Like the coronavirus, language has a way of mutating. New words and phrases emerge over time even as old ones are pushed aside, if not scuttled. A good example of the latter is the term ‘seaman’.
What commodity could be more precious than time? A person can amass wealth if he is smart enough like Microsoft kingpin Bill Gates or Chinese billionaire Jack Ma of the Alibaba Group. But who can accumulate time? There is only so much of it allotted to every human being. Ironically, many fritter away their time posting selfies on social media, watching inane TV shows, or engaging in pointless political debate. I trust that the following quotes, together with some artworks, will serve as food for thought about the value and nature of time and about life itself.
I first learned about the food chain in grade school. What fascinated me then wasn’t so much the fact that the species at the top of the link fed on those below them. It was the idea of interconnectivity and interdependence in the natural world. Many years later, as a shipping and ports journalist, I would discover a more fascinating kind of food chain, one which continues to intrigue me to this day.
I used to cover Manila’s crewing sector as a long-longtime correspondent for British maritime publications. Since kissing ass was not in my vocabulary, I had a reputation for being a maverick who thought little of throwing brickbats at the bigwigs. But who cares about popularity? As a journalist, I did what I had to do and I did the best that I could. Over the years, I learned four important lessons about the local manning business and its underlying culture. They would eventually drive me to give up on this sector, to wit:
The Volga is no ordinary river. The principal waterway in Western Russia, it is the longest on the European continent. Encyclopedia Britannica describes it as “the historic cradle of the Russian state” whose “immense economic, cultural, and historic importance—along with the sheer size of the river and its basin—ranks it among the world’s great rivers.” Small wonder that it has inspired so many Russian artists.
“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye,” wrote Antoine de Saint Exupéry in his 1943 novel, The Little Prince (Le Petit Prince). Well, there are some things about seafarers’ rights that are quite visible to the eye but many fail to notice them or simpy refuse, for one reason or another, to acknowledge them. The following are plain truths about seafarers and how they are generally treated in the 21st century.
One need not be Russian to be moved by The Song of the Volga Boatmen (‘Eh, Ukhnem!’ to the Russians or ‘Yo, Heave Ho!’). This well-known traditional song was originally sung by burlaks, the men who pulled barges upstream in the old Russia. The melody is stern and gloomy, which somehow reinforces the Western stereotype of the Russian people as dour and cheerless. But the song also has a triumphant, martial air…
Seafarers are not asking for much. They certainly don’t expect to be treated like prima donnas. They just want a seaworthy vessel, good pay, decent food and accommodations at sea, and humane employers. Unfortunately, these needs are not always met. Seafarers from developing countries often get the short end of the stick — victims, not only of those who abuse them, but of a system that has virtually reduced them to mere commodities. Call it wishful thinking, but the following changes would help reverse the situation.
Some photographs do more than delight the eye. They make you pause and wonder. Something in the picture bids you to take a closer look. It could be the unusual subject matter or the way the photographer captured the scene. The following maritime shots from long ago have such an effect on the viewer. They demonstrate what the English author Joseph Addison wrote in his 1712 essay, ‘Pleasures of the Imagination’: “Everything that is new or uncommon raises a pleasure in the imagination, because it fills the soul with an agreeable surprise, gratifies its curiosity, and gives it an idea of which it was not before possessed.”
“What’s in a name?” asked Juliet in Shakespeare’s play, Romeo and Juliet. “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” The following synonyms for some maritime names and phrases may not smell sweet to the parties referred to. I hope, however, that readers of Marine Café Blog will find them funny, yet not detached from reality.
Why are seafarers still being exploited and subjected to all sorts of abuse in the 21st century? It is as though they were entangled in a vast web full of opportunistic spiders. All this in spite of ILO Maritime Labour Convention, 2006; the loud, incessant talk about seafarers’ rights; and the new stream of slogans about seafarers being ’key workers’ and ‘heroes of global trade’. The reasons for this sad state of affairs are not hard to find . One only has to turn to some old proverbs for the answers.
“These are the times that try men’s souls,” Thomas Paine wrote in his pamphlet of essays, ‘Crisis’. He was referring to the American Revolution and the harsh winter of 1776. His statement, however, could apply as well to the time of the coronavirus — indeed, to any time when a person has to wrestle with an extraordinarily difficult or unpleasant situation. I hope the following quotes will provide some inspiration to my readers, especially those who toil at sea and take risks others don’t have to face.