by Johnathan Thayer, Archivist
This article is excerpted from research conducted as part of the PhD program in history at the Graduate Center, CUNY.
On July 7, 1895, the merchant barque Arago arrived in port at San Francisco with four of her crew in irons. As the Arago's remaining crew tied up alongside the pier they were met by local authorities who arrested seafarers John Bradley, Philip Helzen, Morris Hansen and Robert Robertson. The men had signed shipping articles for a voyage scheduled to take them along the Pacific Coast of the United States down to Valparaiso, Chile and back. However, once they reached port in Astoria, OR, the seafarers jumped ship and deserted. Holding the men in violation of their shipping articles, Captain Perry hastily issued warrants and saw that they were arrested and held in a local jail for 16 days before being forcibly returned to the ship and ordered back to work. Once at sea, the men refused orders and were placed back in shackles until the ship reached San Francisco.
The case of the Arago’s crew would prove to be a landmark in the legal history of contract labor in the United States. The exceptional status of the American merchant marine under US law—imposed upon seafarers since the earliest years of the Republic—pushed the Arago seafarers to the margins of the US Constitution. The resolution of their case, and the awakening of sentiment that it induced within the sphere of public opinion, gave belated shape to the parameters of contract labor in the wake of the Thirteenth Amendment, and set fundamental precedent as the nation entered the twentieth century.
With help from the Sailors’ Union of the Pacific, the imprisoned seafarers of the Arago filed a suit out of writ of habeas corpus, but the local district court quickly rebuffed them. The case then carried on to the heights of the US Supreme Court, where it was argued as Robertson v. Baldwin and decided in January 1897. Ultimately, the majority opinion of the Supreme Court also ruled against the Arago seafarers, rejecting the claim that their arrest constituted a violation of the clause of the Thirteenth Amendment that abolished involuntary servitude, arguing instead that the merchant marine constituted a service that has “from time immemorial been treated as exceptional,” and that therefore “shall not be regarded as within [the Thirteenth Amendment’s] purview.”
Materially, the Arago case centered on a deceptively simple legal question: do the masters of ships have the right to enforce shipping articles by use of penal sanctions? Put another way: can a seafarer be arrested for breaking his contract? Despite such a plainly stated premise, by the time the Supreme Court finally issued an opinion, it was clear that the case had implications far beyond the immediate fate of the four seafarers who deserted the Arago in Oregon back in 1895.
The fate of the Arago seafarers elicited outrage across the nation, and instigated a period of reform that would ultimately usher in the Seamen’s Act of 1915, commonly referred to as the Magna Carta of seafarers’ rights. Looking back on the Arago decision in his memoirs, the Rev. Archibald R. Mansfield, SCI’s first Superintendent and a pioneer in the seafarers’ rights movement, recalled his bafflement upon hearing the decision of the Supreme Court:
[The] judicial logic made it clear to the public that there existed a class of men who had to work no matter how they were treated, that their contract carried no implication of decent treatment, but that arbitrary bad treatment was merely a sort of occupational risk which their contract obliged them to assume.
Maritime reformers played an essential role in the interpretation of the Arago decision, and the mobilization of moral capital and legislative negotiation required tempering the scope of its impact. On December 30, 1896, the Joint Conference for the Protection of Seamen, a consortium of seafarers’ missions and maritime law practitioners, was founded under the leadership of SCI administrators J. Augustus Johnson and Mansfield. The Joint Conference met for the first time just three days after the Court delivered their decision regarding the Arago seafarers, responding immediately by crafting an approach to legislative reform that addressed specific legal issues that lay at the heart of merchant seafarers’ marginal status under US law.
Riding the momentum of a labor movement energized by the Arago seafarers’ plight and a sympathetic national press, the reform contingent enlisted the support of allies in Congress to see passage of the White Act in 1898. While the White Act protected merchant seafarers from imprisonment if they deserted within a US port, they were still subject to such punishment in foreign ports until the Seamen’s Act of 1915, which brought the merchant marine into a system of labor that was gradually modernizing as it emerged out of the spirit of reform that defined the Progressive Era.