Playing in the Archives

I spent much of Friday in the archives, one of my favourite places to hang out. And really, who wouldn’t want to hang out at the archives: it’s quiet, there’s lots of old, yellowed paper, and your “interviewees” are unfailingly polite and don’t talk back. Add onto that interested and helpful staff members and giddy fellow archive dwellers, and it’s pretty much an ideal place to be.

And so, early on Friday morning, after dropping off kid #2 at school and picking up a hold at the library, I wandered over to the archival collection that is closest to my office: the Maritime History Archive. The MHA is buried in the bottom floor of the Henrietta Harvey Building and finding it involves walking into a veritable warren of offices and hallways. The basement location worried me at first, but it needn’t have. It’s perhaps more accurately a ground floor, for the room boasts large windows and lots of natural light.

I’d prepared online for my visit, so I knew exactly what I wanted to explore: some of the records of C.W. Kellock & Co., the large ship-brokering company that also owned the Kate Kellock, and the Kate Kellock’s crew agreements and log books (as an aside: the MHA has kilometers of this stuff – and I’m not joking – read this, from the MHA’s own website: “The Maritime History Archive holds approximately 75 percent of the surviving crew lists … and official log books of British registered vessels for the periods 1857-1942 … and 1951-1976”)

This is material that I’m not nearly as used to working with; my previous research has focused much more on what might be termed ‘intimate’ correspondence (although I’m not fully happy with that term, either). Basically, I’ve spent my days reading letters between individuals. I haven’t worked with sales contracts or to any large extent, with crew agreements and ships’ logs. And so the first few hours were really about acquainting myself with a new terrain, new stories, new language, new ideas. It was also about finding my researcher self in this space, and figuring out which stories I was reading resonated, and why, and also, which stories didn’t, and why not.

You’d think that after twenty-plus years of working in archives, things would come naturally by now, but this isn’t the case. You and your materials need to get to know one another, to tame one another, as the fox says in St. Exupéry’s Le petit prince. It’s a process of learning languages (not as simple as French or English, but rather, listening for the idiosyncrasies in language, how stories are told, what words are used, and what words are not present at all), listening to voices, figuring out where to find the stories that matter most. There are false starts, wrong turns. You order the wrong materials, ask the wrong questions, make incorrect assumptions. But slowly, you find your way in.

In any case, here are a few of the interesting things I learned on Friday. Right now they don’t have a lot of meaning; they’re just tidbits, teasers. And maybe they’ll never amount to anything. But they were important enough to hang onto and we’ll see where they go from here.

First: I’m not a fan of ship brokerage records. This one should have been obvious from the outset, but I wasn’t sure what I would find in the brokerage records, and it seemed important enough to figure out how C.W. Kellock & Co. operated. What I did learn was this: the brokerage records also trace ship acquisitions in North America: I saw agreements for ships in Newfoundland, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and even Quebec. I also saw agreements for transatlantic purchases. And I learned that buyers were , at least in the 1850s, classified according to occupation and class: mariner, shipbuilder, farmer, merchant, banker, esequire and gentleman. All of this gave me a bit of insight into nineteenth-century ship sales.

But it also quickly became clear that if I ever had any pretensions to business history, those pretensions were dashed. Fortunately I’ve never had such pretensions. Equally fortunately, I’ve discovered that I’m a huge fan of Crew Agreements and Ships’ Logs.

Second – Grog: Grog meant the same in nineteenth century seafaring parlance as it does to contemporary Australians and New Zealanders. My Aussie and Kiwi friends all refer to alcoholic drinks as grog. They’re the only ones I know who use this term and I was, therefore, taken by surprise when I saw the word written with a flourish on a Crew Agreement. “No grog allowed.”

The Oxford English Dictionary Online came to the rescue. Grog, it confirmed, is “a drink consisting of spirits (originally rum) and water” They further observe that “seven-water grog” (a term that did not appear in the records, in case you were wondering) was “a contemptuous name among sailors for very weak grog.” Interesting to me in OED Online entries are the examples they give to illustrate the words. Consider this: a 1770 edition of the Gentleman’s Magazine lists “groggy” as a word for having imbibed too much alcohol, and attributes this to the West Indies.

You learn something new every day.

Given that my preliminary perusal of the Kate Kellock’s 1872-3 Ship’s Log includes reports of one William Petty who was regularly intoxicated and unable to work, as well as of other seamen who left the ship without permission to sample the tastes and flavours of New Orleans, perhaps this “dry” policy was warranted. [as an aside, I have not entirely forgiven the OED’s staff for their remarkably tone deaf initial response to reader reports about the sexism that permeates several of their entries, but that is a story for another day]

Third, seamen came from all over. This shouldn’t have been a surprise; after all, my perusal of Dutch eighteenth-century slaving ship logs revealed that ship personnel came from across Europe (you can virtually follow one Dutch slave ship on its journey here). And so I wasn’t too terribly surprised to find a Danish ship master and Norwegian, German, and Finnish crew members on the 1875-6 voyage.

What did surprise me, however, was the diversity of crew members on board the Kate Kellock’s 1872-3 voyage. This was, in some respects, a strange trip: one crew member was charged, convicted, and then jailed in Calcutta for “causing hurt” to a fellow seaman while three others – including the cook – died of cholera-like symptoms. Two further crew members were left behind in Calcutta due to illness (it’s unclear if these were the other two who died). While the ship may have been able to function with a few less crew members, the desertion of sixteen crew members sometime during their later stop in New Orleans would have been a much bigger blow.

And so the master, G.H.A. Bevan, had to bring more crew members aboard. And what a crew this ship then boasted: in addition to English seamen, there were seamen from Antigua, Germany, Tobago, Bermuda, Jersey, France, The Netherlands, Scotland, Trinidad, St. Vincent, Barbados, Mauritius, Dominica, Norway, Ireland and three different Canadian provinces: Quebec, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick. For me, the strangest entry is that of a young man from landlocked Ohio. Where would he have picked up the seafaring skills necessary to take a position on board the Kate Kellock?

Fourth: The Kate Kellock ventured far and wide. While its official destination, in both Agreements that I examined, was Calcutta, the contract allowed for a much broader interpretation. Consider this, from the opening of the 1875-6 Agreement and Account of Crew: “Liverpool to Calcutta + any ports + places in the Indian, Pacific + Atlantic Oceans, China + Eastern Seas, thence to a port for orders + the continent of Europe if required, + back to a final port of discharge in the United Kingdom. Term not to exceed three years.” That covers most of the globe, basically. What might such a journey have been like, especially for the youngest seafarers, for whom this might have been their first voyage?

Fifth: There were tensions between the seamen and the emigrating labourers. Again, this is not new; I already read about this in secondary sources, but it’s interesting to read the accounts of trouble from the perspective of the ship’s master.

What’s more interesting even than this is getting glimpses into life aboard the ships: I learned, for example, that one man complained – in English – that a crew member had struck his wife. The violence I expected (sadly). The language I didn’t. After all, many emigrants came from remote regions distant from Calcutta and many had backgrounds as agricultural workers in their home districts; given this, I wouldn’t necessarily have expected them to speak English. But this particular man did, and he enlisted the support of the ship’s doctor in his cause.

And further, this particular incident led to the master cautioning his crew “against meddling in any way with the Emigrants, more especially handling them; as this, although possibly in some instances, meant in kindness may be misconstrued, and received as unkindness, made a subject of complaint, and renders [seamen] liable to punishment.” Am I wrong to read a warning in this text? He’s worded it carefully, but he has also made it clear that “meddling” of any sort is wrong. Small comfort, however, to those who found themselves assaulted or otherwise “meddled with” by the ship’s crew. The other tidbit to emerge from this particular incident: the labourers spent a reasonable amount of time on deck during the journeys and were not confined below decks.

Sixth: The ship itself was a death trap of pestilence. Deaths, particularly among the emigrants, occurred during every journey. But the mortality rate was particularly high during the 1872-3 journey from Calcutta to Demerara, so high, in fact, that it occasioned an investigation. Of the 411 passengers on board, 47 died on the journey, of whom 33 were children under the age of ten. Again, this is not new, but it is certainly made much more visceral when reading the archival materials.

The Ship’s Log and Agreement and Account of Crew detail these deaths, which began within a week of the vessel’s departure from Calcutta on 4 August 1872 and averaged about 1 per day over the first forty days of the journey. Almost all those who died suffered from cholera or cholera-like symptoms, including fevers and diarrhea. “[I]t seems very clear,” concluded a report into the high mortality rates on three vessels – including the Kate Kellock – transporting labourers to the West Indies, “that when a sailing vessel crowed with emigrants is sent off in the teeth of the monsoon, the infants and the children die in a horrible manner in the Bay of Bengal” (Colonial Emigration, 19th-20th Century: Proceedings, 1870-1873. Volume 5)

And finally, if it isn’t abundantly clear yet, while I am not a fan of ship brokerage records, I have discovered that I am a fan of ships’ logs and Crew Agreements. Fortunately, there are seven more housed here at the Maritime History Archive, and one more at the National Archives in the UK. There may even be one more beyond that. Together, they can give me a much better picture of life aboard a “coolie ship.”

Lots more things to uncover and to explore. And more visits to the archives. Of course.



“Agreement and Account of Crew,” Kate Kellock, 1876. J.C. Krogh, Master. Maritime History Archive. Memorial University.

“Agreement and Account of Crew,” Kate Kellock, 1873. G.H.A. Bevan, Master. Maritime History Archive. Memorial University.

“grog, n.”. OED Online. March 2016. Oxford University Press. (accessed March 12, 2016).

Kellock Papers, Maritime History Archive, Memorial University

“Official Log Book No. 1,” Kate Kellock, 1873. G.H.A. Bevan, Master. Maritime History Archive. Memorial University.

“Official Log Book No. 4,” Kate Kellock, 1873. G.H.A. Bevan, Master. Maritime History Archive. Memorial University

Sarup, Leela Gujahadur, ed.Colonial Emigration 19th-20th Century: Proceedings 1870-1873. Vol. 5. Kolkata: Aldrich International, 2010.


© Sonja Boon (sboon @,  2016



2 thoughts on “Playing in the Archives

  1. Good morning,
    I have just come across your story concerning the journey of the Kate Kellock 1872/73 whilst researching my Great Grandfather Joseph Dodd, born 1856/57 in Glasgow Scotland. This journey was his first trip after serving 3 years (1869-1872) on the training ship Indefatigable moored in the River Mersey off Liverpool. He terminated his apprenticeship with the owners of the ship – Sandbache Tinne – on his return to Liverpool in May 1873, and reading of the horrors of the journey it surprises me not. Joseph maintained a connection with the sea, alternating jobs on land with frequent periods of life at sea. He married in 1876, had 5 children including my Grandfather, George 1884 – 1966 and died in 1930.
    Your research is the only information I can find regarding his first time at sea and is much appreciated. Thank you.
    James Dodd
    Liverpool UK


    • Fascinating, James! Two of my own ancestors travelled from India with the kate Kellock in 1873. Those records are in the UK and I ordered them. If you’re interested in the Log Books and Crew Agreement for that voyage, the Maritime History Archive does offer copying services: . You might also find this site – More Than a List of Crew – interesting; it gives information about crew agreements and crew members and gives information about how to read a crew agreement, how to find ships, etc.


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