Doctoral dissertation harnesses SCI's extensive archives

Jul 23, 2018

This past spring, Johnathan Thayer, SCI’s Senior Archivist, successfully earned a PhD degree in History from the Graduate Center, City University of New York. His dissertation, titled “Merchant Seamen, Sailortowns, and the Parameters of U.S. Citizenship, 1828-1945” tells the story of the history of merchant seamen in U.S. history, and draws extensively on SCI’s own archives.

Why was this topic of interest to you initially?

I was born and raised “alongshore” in Danvers, Massachusetts, which used to be known as Salem Village. Salem claims to be the oldest port in the U.S., and nearby Gloucester claims to be the oldest fishing village. Growing up, I had friends who bought their own lobster boats and were fishing full-time before I even graduated high school. Also, I have family in mid-coast and downeast Maine, and I lived in Portland for a bit before moving to New York.

So, I grew up surrounded by maritime cultures, but always with a perspective facing outward toward the sea. Since joining SCI in 2010, I’ve had opportunities to dive deep into the history of maritime New York through archival documentation and the American Merchant Marine Veterans Oral History Project. I’ve also had the opportunity to sail on three very unique vessels: the Charles W. Morgan, which is the last surviving wooden whaling ship in the U.S.; the SS John W. Brown, one of two surviving WWII-era Liberty ships; and a six-week transatlantic crossing on SUNY Maritime’s training ship Empire State VI, on which I served as ship’s librarian (but mostly worked on my dissertation).

All of those experiences gave me a new “bluewater” perspective. When I was admitted to the doctoral program at the CUNY Graduate Center to study and teach labor history, I was immediately drawn to maritime workers as a research subject, especially in terms of what happens when sailors come ashore.

What is the topic of your dissertation?

My dissertation examines the impacts of the presence of merchant seamen in U.S. port cities from the 1830s through World War II. I focus specifically on “sailortown” districts in which maritime commerce flourished, and by extension, spaces that accommodated social, cultural, and economic aspects of sailors' lives. The project’s timeline begins with the origins of maritime ministry in New York, which led to a long history of encounters between sailors and reformers. It ends with merchant mariners’ contributions and sacrifices during World War II and their subsequent exclusion from federal provision of benefits and compensation to members of the armed services.

The thread that holds the project together is the argument that merchant seamen, because of their inherent transience, diversity, and the unique nature of their work, have always occupied a marginal position in U.S. society, and that that marginalization has produced a series of confrontations with shoreside people, communities, institutions, and the state, most specifically over the nature and definition of citizenship.

Furthermore, these confrontations over citizenship persist to current day, as seafarers’ rights to shore leave, access to necessary identity documentation, and treatment within the global maritime shipping economy continue to be top of the agenda for SCI’s Center for Seafarers’ Rights and other advocacy organizations.

How did you use the SCI archives/how were they particularly useful to you?

The SCI archives document both the history of the Institute and the Port of New York. SCI, along with the American Seamen’s Friend Society and Sailors’ Snug Harbor, was part of an influx of philanthropic energies devoted to sailors that originated in the 1830s. Sailors were considered “wards” in need of special protections from both the state and civil society, and so they became natural targets of evangelical ministry.

The construction of SCI’s floating chapels in the 19th-century, and the “$1,000,000 home for sailors” at 25 South Street in the early 20th-century were dramatic moments in the history of what was, in my interpretation, a “war” for control over sailortown. On one side were the boardinghouses, saloons, and purveyors catering to the hoards of sailors who came ashore between voyages in need of temporary room and board and other services before shipping out on their next voyage. On the other side were reformers, backed by the formidable wealth of the city’s industrial philanthropists, who viewed the indigenous cultures and micro-economies of sailortown as a serious threat to the stability of respectable society.

Through this lens of confrontation, I was able to tease out a thread that sustains the project’s narrative along its long timeline. While sailors certainly benefited from SCI’s services, they were also in constant conflict with reformers, and ultimately the state itself for control over their own agency, mobility, and the terms of their labor.

Since SCI often operated as a quasi-auxiliary to local and federal governments, the Institute appears as a consistent character in my chapters that focus on legal debates over unfree labor at sea, Progressive era labor reform legislation, exclusionary immigration policies, distribution of relief services during periods of economic crisis, and the recruitment and subsequent exclusion of the merchant marine leading up to and following World War II.

In short, SCI and its archives are absolutely essential to the project, and by extension, to understanding the complex history of merchant seamen in the Port of New York. 

What are some of the most noteworthy discoveries in your research?

SCI has the original manuscript journals of Rev. Benjamin C. C. Parker, who was first chaplain of the Floating Church of Our Saviour from 1843-1859. Parker’s journals document the day-to-day experience of tending to the most exotic and transient parish imaginable. In addition to anecdotes about sailors who signed temperance pledges or dedicated themselves to a proper Christian life, Parker also describes an encounter with Chinese sailors who were held captive  and displayed to curious tourists on their ship Keying, which was moored and opened to public exhibition in the Battery for a cost of five cents per head. The sailors were eventually released and allowed to return home, but not before attending a service onboard the Floating Church which Parker describes in great detail.

Close readings of Parker’s journals led me to a more nuanced interpretation of SCI’s early work in the Port of New York, from which I developed a theory of maritime ministry as a form of “inverse colonialism.” Rather than projecting their values abroad as with typical colonial projects, SCI and other waterfront missionaries dug in at home to protect their values from perceived invasion. This new interpretation impacted my approach to all other sources, and it wound up structuring the entirety of the project’s narrative. 

How did your research enrich your knowledge of SCI and its importance through the years?

I find it fascinating that virtually every aspect of SCI’s current work has origins in the early history of the Institute. From ministry, to legal advocacy, to maritime education, and even the Christmas at Sea program, SCI has a sustained history as a leader in providing services to mariners for more than 180 years. That’s a remarkable track record. Even more remarkable are the ways in which SCI has evolved over the years to cater to the changing landscape of the Port of New York and New Jersey, and the state of maritime shipping in general. It is an achievement that SCI and its supporters should be very proud of.