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‘Ol’ Man River’ and the pain of being black in America

‘Ol’ Man River’ and the pain of being black in America

No song probably depicts the hardships and suffering of African-Americans as poignantly and as beautifully as ‘Ol’ Man River’. Jerome Kerr composed the song for the 1927 musical Show Boat with Oscar Hammerstein II as lyricist. Almost a century on, the words and the melody still resound in a society that has yet to really come to grips with racism.

‘Ol’ Man River’ is sung from the point of view of a black stevedore (simply called “Joe”) on a showboat. The latter was a floating theatre “that tied up at towns along the waterways of the southern and midwestern United States, especially along the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, to bring culture and entertainment to the inhabitants of river frontiers.” ( Encyclopaedia Britannica). The opening lines draw a sharp contrast between the leisurely world of white folks and the toilsome existence of American blacks:

Darkies all work on de Mississippi
Darkies all work while de white folks play
Pullin’ dem boats from de dawn to sunset
Gittin’ no rest till de judgement day

The song uses some powerful imagery to drive home the point:

You an’ me, we sweat an’ strain
Body all achin’ an’ racked wid pain
Tote dat barge!
Lif’ dat bale!

As if hard labour wasn’t enough, the men who worked the boats on the Mississippi also lived in fear of their white employers:

Don’t look up
An’ don’t look down
You don’ dast make
De white boss frown

Those who enforced the law were not any more sympathetic to men of colour:

You git a little drunk
An’ you lands in jail.

Tired of it all, Joe the stevedore wishes at one point to get away from the Mississippi River and the “white man boss”. He longs to cross the Jordan River into the Promised Land as the Israleites did in the Bible. But there is no earthly salvation for Joe. He is chained to the life of a black labourer. Like his fellow blacks who plant potatoes (“taters”) and cotton, he will be forgotten. Meanwhile, the indifferent Mississippi River rolls on.

Standout version of the song

‘Ol’ Man River’ has been interpreted by countless singers, including Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby. One of the best versions, if not the best, is the one by Paul Robeson (1898 – 1976), an American bass baristone concert artist who seemed perfect for the song. The son of a former slave turned preacher, Robeson knew what is it like to be black. He was a lawyer and a civil rights activist who was persecuted for his political views (read more about the man here).

Listen to Robeson in this 1936 recording:

Paul Robeson in 1938

Song lyrics (Paul Robeson version, 1936)

NOTE: Robeson changed the word “niggers” in the original 1927 lyrics to “darkies”.

Darkies all work on de Mississippi
Darkies all work while de white folks play
Pullin’ dem boats from de dawn to sunset
Gittin’ no rest till de judgement day

Don’t look up
An’ don’t look down
You don’ dast make
De white boss frown
Bend your knees
An’ bow your head
An’ pull dat rope
Until you’ dead.

Let me go ‘way from the Mississippi
Let me go ‘way from de white man boss;
Show me dat stream called de river Jordan
Dat’s de ol’ stream dat I long to cross.

Ol’ man river
Dat ol’ man river
He mus’ know sumthin’
But don’t say nuthin’
He jes’ keeps rollin’
He keeps on rollin’ along.

He don’ plant taters
He don’t plant cotton
An’ dem dat plants ’em
Is soon forgotten
But ol’ man river
He jes keeps rollin’ along.

You an’ me, we sweat an’ strain
Body all achin’ an’ racked wid pain
Tote dat barge!
Lif’ dat bale!
You git a little drunk
An’ you lands in jail.

Ah gits weary
An’ sick of tryin’
Ah’m tired of livin’
An’ scared of dyin’
But ol’ man river
He jes’ keeps rolling’ along.

~ Barista Uno

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Thoughts on narcissism amongst maritime folks

Thoughts on narcissism amongst maritime folks

Narcissism seems to be getting out of hand even in the staid world of shipping. Just visit LinkedIn, the professional networking website. The place is brimming with what one might describe as corporate selfies. A lecture delivered, a commendation received, an article published — it’s all a great opportunity for martiime folks, both the prominent and the obscure, to post pictures and sometimes videos of themselves.

Does the rest of the world give a hoot? Most probably not, but the posters think they have accomplished something important that has to be trumpeted.

On Facebook, maritime charity workers have made it a habit to share photos of themselves posing with a ship’s crew. Sometimes it’s just themselves, smiling proudly on the waterfront  with their yellow-striped vests emblazoned with the name of their organisation. Many others have succumbed to the selfie mania — seafarers, shipping editors and reporters, maritime lawyers, maritime educators, and crewing executives. All want to talk about themselves. All seek to be the centre of attention.

It is all an innocuous ego trip, but the question arises: how can there be any meaningful engagement with narcissists?

Everyone has a bit of the narcissist in him or her. Narcissism is a universal human trait which seems necessary for the survival of the species. There are some, however, who behave in such a way as to have a narcissistic personality disorder. The world-famous Mayo Clinic in the U.S. provides the following definition of the term:

Narcissistic personality disorder — one of several types of personality disorders — is a mental condition in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for excessive attention and admiration, troubled relationships, and a lack of empathy for others. But behind this mask of extreme confidence lies a fragile self-esteem that’s vulnerable to the slightest criticism. [Click here to learn more about the disorder.]

Such extreme narcissism is usually found in the field of politics, but the maritime industry has its own share of it.

~ Barista Uno

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Tugboats at work in awesome old photographs

Tugboats at work in awesome old photographs

Tugboats at work in awesome old photographs

Men who are obsessed with manliness can learn a lesson from tugboats. These mean little machines are capable of pulling ships and barges that are many times their size. They can navigate through narrow canals and shallow waters. Their power and adroitness more than make up for their relative lack of bulk. The best tugboat, however, is a wimp on the water without an experienced skipper at the helm. It all boils down to how one uses the power available.

Watuppa, from waterfront, Brooklyn, Manhattan (1936)
Berenice Abbott (1898-1991), photographer
Courtesy of The New York Library Digital Collections

American photographer Berenice Abbott is best known for documenting New York City’s people and landscape in the second half of the 1930s. Her photo of the tugboat Watuppa with a misty skyline in the background is a gem from the past. The tug is no more — records show that it hit a rock and sank in the Cape Cod Canal near Bournedale, Massachusetts, on 29 January 1915. However, tugboats remain pretty much a fixture in New York Harbor.

Rhine with barges and tugs seen from the Friedrich-Eber-Brücke (1955)
Willem van de Poll (1895 – 1970), photogrpher
Courtesy of Nationaal Archief (National Archives of the Netherlands)

Shipping traffic on the historic Rhine River has always been busy. This breathtaking photo taken from the Friedrich-Ebert-Brücke bridge in the city of Duisburg, Germany, shows how a small tug can manage to tow a mammoth barge.

Tugboats towing the Southampton Dock on the River Tyne (c. 1924)
Unidentified photographer
Courtesy of Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums

Not surprisingly, it took more than one tug to tow this floating dock on the River Tyne, North East England. A website dedicated to the defunct 1930s magazine, Shipping Wonders of the World, says the 1922-built Southampton Dock had a lifting capacity of 60,000 tonnes. It measured 960 feet long and 170 feet wide (292.6 metres x 51.8 metres). The total floor area was about 3.5 acres (approx. 1.4 hectares).

The freighter Arthur Orr with the tugboat Rita McDonald passing State Street bridge, Chicago, Illinois (1900)
Detroit Publishing Co., publisher
Courtesy of the Libray of Congress, USA

Escorting a large vessel up or down a narrow river is tricky business. The tugboat has to have sufficient bollard pull and a skilled pilot.

Titanic passing through the Belfast Lough en route to the Irish Sea for her trials (1912)
Robert John Welch (1859-1936), photographer
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Tugboats assisted the RMS Titanic before the start of her sea trials on 2 April 1912. The Titanic has been immortalised in paintings, books and films. Who remembers the names of the tugs that lent her a helping hand?

LA FRANCE with tug boat in harbour (c. 1910 – c. 1915)
Bain News Service, publisher
Courtesy of the Library of Congress, USA

People may look at cruise ships as imposing and even elegant. But these prima donnas of the sea can be rather clumsy, and they usually require tug assistance when docking or undocking.

The tug “Danmark” tows D / S “Wuri” (1942)
Fridolin Zint (1907-1985), photographer
Courtesy of the Municipal Archives of Trondheim
Under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) licence

Tugboats are no pushovers (no pun intended). Their grit and tenacity come to the fore in adverse weather conditions.

Skipper Anton Rieb and pilot Klöckner at the helm in the wheelhouse of the Damco 9 (1955)
Willem van de Poll (1895 – 1970), photographer
Courtesy of Nationaal Archief (National Archives of the Netherlands)

The men and women who pilot tugboats are rarely in the limelight. The maritime press hardly pays attention to them. Yet, what would shipping be without these hardy spirits?

Tugboat Edna G, Agate Bay, Two Harbors, Lake County, Minnesota (before 1968)
Photographer unknown
Courtesy of the Library of Congress
NOTE: This photo may be under copyright. It is published by Marine Cafe Blog under the ‘Fair Use’ principle

Hardworking as they are, there is a time for tugboats to call it quits. According to the Library of Congress, the tugboat Edna G went into retirement in 1981 after transporting ore carriers to the Two Harbors dock from 1896 until that year. It is believed that she was the last steam-powered, coal-burning tug to operate under licence on the Great Lakes.

~ Barista Uno

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Manliness and machismo: Great quotes for seafarers

Manliness and machismo: Great quotes for seafarers

To be brutally frank, most men have a constant need to validate themselves. They do so in a myriad of ways. Some may go into bodybuilding; engage in numerous casual sex affairs; or speak and act arrogantly. Others express their manliness in more subtle ways —  driving around town in an expensive SUV; displaying their awards and trophies in their offices for visitors to admire; or being overly concerned with their looks.

It’s a kind of psychological weakness from which many a seafarer is not exempt. Indeed, the obsession with manliness is common in the still-male-dominated world of shipping. The following are some memorable quotes about this male phenomenon.

Hey! Hey! Hey, hey, hey!
Macho, macho man (macho man)
I’ve got to be, a macho man
Macho, macho man
I’ve got to be a macho! Ow….

— from ‘Macho Man’, song by the American disco group Village People (1978)

Men are about hierarchy. They walk into a room, figure out who the top dog is, and then see where they stand in relation to everyone else. Women are about community. They walk into a room and look to see who they know, who they can bring together.

— Lynda Carter, ‘Lynda Carter: What I’ve Learned’ by Cal Fussman, Esquire, 29 January 2007

Men weren’t really the enemy — they were fellow victims suffering from an outmoded masculine mystique that made them feel unnecessarily inadequate when there were no bears to kill.

— Betty Friedan, quoted in the Christian Science Monitor, April 1974

“Manliness and manfulness” are synonymous, but they embrace more than we ordinarily mean by the word “courage”; for instance, tenderness, and thoughtfulness for others. They include that courage which lies at the root of all manliness, but is, in fact, only the lowest and rudest form. Indeed, we must admist that it is not exclusively a human quality at all, but one which we share with other animals, and which some of them–for instance, the bulldog and weasel–exhibit with a certainty and a thoroughness which is very rare amongst mankind.

— Thomas Hughes, The Manliness of Christ (1887)

Portrait of Jack Rolling, c. 1886
Henry Scott Tuke (British, 1858–1929)
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In proportion as man gets back the spirit of manliness, which is self-sacrifice, affection, loyalty to an idea beyond himself, a God above himself, so far will he rise above circumstances, and wield them at his will.

— Charles Kingsley, as quoted in Dictionary of Burning Words of Brilliant Writers by Josiah H. Gilbert (1895)

The foundation of a man is his intellect, his honor is in his religion, and his manhood is in his character.

— The Caliph Umar ibn al-Khattab, as quoted in Adab al-Dunya? wal-Di?n 17

Masculinity is not something given to you, but something you gain. And you gain it by winning small battles with honor.

— Norman Mailer, Cannibals and Christians (1966)

The men I’ve met who were the best allies of feminism are those who see their stake in it; who see that they themselves are being limited by a culture that deprives men of human qualities deemed feminine, which are actually just the qualities necessary to raise kids—empathy and attention to detail and patience. Men have those qualities too but they’re not encouraged to develop them. And so they miss out on raising their kids, and they actually shorten their own lives. When men realize that feminism is a universal good that affects them in very intimate ways then I think they really become allies and leaders.

— Gloria Steinem, ‘The Humanist Interview with Gloria Steinem’ by Jennifer Bardi, 14 August 2002

Storm at Sea, undated
J. M. W. Turner (British, 1775–1851)
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The sea — this truth must be confessed — has no generosity. No display of manly qualities — courage, hardihood, endurance, faithfulness — has ever been known to touch its irresponsible consciousness of power.

— Joseph Conrad, The Mirror of the Sea (1906)

Any man’s measure is determined by what he will do when he is faced with his own deep need. Not how high he may reach but how low he may kneel.

— J. Otis Yoder, When You Pray

Do what thy manhood bids thee do, from
       none but self expect applause;
He noblest lives and noblest dies who makes
       and keeps his self-made laws.

— Richard Francis Burton, The Kasidah of Haji Abdu El-Yezdi (1911)

~ Barista Uno

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Filipino seafarer remittances: 3 ways to stop the stealing

Filipino seafarer remittances: 3 ways to stop the stealing

The short-changing of Filipino mariners on their remttances seems to be an incurable disease. Dishonest manning agents have been at it for decades. They convert the dollars to pesos at less than the prevailing foreign exchange rate. This means less money in monthly allotments for the families of seafarers. The total annual take for those with sticky fingers may well run to millions of dollars. The following are three ways to put a stop to the stealing, but each one, unfortunately, is not without problems.

1. For the Philippine authorities — Amend the rules on seafarer remittances

The standard employment contract for Flipino seafarers requires the seafarer to send home once every month through any authorised Philippine bank at least 80 percent of his or her monthly basic salary. It states: “The allotments shall be paid to the designated allottee in Philippine currency at the rate of exchange indicated in the credit advice of the local authorized Philippine bank.” Such provisions violate the letter and spirit of ILO Maritime Labour Convention, 2006., which gives seafarers more than one option in sending home their dollars. They also facilitate cheating by dishonest manning agents. (read ‘Seafarer remittances: Why the stealing won’t stop’)

THE PROBLEM: The existing rules on seafarer remittances were drawn up in consultation with the local manning sector. Given how much money unscrupulous manning agents are stealing under the present set-up, changing the rules would meet with strong resistance.

2. For the maritime unions — Ensure that the remittances are properly handled by manning agencies

The unions are duty-bound to protect the interests of seafarers in general and the interests of their members in particular. For example, they can require the manning agent to submit on a quarterly or semi-annual basis photocopies of actual pay slips issued to seafarers’ families. Why continue extending the benefits of a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) to a crewing company that steals from seafarers?

THE PROBLEM: How many unions would be willing to spend a little time and effort to monitor how a manning agency is handling seafarers’ remittances? Getting seafarers covered by a CBA seems to be the overriding objective.

3. For seafarers themselves — Report discreetly any forex cheating by a manning agency to its foreign principal.

This could be the most effective way of dealing with the problem. No reputable shipower will do business with a dishonest manning agent. Many years ago, a major Norwegian shipping group promptly dumped its crewing arm in Manila after learning that it was engaged in forex hanky-panky.

THE PROBLEM: Filipino seafarers in general tend to be compliant. They don’t want to be involved in controversy. They don’t want to lose their jobs. They are even cautious in posting anything on social media that might offend the manning agencies. How many will dare report to a foreign principal the mishandling of their remittances no matter how blatant?

This free guide is a token of appreciation from Marine Café Blog for the men and women who work at sea.

CLICK HERE to download.

 

~ Barista Uno

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