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Sea transport and the cultures of colonialism, c.1870–1914
Author: Frances Steel

The age of steam was the age of Britain's global maritime dominance, the age of enormous ocean liners and human mastery over the seas. This book charts the diverse and often conflicting interests, itineraries and experiences of commercial and political elites, common seamen and stewardesses, and Islander dock workers and passengers. It tracks the beginnings of routine steamship operations in the 1870s and the consolidation of regional trading relations in the Pacific, through to the years immediately preceding the outbreak of the First World War. Charting the rise of the Union Steam Ship Company of New Zealand (USSCo.) and its extension into the island and transpacific trades, the book examines the ways political leaders in New Zealand and Australia recruited maritime transport operations to support regional agendas. Accounts for continuity and change in crew culture heralded by the transition from sail to steam and the rise of managerial capitalism in the late nineteenth century come next. The imperial maritime labour market was racially diverse. The book also examines the presence of stewardesses and passengers, working and living at the 'coal face' of a new world of transport and trade, and Suva's early years as the Fijian capital. It explores how the savages on the shoreline have in fact become peaceable, non- threatening wharf labourers through the transformative reach of imperial transport, communication and trading networks. Under the terms of the Merchant Shipping Act 1823 (the Lascar Act), Indian sailors were not freely entitled to serve on merchant vessels trading internationally.

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Frances Steel

The final decades of the nineteenth century marked a revolution in deep-ocean transport. Steam had been in use in shipping early in the century. With particular reference to the British settler societies in the western Pacific, histories of transport and empire have emphasised the vertical lines of connection with the imperial metropole. The integrated approach promises much for histories of maritime transport and empire. The most prominent voices are those of well-connected, middle-class European men bent on securing the profitability of an expanding shipping empire. There are a number of comprehensive business histories of the main regional shipping companies, including the Union Steam Ship Company of New Zealand (USSCo.), the Sydney-based Burns Philp and Company and the Matson Line of San Francisco. Steamer days were concentrated periods of activity in ports, giving the embodied, material expression to transcolonial interdependencies.

in Oceania under steam
Routes, rivalries and regionalism in the Pacific
Frances Steel

In 1895, New Zealand settler Edward Reeves boarded a Union Steam Ship Company of New Zealand (USSCo.) steamer for a month-long excursion around islands in the western Pacific. In addition to the more circumscribed trade routes, the USSCo. was a key player in the long-distance mail routes. The USSCo. recognised that participation in the mail lines furthered a number of interests over and above improved regional and global communications. Trade and tourism both stood to benefit from the addition of regular connections across the Pacific to North America. The land bridge across North America with its two trans-shipment ports meant that the transpacific routes were not competitive in the transport of migrants and general freight. As steamer operations exercised regional port rivalries for political and economic influence, there were also concurrent tensions about the relationship between colonial maritime developments and overarching imperial concerns.

in Oceania under steam
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Cultures of maritime technology
Frances Steel

The growing fleet of Union Steam Ship Company of New Zealand (USSCo.) ships became iconic expressions of New Zealand's maturing identity as a modern maritime power in the South Pacific. Company officials were concerned with authenticity and accuracy. This demonstrated a certain respect for Maori culture and heritage, linking an idealised and romanticised indigenous past to a technologically progressive future. Christening ships remains an important maritime tradition, a ritual that bestows a sense of individuality to each vessel. Ships were sometimes given Australian Aboriginal names, while a new series of vessels built especially for the tropical trades were named after islands in the Pacific. The decorative features of Maoriland included an enthusiasm for indigenous nomenclature and material culture. When New Zealand commissioned a battle-cruiser in 1910, the Zealandia was coined to rename a ship called New Zealand and release that name for the new vessel.

in Oceania under steam
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Maritime men in an iron world
Frances Steel

The maritime historian Alston Kennerley records a working-class hierarchy, for it appears that firemen were recruited from the poorest districts in Britain. The historian James Belich reflects that the 'crew culture' was more about 'betweenness' than any overriding attachment to place. The specification booklet for the Navua, a steamer built for the island trades in 1904, details the spatial dimension of crew hierarchy and division. Three departments staffed steamships: officers and seamen on deck; engineers, firemen, coal-trimmers and greasers in the engine-room or stokehold; stewards, stewardesses and cooks in the providore or catering department. The ship's iron world was mirrored by the 'iron world' ashore. Evangelical and temperance reformers demonstrated a particular interest in the welfare of seafarers when ashore. New Zealand's first domestic Shipping and Seamen's Act 1877 defined the legal responsibilities of employers and employees and outlined penalties for breaches.

in Oceania under steam
Debating the ‘lascar question’
Frances Steel

Maritime labour concerns were enmeshed in broader debates about colonial autonomy over maritime boundaries and immigration policies. The 'lascar question', as it came to be known, preoccupied maritime officials and workers from the mid-nineteenth century as Britain relaxed legislation providing for the preferential recruitment of British sailors on board British ships. In the imperial mercantile marine, by contrast, Indian and other 'coloured' colonial labourers were routinely employed from the late nineteenth century. Until the repeal of the British Navigation Acts in 1849, the imperial mercantile marine was effectively closed to foreign ships and foreign seafarers. In putting imperial and Australasian maritime trade in the same frame, late nineteenth-century metropolitan debates were replayed in intraimperial forums in the early twentieth century. Racial ideology supporting beliefs that tropical plantations and steamer stokeholds were not suitable places for white labour had to shift to accommodate fully White Australia.

in Oceania under steam
Confining women at sea
Frances Steel

Women were initially employed in the mid-nineteenth century to act as shipboard representatives for female emigrants, to aid them with seasickness and other intimate concerns. In the Union Steam Ship Company of New Zealand (USSCo.) there were limited opportunities for women to work at sea attending to female passengers. The USSCo. complex stitched communities together across shipboard and shore. On large passenger liners the providore department was usually the largest afloat, staffed by a team of stewards, stewardesses, cooks and other kitchen staff. The stewardesses of the Wairarapa could be honoured in photographs and monuments because they followed the predetermined script of appropriate femininity on board. In her work on American whaling men, Margaret Creighton has examined the ship as an institution of masculine indoctrination. The feminisation of ships has a long history in the West, first referenced in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1375.

in Oceania under steam
Frances Steel

The island trades were a separate category, sitting apart from the New Zealand coastal and trans-Tasman trades. Temperate New Zealand stood at the edge of unruly tropical space. The development of a Pacific world shaped by maritime transport operations clearly increased anxieties about family life. Navigational challenges in the Pacific were a source of significant stress to Union Steam Ship Company of New Zealand (USSCo.) captains. Letters were awkward instruments in building and maintaining company operations across regional ports. The mobile histories of European workers at sea and ashore reveal some of the attendant preoccupations and problems the USSCo. faced in moving men and conducting shipping operations at a tropical distance from New Zealand. The competency of white captains routinely rested on indigenous pilots who guided steamers through reef passages safely.

in Oceania under steam
Wharf labourers and the colonial port
Frances Steel

By the early years of the twentieth century, Suva was not simply the European capital, but also a growing multiracial and multicultural metropole in the western Pacific. Suva's 'mobile men' were situated differently within a racialised hierarchy constructed in the context of colonial labour relations. By 1913 Suva was only able to accommodate one steamer at a time and the Union Steam Ship Company of New Zealand (USSCo.) contemplated landing cargo in the street. The various European USSCo. branch staff and other white residents offered only one series of perspectives on the nature of business and social relationships in the colonial port. The concerns about the regulation of labour, race and space were evidenced in other colonial ports. The savages on the shoreline have become peaceable, non-threatening wharf labourers through the transformative reach of imperial transport, communication and trading networks.

in Oceania under steam
Frances Steel

Scholars have discussed the 'rewiring' of pre-colonial indigenous circuitries and the 'major re-orientation of linkages' that occurred with the advent of colonial rule and modern maritime transport systems in the Pacific. Maritime transport infrastructure was overlaid with restrictive, racialised ideas about space, labour and national belonging. Colonial exhibitions in the Australasian colonies presented indigenous men with new mobility opportunities. The Decrease Report maintained that solevu mobilities appeared to be on the increase with the introduction of European-style craft. Restrictions on the engagement of Fijian crew for vessels registered in Fiji and trading solely within the island group, such as the Union Steam Ship Company of New Zealand's (USSCo.) inter-island steamer, were of less concern. The activities of Fijian sailors were subject to a host of new regulations. In 1886 the Marine Board produced the 'Native Seamen's Book of Instructions'.

in Oceania under steam