The “More than a List of Crew” Website Explained
The historical circumstances that made merchant seafarers some of the best documented of nineteenth and early twentieth century workers in Britain and its colonies richly repay investigation. For family historians and academics alike the records are a goldmine of information.
Maybe you are a visitor to this site because you already know that an ancestor made their living at sea, or perhaps you only suspect it. “More than a List of Crew” exists to improve your chances of finding him or her and, while we cannot guarantee a positive result, discoveries come in very different forms: we think you will find the website’s approach to source-based historical research both interesting and rewarding.
Features of the Site
The website embodies, first, a research toolkit. Its content, visual, textual, and aural, aims to make users familiar with the period sources for merchant seafaring. We have not created finding aids as such. Instead, we show how questions framed with some knowledge of past times can lead you to the relevant information; then we show you how to appreciate better the significance of your discoveries. The emphasis here and in the rest of the site is on “how do we know about the past?”
In its second part you will find accounts of nineteenth and early twentieth seafaring life drawn from the key record source, the Agreements and Accounts of Crew and Official Logs of British Empire vessels. We seek to show these sources have a potential beyond that which you might have conceived for seafaring documents and their subjects. The extent and comprehensiveness of the records mean historians’ questions about merchant seafarers can go on after the limits are reached of what can be asked about other groups. Sometimes, taking the larger perspective means refusing the popular stereotypes of seafaring. The subsection “How do you know he’s a ‘sailor’” is so titled to play on the realization that not all seafarers were male, or worked under sail. Meanwhile, in the section “Dead Men Do Tell Tales”, Official Logbooks sustain a discussion of the significance of the possessions that seafarers had in the workplace. It would be difficult, and very probably impossible, to attempt this for any other working group.
Stories provide a considered way into a past world in a third section of the site. “Seafarers Tell Their Tales” exemplifies research as a grounded and reflective process. Our ability to show you the twists and turns of history as lived by these people builds upon the approach that started with understanding the evidence recovered from the archive.
We encourage giving attention to the digitized and annotated Agreements in the “toolkit” part of the site. One of the benefits of electronic media is the ability to render documents more readable and accessible. Our commitment to this is stronger for the realization that as manuscripts, these records very nearly did not survive. A timely intervention ensured their preservation, and in each generation of users, they go on to stimulate new thoughts about history and its making.
The Crew Agreement Collection at the MHA
The primary sources occupy a large space on the campus of Memorial University in St John's, Newfoundland, amongst the Maritime History Archive's [MHA] manuscript collections. They are not digitized as yet, and are too extensive to be fully indexed by family name. Some preparation is advisable before you use the collection. This site presumes no previous familiarity with the source. But it assumes you will want to know more as you begin to see the experiences of ancestors and others in a different light.
Over the years, the archivists have facilitated searches of many kinds. The main MHA website hosts additional information.
Meanwhile, scholars and students on campus, and our visitors, virtual and real, have explored some of the millions of documents. The new generation of academic researchers and of family historians have given us a sense of the richness of the stories contained within their pages.
Coverage of the MHA’s Crew Agreement Collection
The following information will help you evaluate whether the Agreement collection can assist with your research:
- The office of the Registrar General of Shipping and Seamen [RGSS] administered the Agreements. Its remit was the merchant marine. In consequence, the Agreements are not sources for research on naval seafarers;
- geographically their scope is global. Since Britain was, at this time, the preeminent nation in seaborne commercial transport of commodities and passengers there were few ports these vessels did not visit to discharge and engage crew;
- passengers are occasionally recorded, but this collection does not include passenger lists;
- Crew Agreements started before 1863, the date when the MHA collections commence. In the 1860s they were made systematic and they run as a near continuous series for over a century. The MHA has Agreements into the 1970s. On this website we concentrate on the period from the 1860s to the 1930s;
- some Agreements were retained in the British Isles, though the larger part was transferred to Memorial University. Researchers can consult samples at the British National Archives [TNA], at the National Maritime Museum, London [NMM], and selections at local record offices. In addition, some Colonial Agreements were made and retained under local jurisdiction. Thus, Agreements for part or entire crews for particular voyages may well be found in, for example, Canadian, Australian, and Indian national archives;
- the RGSS filed bundles of records that were returned by masters and the term Agreement, as it is used here, might refer to more than a single document of engagement and discharge. Conversely, it might mean less than a complete official Agreement. The most revealing additional document filed with some, but not all, Agreements, is the Official Logbook;
- these are indeed the documents that in places other than this site are commonly identified as “Crew Lists.” We explain our preference for calling them Agreements in the Archival Q&A section.
The “More than a List of Crew” Project
Funding from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada enabled a specially constituted team to assemble this site in partnership with the Archive. The long-term support of Memorial University for the Crew Agreement collection is also gratefully acknowledged.
The “More than a List of Crew” team existed for the duration of this project, but the professionals and students who were involved, remain interested in your comments. Please direct your emails to the Maritime History Archive at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The MHA maintains a range of research and digitalization activities on behalf of virtual researchers. Please consult the Home Page of the MHA for a list of these services and of fees charged.
Acknowledging the site
“More than a List of Crew” could not have been assembled without public funding. Acknowledging use of the information made available to you on this site is both a professional courtesy and a contribution to encouraging continued support for public educational projects.