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From Kamchatka to Maui - the seafarers' life recalled in poetry and song


Kamchatka peninsular during the battle of Petropavlovsk (1854) Courtesy of Warfare History Network

What child has not been bewitched by John Masefield’s poem Sea Fever whose music, once heard, stays for a lifetime?

 

I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,

To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;

And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,

And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.

 

I am sure that when I was a boy, I didn’t know what a ‘whetted’ knife was, nor had any idea what an arctic wind might really feel like.

 

Today, there has been an upsurge of interest in sea shanties following the schmalzy success of a group called Fisherman’s Friends. How many of us, I wonder, who enjoy such nostalgic music will spare a thought for today's merchant seamen who deliver consumer goods to our table?

 

Somehow I doubt many sea shanties will be written by the 1.89 million international seafarers worldwide who berth amongst steel containers, and are now subject to the risk of piracy while being target practice for Yemeni drones.

 

It takes a lot for the Grocery Gazette to be concerned enough to report Tesco’s warning of a possible black tea shortage due to delays in supplies diverted from the Red Sea.

 

Perhaps it is not so surprising that the conditions of such seamen is not widely reported as they represent an underclass of migrant labour – often Filipinos – sentenced to travel the globe but never to see it; not allowed to exit the docks at which they land to discharge their cargo, and often forbidden to leave ship. During Covid, quarantine was used as the excuse for a situation that was already endemic. The Mission to Seafarers refers to this group as ‘often under-appreciated’.

 

This Tuesday at The Cornish Arms, a pub owned by the Patron Saint of Cornwall, Rick Stein, my wife and I stumbled upon the rehearsal evening for The Bell Ringers, a male voice ensemble.

 

This group of mainly bearded, portly, and superannuated Cornishmen entered in ones and twos, ordered pints of fine Boxer bitter and quietly sat at a bench by a wooden table facing inwards to the bar. We’d just been chatting to a hotelier from St Mary’s in Scilly who'd saved and restored the old 1960s Padstow Lifeboat which he plans to sail over to Poole later in the year to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the RNLI.

  

Quietly, apparently from nowhere, a refrain was mumbled from the table and sung as if into a beer glass, followed by a murmur from the fifteen or so others standing and propping up the bar. No words or sheet music were required. Bell ringers at the Church across the way, their forebears were of the sea – and some of the mines.

 

They sang of whaling in the Pacific and of mining here in Cornwall – both merged in the stories of communal and unromantic danger that both professions share.

 

Miner's life is like a sailor, aboard a ship to cross the waves,

Every day his life's in danger, still he ventures, being brave,

Watch the rocks they're falling daily, careless miners always fail,

Keep your hand upon your wages and your eye upon the scale.

 

The voices rose to fill the air to the rafters. Grown men stood with their sons and grandsons, uncles and friends. Suddenly our pub was at the end of a sea pathway full of collective memory handed down, and now to be handed on, full of the hurt of working men eternally deprived of agency.

 

The last two lines of the above song about scales and owners (mining two kilos for every one paid) reminded me of Congo artisanal miners today, selling cobalt ore to the comptoirs at the point of a gun to power our Utopian world of electric vehicles while unable to earn enough money to buy or fuel one. Meanwhile the word Kamchatka speaks to us of the 19th century whaling grounds and man’s attempted eradication of our greatest mammal.

 

For six hellish months we've passed away

On the cold Kamchatka sea

But now we're bound from the arctic grounds

Rolling down to old Maui

 

Maui, now the destination for lotus-eaters, was not as romantic as you might think at the end of the 19th century. It was a vast whorehouse prize for those who had made it thus far on the way home.

 

A haunting evening at the pub you might say – with a message in a bottle.


By Anthony Lipmann

20th February 2024

Published on www.lord-copper.com

 

 

 

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