Dora B. Montefiore January 1911

The Class War at Sea

Source: Justice, January 28, 1911, p.5;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

Some years ago, when asked by a comrade to write a short story for a “Child’s Socialist Reader,” I told in simple language the story of the various grades of passengers, their accommodation, and their privileges on an ocean-going liner; and strove in that way to bring home to the children the arbitrary and chaotic class-distinctions existing nowadays, and the way in which, through our Socialist interpretation, these arbitrary economic distinctions could be obliterated, and one organised and efficient class could emerge from what before was insolent privilege and unconscious slavery. It is a simile, of course, which cannot be pressed too closely in its application, but the main outlines apply; and to-day, possessing, as I do, some further grasp of all that full industrial freedom will connote, I watch the 700 steerage passengers, who are going out to do the real work of the Colonies, stewing and sweating on their unclean scraps of deck under the pitiless rays of a tropical sun, and compare their fates with that of the 250 first-class passengers, with their excessively large decks, their lounges, and their more than necessary share of space and air and I realise more keenly than ever what a topsy-turvey world we are living in, and how, from lack of knowledge and right understanding of the situation, the “slow-foot hope of the poor” still halts, and the voice of the worker still fails to demand, in accents that shall not be resisted, full access to the means of life.

As if to enforce the lesson of topsy-turvydom as judged by the material rewards meted out to the various grades of work wide, capitalism, two jockeys (one accompanied by his wife) are being sent out first-class by some wealthy owner of racehorses; while the head mistress of one of the best girls’ schools in New Zealand travels second-class. It certainly does not add dignity to the teaching profession when the material rewards for training human beings are obviously so inferior to those for training horses. The second-class people have a fairly good deck; but on “baggage day,” which happens once a week, the endless trunks of the first-class folk are ranged for the whole day down one side of the second-class deck ; from which trunks a bewildering succession of day and evening gowns, turbans and chiffons are extracted, which give the first-class decks the appearance after dinner of a parade of Peter Robinson’s and Selfridge’s wax mannequins.

The second Sunday at sea, whilst morning service was going on in the first-class, I strolled down to the third-class deck, and listened to a talk on Free Thought and Utopian Socialism, which was being given by one of the passengers to an interested and intelligent audience. I knew by the applause given now and then that there must be some conscious Socialists on board, so I chatted to the speaker afterwards, and asked him if he thought it would be possible to run regular Socialist meetings during the voyage? He thought it would be possible; and when he knew my name, he asked me to come down and speak at a meeting on the following Friday. I lent him some back numbers of “Justice,” and Tom Mann’s leaflet, “Forging the Weapon,” and I promised, if the captain made no objection to come and speak. As the captain is always an autocrat on board his ship; I knew it would be necessary to obtain his formal permission to attend a public meeting on another deck, although a first class passenger has the right to walk about on any other deck, while the others may not come on to our deck.

When I laid my request before the captain, he asked me what I was going to speak on, and on my replying “Socialism and Industrial Unionism,” he broke out into ignorant and vulgar abuse of what he considered Socialism to mean, and ended by quoting the silly old story of Rothschild pulling out a sovereign from his pocket and remarking to the Socialist agitator “Well, if sharing out is what you want, there is your share.” I listened patiently, for I have learnt not to waste breath on ignorant people who won’t read and yet choose to argue; and when he had finished, I bowed and said, “Thank you; then I shall attend the meeting or Friday.”

When the Friday came we had a most excellent meeting. I spoke for forty minutes and then answered questions for another half-hour; and I knew by the questions asked that Socialists, conscious and militant, were posted throughout the audience. I observed also, that the purser and his assistants were standing on the outskirts of the crowd to listen to all I had to say. Although I naturally made no allusion to anything on the ship, but confined my remarks to industries conditions, and to urging the workers to conscious solidarity of aim in the new county to which they were going, I was informed the next morning by the captain that he did not wish me to speak any more on board. In this I know he was pleasing his first class passengers, who were shocked at what I had done, as they, most of them, have a pious horror even of the Labour Party of Australia and many of them have lectured me on the heinousness of my offence, reminding me in best scriptural language that there must always be “hewers of wood and drawers of water,” and that “the poor ye shall have always with you.” It is passing strange they seem to forget that there are also texts from the same scriptures telling them “to sell all they have and give to the poor,” and “if a man take their coat to give him their cloak also.”

But the result of our captain’s little bit of tyranny has had the opposite effect to what he has expected. I wrote to my comrades in the third class telling them of the situation, and, as a result, regular meetings have been held under the chairmanship of comrade Barnes, an I.L.P. organiser from Stockport. The work has gone on steadily. I have lent all the literature I could muster, and we can reckon to-day, as the voyage approaches its end, on a little group of between twenty and thirty Socialists who are prepared to fight consciously for industrial freedom in the new land to which they are going. Since being forbidden open speech, I have lost no opportunity of pointing out to groups of emigrants the meaning of the conditions under which they are forced to travel. It is notorious that the ship was not originally built for such a large number of third-class passengers; but, in order to increase the profits of the company, the accommodation has been “extended” till over 700 are carried. It is also notorious that, in case of accident or ship-wreck, there is not sufficient boat accommodation for all the people on board, so that each voyage made under present conditions is a gamble in human lives. The accommodation of a four-berth cabin, in the third-class, in which a man and his wife, a girl of sixteen, and a boy of fourteen have to sleep, is 4 as follows: Length of cabin, 6ft 3in.; width, 7ft,; space between beds, 34in. A two-berth cabin is 6ft. long, 4ft. 2in. wide, an the width between beds and walls 2ft. 3in., the height of these cabins is 6ft. 3in., and the passages by which the cabins are reached are 31in. wide. The recreation room for these 700 third-class passengers is 23ft. 4in. in length; width; 15ft, narrowing down to 10ft. 6in. If this and other steamers were run for use and not for profit, there need be no reason why everyone should not have decent and sufficient cabin space besides deck and recreation space. Neither would there be any reason for overcrowding the ship, and thus increasing the risks in case of accident. But when 50,000 net profit has to be made out of a single voyage, the class instincts of the directors and shareholders in the company stand for making it out of the 700 and odd unprivileged, whose only capital is the labour of their hands. The solidarity of workers throughout the world should demand that workers should travel under better and more hygienic condition. Economic pressure has driven them from their homes in England. Economic pressure herds them for six weeks under conditions which no economically free person would put up with. But the double lesson will not have been lost on some of them during this voyage, for the Socialist propagandist has interpreted to those who were intelligent enough to respond the full meaning of the class struggle, and how, the workers are united in aim the class struggle will end.