Vol. 17 No. 1 (January, 2007) pp.1-4


BRUTALITY ON TRIAL: “HELLFIRE” PEDERSEN, “FIGHTING” HANSEN, AND THE SEAMEN’S ACT OF 1915, by E. Kay Gibson.  Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2006.  256pp. Cloth. $34.95. ISBN: 0813029910.


Reviewed by Greg Marquis, History and Politics Department, University of New Brunswick Saint John.  Email: gmarquis [at] unbsj.ca.


BRUTALITY ON TRIAL, by E. Kay Gibson, is the fifteenth volume in the New Perspectives on Maritime History and Nautical Archaeology series, edited by James C. Bradford and Gene A. Smith. Gibson is an independent scholar whose spouse began researching the story of the events on the PUAKO sailing ship in the 1970s.  The book essentially details successful prosecutions under the Seamen’s Act of 1915, which was designed to provide crew members with legal protection from abuse by ship masters and mates and to make vessel owners responsible for damages in the case of improper use of physical force. During this era, the United States, already a major maritime power and exporting nation, expanded its maritime presence because of its neutrality status between 1914 and 1917.


The 1915 statute, sponsored by Senator Robert LaFollette, has been described as the Magna Carta of sailors’ rights. The law’s true architect was Andrew Furuseth (1854-1938), the Norwegian-born head of the International Seamen’s Union of the Pacific, who was attempting to give seafarers the same rights as industrial workers.  The Seamen’s Act abolished imprisonment for desertion and all forms of corporal punishment. Sailors could still be placed in irons, have wages forfeited or put on reduced rations for willful disobedience or for striking an officer, but they were not to be flogged or otherwise punished corporally. Serious offences would be handled by the courts on shore. Many ship owners opposed the provision that gave sailors the right to demand half of their wages earned in any loading or discharging port after voyages had commenced.  Hind, Rolph and Company, the owner of the two vessels featured in the book, was a supporter of the reforms of 1915.  The law, possibly influenced by concerns raised by the 1912 TITANIC disaster, also guaranteed a minimum standard of provisions and a certain number of lifeboats, and dictated that a majority of each crew be able to understand orders issued in English.


The working conditions of American merchant mariners had been publicized in 1840 with the publication of Richard Henry Dana’s TWO YEARS BEFORE THE MAST.  Although not totally sympathetic to the common sailor, Jack London’s 1904 novel, THE SEA-WOLF, reminded Progressive-era Americans of continuing brutality on the high seas. Legislation had attempted to abolish corporal punishment on American merchant vessels as early as 1850, when flogging was banned. But captains and mates either ignored this and other laws, or resorted to the use of fists, boots, pieces of rope, brass knuckles, pistols and ship-board items such as belaying pins, marlin spikes, hand spikes and other tools.  Testimony [*2] from the PUAKO investigation indicated that seamen also were punished by being confined in irons, put on short rations, and subjected to the ‘water cure’ – being doused with cold water for long periods on deck. The 1915 law attempted to close a loophole found in the earlier White Act, which authorized prison terms for masters and mates who assaulted their seamen but exempted vessel owners from responsibility. As Furuseth and others complained, the law did not deter the traditions of “bucko” (violent) masters and mates.  The purpose of buckoism was to lower labor costs by forcing a smaller number of seamen to work harder, often for lower wages. Buckoism, together with crimping, in the opinion of seamen’s rights advocates, made many sailors virtual slaves. One factor that contributed to the relatively defenseless situation of abused seamen was a law dating from 1790 that prevented them from striking an officer who was performing his duty. 


Most of the book details the reign of terror on the PUAKO during a voyage from British Columbia to Cape Town in 1918.  The barkentine, rated at 1,011 net tons, had been built in 1902. Its captain, Adolph C. Pedersen, was born in Norway and became a naturalized citizen in 1893. His nickname “Hellfire” came not from his brutal methods but from an earlier attempt to save a ship from fire. When the PUAKO arrived in South Africa, the captain had several of the crew arrested as conspirators to mutiny and sabotage, and even supplied the authorities with written confessions. Because World War I had not ended, the South African police launched an investigation. Suspicions soon turned from the battered seamen to Captain Pedersen and his two mates (his sons).  Through the efforts of a vigilant US consul, the three officers were charged in district court in New York.  The captain was indicted for the murder of Axel Hansen, an experienced Danish sailor. According to testimony of the crew, Hansen, after constant ill treatment by the master and mates, threw himself overboard. Pedersen allegedly had refused to allow a rescue attempt. Earlier in the voyage the cook, American J.H. Stewart, had committed suicide by drowning under similar circumstances. After the crew disembarked in South Africa a third man, Bjarne Olsen, died, possibly of injuries sustained on the voyage.  The captain had noted his suspicions of a plot in the ship’s log. It is not clear whether the captain was paranoid, genuinely suspicious of a plot amongst the crew, or simply using the sabotage threat as an excuse for his abusive and violent behavior. Despite his age, moderate size and mild demeanor in court, Pedersen had a reputation along the Pacific coast for being a tough and violent master.     


The case was prepared by the US Justice Department, and prosecuted by Assistant US Attorney William Miller, who regarded the master as “yellow” (p.125).  In addition to the murder charge, the captain and two mates were indicted on several counts of assault and illegal imprisonment. The defendants pled not guilty to the former, but admitted to imprisoning seamen, citing the necessity of countering a plot of mutiny, murder and piracy. The defense, conducted by an ex assistant secretary of state, stressed [*3] that the officers had faced an inexperienced and stubborn crew and suggested that the US Consul in Cape Town was prejudiced against the prisoners. The relative inexperience of the crew was not an exaggeration – most had no deep-sea experience. The officers attempted to portray Hansen as a labor agitator and suggested that the crew, described as “these I.W.W.s, this gang, these nomads” (p.121) had been infected by radical doctrines.  An Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) songbook had been found among the crew’s effects.


The jury acquitted the defendants on the murder charges, but Captain Pedersen and Leonard and Adolph Pedersen were convicted on the lesser counts.  The father, convicted on six counts, was sentenced to eighteen months on each, to be served concurrently. The sons, convicted on two counts, were each sentenced to six months. In 1924 the suit for damages against the owner of the PUAKO on behalf of six injured crewmen, was concluded. They were awarded amounts ranging from $250 to $2000.

The elder Pedersen renewed his master license following release from prison but spent his last years as a caretaker. Both sons continued nautical careers – one as a master, later a caretaker, the other as a harbor pilot.


The second case examined by Gibson centers on “Fighting” Frederick Hansen, first mate on the barkentine ROLPH, which in 1920 picked up a crew at Vancouver to haul lumber to Melbourne. The vessel was owned by James Rolph Jr., the mayor of San Franciso and future governor of California.   Hansen had been convicted of killing a seaman in 1917 and investigated for the murder of a second.  Once the ROLPH reached Australia, most of the crew, intimidated by the mate, was discharged. The vessel then headed to Newcastle to pick up a cargo of English coal for Chile. By this time the crew included only two Americans. According to later testimony, Hansen hit a German sailor with a belaying pin and, when the man went overboard, made no attempt to rescue him. Hansen also assaulted other seamen, with the apparent connivance if not the direct orders of the captain. Charged under the 1915 law, he was indicted in 1922 for assaulting A.R. Arnesen, a naturalized U.S. citizen.  Hansen was found guilty and sentenced to five years in federal penitentiary.  The four seamen who were libellants were awarded a total of $14,500 in damages – paid by the ship’s owner. One sailor had been virtually blinded by Hansen’s beatings.  


BRUTALITY ON TRIAL is a fascinating account of maritime labor relations in the transition from 19th-century authoritarianism to a more rights-based legal framework. Prior to the 1915 reform, Furuseth regarded seamen as little better than slaves.  Although the book was not written strictly as an academic work, this reviewer would have benefited from a fuller discussion of the legal background to the issues that Gibson raises – in short, moving one of the appendices to the front of the book and expanding it.  For example, no mention is made of the 1920 Merchant Marine (Jones) Act, section 33 of which made ship owners, [*4] officers and fellow seamen liable for negligence which caused the death or injury of a sailor (Chapter 24-Merchant Marine Act 1920). Similarly, the book would be strengthened by additional material on general working conditions on early 20th-century US flagged deep-water sailing vessels, which were facing competition from steam, and on the nature of the industry, including the political power of shipping companies, and the ethnic profile of the workforce.  Many West coast sailors were Scandinavian – was violence a problem in the merchant fleets of those nations?


The politics of sailors’ unionism are also worth some explanation. Although Furuseth was not a supporter of the IWW, the general climate of labor militancy by 1918 may have been a factor in the prosecutions. Pedersen’s claims of an IWW conspiracy to sink or blow up the PUAKO seem fanciful, but the Wobblies were a feared presence on the West coast. Their leaders were jailed after America declared war in 1917, and the organization was targeted in the first Red Scare, but the Wobblies would continue to attempt to organize sailors, fishermen and longshoremen during the 1920s. The mainstream seamen’s labor movement also was weakened, which probably affected use of the courts to protect sailors. In 1921, just after the PUAKO trials and prior to Hansen’s prosecution, the International Seamen’s Union lost a crucial strike, and the sailors’ labor movement declined for the next decade. It would be interesting to know if any further “LaFollette Act” prosecutions ensued during this period of union busting (see e.g., Sailors’ Union of the Pacific; Seafarers International Union).



Sailor’s Union of the Pacific, History.  Available online at: http://www.sailors.org/


Seafarers International Union, SIU and Maritime History.  Available online at: http://www.seafarers.org/about/history.xml


Chapter 24-Merchant Marine Act, 1920, United States Code, Title 46, Appendix.


© Copyright 2007 by the author, Greg Marquis.

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