Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Department of History and Politics


This thesis examines the faulty relationship between leader and led which inhibited the establishment of democratic process within the Seamen's Union of Australasia, under successive leaders, in the period from 1918 to 1943. In arguing that the leaders of the union during that time allowed the pursuit of their particular ideological agendas to supplant the interests of the union's membership, it has been necessary to lay stress upon the peculiarity of the maritime workplace. This was a workplace that was not only occupied but inhabited by the merchant seaman. It is contended here that the special circumstances of the maritime workplace were such as to render seamen vulnerable to exploitation not only at the hands of their employers but also at the hands of their industrial leaders.

It is shown here that for the membership of the Seamen's Union of Australasia the period 1918-1943 was one of division and convulsion. None of the leaders that this work considers in historical succession was able to rectify the prevaihng situation, regardless of their widely varying ideological agendas that ranged from Utopian socialism through anarchistic individualism to realpolitik It is argued that as a consequence of the breakdown of social polity within their industrial association, Australian merchant seamen were subjected to manipulation by forces that were beyond their power to control. Alienated from a landward society that was little aware of their special circumstances and that was generally unsympathetic, the seamen became an antagonised occupational group. Thus, by 1943, they were readily available for deployment in support of an ideology that was not of their making.

This thesis necessitates consideration not only of the physical circumstances but of the psychological consequences of seafaring in the development of an attitude and subsequent behavioural patterns within the historical period under examination. It has also been necessary to take a number of contextual themes into consideration. Thus, shipping being crucial to the economic viability of the nation, maritime industrial relations routinely involved recourse to the coercive power of the state. And, since it was vital for Britain's economic interest to restrict competition in the operation of the liner link between the United Kingdom and Australasia, British 'shipping nationalism' had a dire effect upon the ere wing of Australian ships. Then there is the matter of the widening gap between the levels of skill reserved for and exercised by ships' deck and engineer officers and those of the seamen, as recognised in the anachronistically punitive disciplinary clauses of the Navigation Act. Yet another theme is the internationalism of seamen which while making them conscious of their advantages in comparison to other national seamen, also rendered them apprehensive of disadvantage. Australian seamen feared regression to the conditions endured by British national seamen. Worse still was their fear of supersession by those 'superexploited' Asian, African, and Indian seamen who under the terms of Asian articles sailed in many ships of Great Britain's merchant fleet, a situation that gave point to the factional power struggles which occurred within the body of the union.

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