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To be sure, not all manning agents are bad. Some are scrupulous and treat seafarers fairly. In Manila, however, there is a culture of greed to which many crewing company owners and executives have succumbed. I am reminded of an 1881 illustration (pictured above) from the 19th-century weekly newspaper, L’Illustration européenne. It shows an old man taking bags of gold coins to his deathbed and exclaiming “Alas, must I leave you my dear lambs”.

The following are some more artworks that remind me — and many others as well — of manning agents who give the ship crewing industry a bad name.

The money changers, ca. 1548
by Marinus van Reymerswaele (Dutch, 1490–1546)
Image and text courtesy of Google Cultural Institute

Manning agents in Manila play the role of money changers. They handle the dollar remittances of seafarers which are paid monthly in pesos to their families. Unfortunately, many shortchange the families by cheating on the foreign exchange rate.

They Strut About Elegantly (“Lindamente se pavonean”), 1807–45
by Leonardo Alenza y Nieto (Spanish, 1807–1845)
Image and text courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Unscrupulous manning agents strut around town like distinguished personalities. Some even receive international awards for their perceived achievements.

Sultan Mehmet III (reigned 1595-1603) Enthroned, Attended by Two Janissaries,
about 1600, by unknown Ottoman artist
Image and text  courtesy of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Some manning agents are like sultans. In lieu of the Janissaries, who served as elite bodyguards of the Ottoman Sultan, they are attended by maritime cadets who run various errands for company officials and employees. The use of cadets as unpaid labour is shameful, but it is considered normal practice in Manila.

Old Man Offering Money to a Young Maid, 1708, by Cornelis Hubert van Meurs, Dutch. After Willem van Mieris, Dutch, 1662 – 1747
Image courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Manning agents usually get rich on the backs of seafarers. Some become very rich that they fall into temptation and engage in extramarital affairs.

Shackled to His Treasure (“Preso á su tesoro”), 1807–45, by Leonardo Alenza
y Nieto (Spanish, 1807–1845)
Image and text courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Seafarers may draw some consolation from the fact that manning agents who exploit them are themselves slaves to their own wealth and greed.

~ Barista Uno

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