by Johnathan Thayer, Archivist, Seamen’s Church Institute
I recently attended “The Health and Welfare of Seafarers: Past, Present, and Prospects” conference at the University of Hull’s Maritime Historical Studies Centre. The conference brought together historians and seafarers’ rights practitioners in an intimate setting to share research related to the past, present and future of seafarers. The conference ended with a closing roundtable discussion in which an international group of attendees with diverse professional backgrounds discussed intersections across disciplines and sought to find common ground on issues related to the health and welfare of seafarers.
The opportunity to hear historians present on their research related to the social history of seafarers, port cities and maritime ministry organizations was an inspiring experience, and one that I was grateful to be present for in the UK, given the wealth of maritime historical research centers present on British university campuses. From Alston Kennerley’s (University of Plymouth) tour de force keynote lecture on the history of seafarers’ welfare in the UK, to Graeme Milne’s (University of Liverpool) review of the historical debates over the role of the crimp in waterfront societies, to Jo Stanley’s (University of Lancaster) gendered look at postcards depicting bouts of seasickness, the conference truly represented an eclectic yet cohesive range of perspectives and ideas.
Historical context is especially significant to seafarers’ rights advocacy because of the reliance on precedent in establishing—and ultimately reforming—regulatory legislation regarding seafarers. My paper, “Shore Leave Denial in Historical Context: A Timeline of Restricted Mobility and Unfree Labor at Sea and in U.S. Ports” attempts to trace back historical precedent leading up to current legislation complicating the process of seafarers obtaining shore leave in US ports. I presented alongside a group of PhD students from the Seafarers International Research Center at Cardiff University who, similar to SCI’s Center for Seafarers’ Rights in America, tackle issues related to seafarers’ welfare.
The successful conference brought together scholars across seemingly disparate geographic and disciplinary boundaries, strengthening bonds between international researchers on both sides of the Atlantic for meaningful work on behalf of seafarers.