both from unemployment relief and union support, meant hardship.
By the middle of August it looked like the strikers might be starved out. But industrial relations took an unexpected turn when the first British ships started arriving in Australia after the three-week passage, and an energetic seamen’s union recently victorious in its own battle over pay and conditions took up the cause.
By the time Pyrula arrived in Curacao, the strike had taken a grip in the UK itself.
“Two thousand three hundred passengers, practically all Americans, booked to sail tomorrow morning from Southampton to New York on the White Star liner Majestic were at their wits’ end today,” the New York Times correspondent TR Ybarra cabled on September 1st, “trying to find out whether the Southampton seamen’s strike would force the Majestic to postpone her sailing.” Bristol, Hull and Liverpool were also affected, he said.
In South Africa, desperate fruit growers clubbed together to pay the disputed £1, just to get their oranges away. “The fruit interests are emphasising that for a matter of £70 in wages in this ship Roman Star £300,000 worth of fruit is being jeopardised, which if lost, will mean the ruin of many small producers,” the Western Morning News reported.
In Avonmouth, 30 boilermakers working on an Eagle Star tanker in dry dock downed tools. The San Dunstano needed enough work to keep 300 men employed until Christmas, they said, but they were being asked to just make her seaworthy to reach Rotterdam, where the Anglo-Saxon Petroleum company had already sent the US-built Ampullaria. With 400 men locally unemployed it was “not right to send three months work to the Continent”.
“A MILLION TONS HELD UP BY SEAMEN’S STRIKE”, shrieked the NY Times on the 17th.
With the country’s maize and citrus exports rotting on the wharves, the South African government tried to mediate – mooting a six-month inquiry, as put in place for the miners, but the shipowners said no. Union Castle began to recruit “lascar” crews in Bombay, but India and South Africa both protested – though for different reasons.
As well as their £1 back, and paid overtime, and an end to the NSFU’s closed shop deal with the ship owners, the strikers wanted a ban on cheap Chinese and “lascar” crews.
Wartime restrictions on enemy aliens living in the UK had been extended after the war, limiting employment rights for foreign nationals and barring them from certain jobs (including the civil service). The act had particular impact on foreign seamen working on British ships, and was encouraged by British trade unionists fearful of the cheap competition for jobs. [It was expanded again in 1925 by the Special restriction (coloured alien seamen) order, and even more shamefully not repealed until 1971]
Under so called “lascar agreements” big British firms like Union Castle signed up Asian crews as a job lot for a round trip, under a serang. They did not have to be paid British rates, because they were not signed in British ports, and they were expected to put up with grossly inferior conditions for reasons that can only be described as racist.
Acasta’s white British crew had themselves taken the place of 38 Chinese seamen and firemen who were signed off in South Shields on September 10 after 11 months’ service between Trieste, Malta, Panama, Montreal, Las Palmas and Marseilles.
These men were all registered to boarding houses in the same three streets in Rotterdam – Atjehstraat, Delistraat and Veerlaan, and their pay per month of the trip cost Shell even less, an average of only £3 a head.
Many Chinese had appeared in the tiny docklands peninsula of Katendrecht in 1911, signed up in secret by Dutch ship owners as strikebreakers to work the big passenger liners to and from the Dutch East Indies. They had no unions, only “shipping masters”, who allocated ships and rented beds in their boarding house between jobs.
The Chinese had a reputation as hard workers. They did not drink, were docile with their pipes and mahjong (“less troublesome than a white crew,” said Bert), and were willing to work for little pay.
They were also expected to eat less than a white crew, according to a typed “Scale of Provisions (Chinese)” tidily appended to Acasta’s crew agreement by Captain G. Croft-White. Although the same document shows fireman John Sow had to be left behind in hospital in Marseilles that trip suffering suspected beri-beri.
Shell’s Chinese seamen were entitled to 7lbs of beef, pork or fish each per week, against 8lbs allocated for white crews, and they got 10 and a half lbs of rice, instead of 11lbs of potatoes, biscuit, oatmeal and rice. They got less coffee, marmalade, bread, sugar and salt, more tea and dried vegetables, and no dried fruit, suet, mustard, curry powder or onions at all.
Capt Croft-White was clearly a belt and braces sort of chap, for above the scale of provisions is also gummed a paragraph from a printed document outlining the National Maritime Board’s absolute jurisdiction over pay board his ship, including its ability to retroactively impose cuts.
“It is agreed that notwithstanding the statements appearing in Column 11 of this Agreement the amounts there stated shall be subject to any increase or reduction which may be agreed upon during the currency of this Agreement by the National Maritime Board …”
Bert spent a month in Curacao, handing over and sorting out paperwork, but no letters survive. Only Acasta’s crew agreement shows that he was picked up “at Sea” on October 20th with two other British officers from Dutch lake tankers, and conveyed home to Tilbury.
He arrived back in Britain in November 1925. The strike was over. The seamen had lost.
From Australia came reports of violent clashes between police and British strikers in Fremantle, but after 107 days the men there too gave up and started trying to sign up for a ship home.
It was the loss of trade that eventually beat the seamen’s strike, as farmers and woolmen facing ruin eventually turned on the cuckoos in their nest. Lost, delayed and diverted trade was estimated to have cost £2 million. The shipowners claimed it was a Red Plot.
On December 8th, the Western Argus in Kalgoorlie, Western Australia, ranted: “The anti-British character of the strike was plainly shown by the action of the agitators who fomented it in Australia. They professed sorrow and indignation over the unhappy British seaman, compelled to starve on a miserable pittance of £9 a month, but they said nothing about the German seamen working for £4 4s. All their efforts were directed to holding up the British shipping trade, while foreign vessels were allowed to come and go unhindered…”
After more than four years away Bert hurried home the Isle of Wight for a rare Christmas with the wife he had not seen for a year and the baby daughter he had never met at all. His furlough pay as chief officier was £24 10s a month.