Time at Sea: Business, Labour and Time Consciousness in Eighteenth-Century Shipping

The steamship revolutionized shipping in the nineteenth century. While the movement of traditional sailing vessels relied on wind and ocean currents, the steamship allowed for mechanical and technology-based propulsion. Commercially this meant a more regular, efficient and tightly scheduled shipping of goods across the oceans. At sea, the steamship offered a more rigid scheduling of work hours and a more rigid temporal discipline for the crews operating the ships. Thus, the transition from sail to steam marks a significant shift in temporality and the comparatively late entry of shipping into modernity and industrial capitalism. The paper engages with E.P. Thomson's (1967) seminal work on the centrality of time to understand the logic of capitalism. Whereas Thompson saw the internalization of time discipline and industrial time management as a "means of labour exploitation" (Thompson, 1967, p. 80), the paper shows that many seafarers felt liberated by the regular, predictable and negotiable work hours of the steamship. From this footing, the paper explores the effects of the steamship on time and temporality in shipping and seafaring labour in the long nineteenth century. The paper uses archival material held at the Maritime Museum of Denmark and the A.P. Møller-Maersk corporate archives. The archival material includes data on ship movements and contemporary writings such as books, articles, diaries, letters, and autobiographies from seafarers. Based on this material, the paper explores how the transition from sail to steam changed the experience and perception of time in the business of shipping and in seafaring labour. By focusing on the materiality of time and the internalization of time discipline, the paper provides a historical maritime perspective on temporal issues in the development of industrial capitalism. Thompson, E. P. (1967). Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism. Past & Present, 38, 56–97.