Evolution Of The Merchant Seaman Essay

Evolution Of The Merchant Seaman Essay

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In his text, Rediker follows the evolution of the merchant seaman, from a wage laborer looking for work, to an employee of a brutal and often times unfair labor system, to a pirate, striking out against the establishment that hired him, in an effort to gain fair compensation for work performed. In the seafaring world of the 17th and 18th centuries, many changes were taking place in the economy. The form of labor changed from a share system to a wage system. Trade shifted from luxury goods to bulk goods, such as tobacco and sugar. (Rediker 112) And the scope and authority of the trading community widened and organized itself into a well oiled profit based international business. In all of these changes, the merchant seaman was a cog, caught in the unfortunate position of being the low man on the totem pole. And even though some of these laborers struck back at the system that denied them their dignity, their freedom, and many times their lives, in the end, they were unable to forge a lasting impact on the industry they helped build.
During the era of Rediker’s research, a concentrated look at the shipping economy and merchant seaman class between 1700-1750, the form of labor had changed from a share based system where each seamen was entitled to a share of the profits from the expedition, to a wage labor system where each seaman was paid for his work aboard the merchant ships. (Rediker 112) While there were several ways for a seaman to obtain pay, the most common form of payment was on a monthly basis. (Rediker 118-19) The amount of pay varied according to a sailor’s occupation. Additionally, they were paid more during wartime than during peacetime. (Rediker 121-23) It was during peacetime that the sailors had the most d...


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...any real ability to capitalize on capitalism, creating a chasm with the “gentle” merchant on the prosperous side, and the “simple” seaman on the side of poverty. (Rediker 201) Additionally, this boon helped create a political climate that further accentuated this divide. It allowed for legislation be enacted in the form of such laws as The Act for the Better Regulation and Government of the Merchants Service, an act which curtailed a seaman’s wage and his ability to renegotiate his pay, further strengthening the position of the merchant owners and lining their pockets with additional money. (Rediker 137-38)
When all is tallied, it becomes clear that seamen had little recourse when attempting to right what they perceived as wrongs. Even their attempts at rebellion failed in the end because the mighty “hand” of commerce was just too great an obstacle to overcome.

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