American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

THE RED RECORD (1895). At the close of the nineteenth century, the National Seamen’s Union of America (NSUA) issued a harrowing, twenty- two-page pamphlet called The Red Record, outlining sixty-four cases of shipboard brutality and murder. The goal was to alert the general public and lawmakers to the physical abuse of working seamen by ships’ officers. Though rarely mentioned specifically, the pamphlet was widely read by sailors and maritime authors and provides historical context for a number of contemporary literary works, such as Herman Melville’s* Billy Budd, Sailor* (begun late 1880s; pub. 1924) and Jack London’s* The Mutiny of the Elsinore (1914), which examine on-ship violence between ranks.

Prior to publication of The Red Record, the NSUA had made several substantiated claims regarding abuse of seamen by officers. Though the U.S. Revised Statute 4611 had specifically abolished “flogging” aboard vessels of commerce in 1850, the NSUA charged that ship’s officers got around such tight language by substituting crueler methods of punishment, such as the withholding of food, beatings with handspikes and lashes, physical torture, and murder. Without prohibitory federal legislation, they claimed, case- specific legal opinion had given ship’s officers unchecked disciplinary latitude. As a result of these claims, a study was undertaken by the U.S. Treasury Department, and a bill was introduced in 1895 in the House of Representatives that forbade masters, mates, or other officers from abusing or unnecessarily endangering seamen.

The Red Record outlined instances of mistreatment and identified certain officers as notorious and habitual abusers, indicating that the courts were not disposed to treat the complaints of working seamen seriously. Citing the Eighth Amendment that bars cruel and unusual punishment as its legal justification, the NSUA, over the signature of General Secretary T. J. Elder- kin, originally published The Red Record as a supplement to its house organ, The Coast Seamen’s Journal, in order to make its complaints a matter of public record.

A thoroughgoing, contemporary account is Stephen Schwartz’s Brotherhood of the Sea: A History of the Sailors’ Union of the Pacific 1885-1985 (1986).

Eric G. Waggoner