HL Deb 31 May 1911 vol 8 cc1009-15

LORD MUSKERRY rose "to call attention to the case of the steamer 'Coomassie,' which is, or was until quite recently, flying the British flag; to ask whether His Majesty's Government have received any report or reports from their representative at Hamburg relative to the manning of this vessel on leaving there; if so, to ask whether it is true that she left in charge of a master and acting mate, both of whom were uncertificated, of Greek nationality, and ignorant of the English language, four only of the crew being of British nationality; further, whether they have received any reports from their representative at Catania (Sicily) as to the alleged scandalous proceedings which have been going on there on board this vessel; and to move, 'That in the opinion of this House, legislation is urgently demanded which will ensure that ships flying the British flag when leaving ports other than in the United Kingdom shall at least be commanded and officered by men holding British certificates qualifying them to do so.'"

The noble Lord said: My Lords, on March 27 last I brought the question of uncertificated officers before this House. As I stated then, any merchant ship, no matter how large she may be, provided she is engaged in the coasting trade and not carrying passengers, need not carry a single certificated man on board. And in addition to this, so long as vessels under the British flag are not sailing from ports in the United Kingdom or certain Colonial ports there is nothing which compels them to carry competent and qualified captains and officers. This is really so astonishing that even men well versed in shipping affairs have been known to refuse to believe it. During the course of the last debate on this subject in this House I had the satisfaction of learning that at last the Marine Department of the Board of Trade were beginning to make a move, and had drafted a measure which they considered would cope with the evil to which I have called attention on ninny occasions. Whilst the debate was in progress a point arose as to whether the Board of Trade, as appeared to be their intention, would confine themselves to the coasting trade of the United Kingdom, or, on the other hand, whether the new Bill would also include the case of British merchant ships outside the three-miles limit of our shores and trading permanently, or at least fox long periods, between ports abroad. My noble friend the Marquess of Salisbury laid particular stress on this point, and I hoped that the noble Lord representing the Board of Trade would have given some assurance of favourable consideration being given to this important aspect of the case. My Lords, I do hope that the Board of Trade will deal with the whole matter in a thorough and effective way. In adopting half measures they will satisfy nobody, and they may rest assured that if the measure which they intend to introduce is not complete they may expect that agitation on this question will still continue.

I will now show your Lordships what glaring and outrageous scandals can prevail under the Red Ensign of this country as the law stands at present. Through the medium of the Imperial Merchant Service Guild I have been supplied with information which undoubtedly is authentic, and as I have given ample notice of this Question, I trust that the Board of Trade have obtained what possible information they could from British representatives abroad, who would be familiar with at least some of the details of the case. According to the written statements of the captain of a large steamer attached to a well-known London fleet of merchant vessels, he reports that the Guild will hardly credit the information which, if he had not both seen and heard first-hand what had transpired, he could not have thought possible. He reached Catania, in Sicily, with his vessel on April 1 last, and shortly afterwards a steamer of some 3,000 tons, flying the British Red Ensign, came into the berth next to him. On her stern he read the vessel's name, which stood as the "Coomassie," of London. Before the day was over it appears that she became a special object of note, owing to the drunkenness and fighting which was going on on board, and Which was accountable the next morning for several of the "Coomassie's" crew being either in prison or in hospital.

Naturally the interest and curiosity of the captain who supplies the information was aroused, and he obtained some particulars himself. He found that the "Coomassie" was loaded with a cargo of coals from Emden for Catania. Four only of the crew were Britishers, and the rest were of mixed nationalities. They signed on at Hamburg to serve in the vessel on her voyage to Constantinople. The captain was a Greek without a certificate, the mate another alien holding no British certificate, and neither of them able to speak more than a word or two of English. We are told that it is possible that the "Coomassie" may be trading in the Mediterranean for another twelve months under the British flag, and it is not surprising to hear that the arrangements on board and the lack of discipline, coupled with the disgraceful scenes which had occurred, were the principal topic of conversation amongst the shipping business men (Italians mostly), who were not slow to wax sarcastic over the scandals which are allowed to prevail under what we call our glorious Red Ensign. I would ask whether such a ship under the British flag can be accepted as in a seaworthy condition for the voyage; whether she is not a menace to life and property generally, and whether any insurance company of standing would take such risks if they were aware of them? The captain who reports this matter says that he sailed from Catania only too pleased to be out of sight of such a disgraceful state of affairs.

The Imperial Merchant Service Guild have gone further than this in order to get solid substantiation for such astonishing accounts. They furnished me with copies of letters which have been received from another British shipmaster of long standing who was also at Catania at the time in command of a large merchant ship. He endorses in every way what I have already brought to the notice of your Lordships. This shipmaster actually inspected the articles of the "Coomassie" which had been signed at the British Consulate in Hamburg. He failed to find one person, master, officer or engineer, whose number of certificate had been entered up, with the exception of the first engineer, and on bringing this to the particular notice of the British Vice-Consul at Catania he was informed that no doubt the reason of this was that no one held a certificate. The "Coomassie's" articles, which, as your Lordships know, are really the agreement with the crew, were, it is said, about as interesting a document as was ever sanctioned. With your Lordships' permission I will read the latest letter. It is addressed to the Secretary of the Imperial Merchant Service Guild, and runs as follows— Dear Sir,—In reply to your request that I should give you all the particulars that I am familiar with in respect to the ss. 'Coomassie,' I do so with pleasure, and trust that they may be a little aid in stopping a recurrence of such a disgrace. On April 5 whilst in Catania I was able to inspect the articles of agreement of the ss. 'Coomassie' and found the following particulars. The articles were opened at 'British Consulate General' in Hamburg on March 10th, 1911, and the crew signed on for the run to Constantinople, evidently understanding that the vessel was to load at Emden and discharge at an Italian port, on the way to Constantinople. The vessel's registered tonnage was something over 1,000 tons, and the name of the managing owners the Anglo-Ionian Steam Navigation Company, Limited; registered address in London. Evidently no register was produced on opening agreement, as there was endorsed 'Particulars as per last agreement.' This is a hard-and-fast regulation in all British shipping offices. Another peculiarity was that the Consular official had endorsed, in the space allotted for such statements, 'a change of masters.' Why should this be when there is only one master on agreement and he the man who opened the agreement? If his predecessor had opened the agreement and signed it I could understand it, but when the change takes place before the agreement is signed I cannot see what need there is for such endorsement. Can you? In the space allotted for 'Number of certificate if any,' one man only had a number against his name and he was the first engineer. These I think are the chief particulars in respect to the articles of agreement. About the men who signed them, I will endeavour to give you a little information. Master, Greek, spoke very little, if any, English. Mate, cannot be quite sure but feel certain, German. Second Mate, none as he was carried as passenger and did not sign agreement. Bos'n, Britisher. Sailors, three Britishers; remainder, all nationalities. First engineer, Greek, spoke very little English. Second engineer, Greek, no English. Third engineer, none. As I have tabulated the total number of Britishers—Bos'n and three sailors—it is useless to prolong the agony, except to add that these were out of a total of twenty-five or twenty-six hands all told. My friend Captain Green, having told you of the disorders and disgrace to our flag in Catania, I can only fully endorse all he says. The four Britishers were paid off in Catania, having demanded to be paid off on the grounds 'that they could neither understand nor be understood,' and I presume Italians were shipped in their places, so that when the British (!) ss. 'Coomassie' left Catania I have little hesitation in saying that there was not a Britisher on Board, yet she was under the British Flag, British protection, and, I presume, also British Board of Trade Regulations. It is not unnatural that both shipmasters who interested themselves in the case felt acutely the disgrace cast upon the British flag and the most damaging impression it would convey to foreigners.

I do not believe that there is one of your Lordships who would contend that such a scandalous state of affairs is not in need of the most urgent attention. In putting my Question I trust that my Motion that such vessels as the "Coomassie" should be brought within the scope of British law relating to efficiency in respect to those who command and officer them need not be pressed, provided we receive assurances that the Government when the Bill is brought forward will be prepared, if it proves necessary, to accept an Amendment, or introduce one themselves, which will prevent such cases as I have now brought to your Lordships' notice from occurring again. We were told on March 27—over two months ago—that this Bill was drafted. I should like to know why it has not been introduced.

Moved to resolve, That in the opinion of this House, legislation is urgently demanded which will ensure that ships flying the British flag when leaving ports other than in the United Kingdom shall at least be commanded and officered by men holding British certificates qualifying them to do so—(Lord Muskerry.)


My Lords, I am informed that the steamship "Coomassie" formerly belonged to the Elder Dempster Company, and was sold at the end of March to the Anglo-Ionian Company. The right of this company to own a British vessel is under the consideration of the Board of Customs, and if it is found that the company have no right to fly the British ensign the register will be closed. I am able to inform the noble Lord that the Board of Customs have ordered an inquiry under Section 51 of the Merchant Shipping Act. After the sale of this ship to the company I have referred to, a new master, who was a Greek, was appointed. The only person on the vessel who held a British certificate was the first engineer, and he also was a Greek. We have called for a report from His Majesty's Consul-General, who informs us that all the rest of the crew passed satisfactorily a language test as set forth in the Merchant Shipping Act, but the captain had very little knowledge of English, and according to the Act there was no power to subject him to the language test.

It may interest your Lordships to know how the crew of this ship was composed when she left Hamburg. Her crew at that time consisted of two Britons, six Finns, two Austrians, two Greeks, two Brazilians, one German, one Dane, one Chilian, one native of Fiji, and one native of Aden. The vessel then proceeded to Emden, where two more Britishers were engaged. At Catania seven members of the crew, including the four British subjects, were discharged by mutual consent, and five Greeks were taken in their place. So that, as a matter of fact, when the ship sailed from Catania she had no British subject on board. A report has also been received from the Consul at Catania, who states that the master of the vessel asked him to discharge two Austrians on the ground of misbehaviour and drunkenness. He also informs us that the reports of breaches of discipline to which my noble friend referred were in a great measure exaggerated. That, my Lords, is the whole history of the "Coomassie," and I have no doubt, now that it is in the hands of the Board of Customs, steps will be taken to prevent an occurrence such as the one which my noble friend has brought to our notice recurring.

The noble Lord, in the course of his remarks, asked for information as to when the new Merchant Shipping Bill would be brought; in. I have heard from Mr. Buxton this morning. He informs me that it is proposed to introduce the Bill in the House of Commons, and probably it will not reach your Lordships' House until near the end of July. My noble friend Lord Hamilton of Dalzell has already informed the noble Lord of the purport of that Bill. It is to insist that persons engaged in the coasting trade should have certificates the same as is the case with foreign-going and passenger ships in the home trade. The noble Lord opposite also stated that he thought it necessary that British ships trading exclusively abroad should be brought within the scope of the Bill. I do not think I can agree with the noble Lord in that respect, for by so doing we should penalise our trade a great deal abroad. Take, for instance, the case of ships trading in the Red Sea on what is known as the pilgrim traffic. It would be quite impossible to employ purely British certificated officers out there: In the first place, they would be very hard to get; and, in the second place, they would not understand the ways of these people. The only effect of bringing forward legislation such as my noble friend suggests would be to very materially injure our trade there, and it would mean that we would be cut out by some foreign rival.


I think, as regards the pilgrim trade in the Red Sea, that if the noble Earl makes inquiries he will find that all the steamers running from India, which I presume are those he means, have certificated officers.


Yes, officers holding British certificates.


I do not see how it could penalise our trade to insist upon certificated officers. There is one set of vessels—the Khedival line—which do not carry certificated officers, but I do not know whether they are trading under the British or Egyptian flag. I will not press my Motion, but I would be glad if the President of the Board of Trade would consider this matter.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.