A book containing 499 letters from a Welsh captain written
between 1902 and 1911, all relating to the everyday business matters regarding
his ship, does not at first sight grab the imagination. They are often just one
sentence long and almost all are addressed to his employers, the shipowners.
But this is to underestimate their value. On their own they are less
interesting but when added to by a thorough introduction that puts them in
context, plus useful appendices and footnotes to many of the letters, this
begins to take on a rather different character.
Daniel Jenkins became master of his first ship in 1902 having
gained his master's ticket in 1900. While the letters are from 1902 to 1911,
David Jenkins, no relation, provides a well-researched outline of Daniel
Jenkin's career and personal life, which enables the letters to be seen in a
wider context. Daniel spent his career in the unglamorous tramping trade,
taking coal out from Wales and largely bringing grain home. He worked for
several ship lines and was to die abroad in Madeira. His employers took the
unusual decision at the time to bring the body home for burial out of respect.
The letters themselves are brief business letters, sparing few
words to speak of the ports visited or his crew. Indeed, why would he mention
anything about the ports , his task was to get the cargo to and from the ports
swiftly, efficiently and effectively. Delays meant contractual costs and
accidents or damage meant insurance claims, both were to be avoided. While
telegrams were quicker, they were expensive and used in emergency or to back up
important letters. There is an excellent note that explains how letters were
copied and a fascinating insight into the use of telegrams and the use of
codes. All the letters are English, rather than Welsh, as this was both the
business language and the main language of shipping. David Jenkins comments
that, apart from complaints and injuries, little mention is made of the crew.
The letters were not general correspondence; they had a particular purpose to
inform the owners of any delays, or incidents that might cause problems and to
ensure the master was also protected by his report.
Time spent in a port was costly, fast turnarounds were
essential, but this was not always within the control of the master. Daniel
constantly reassures on the number of days spent in port and the date of
unloading or loading. The receiving port organized the unloading and this could
be delayed for many reasons. 'I am doing my best to hurry them up' was a
regular cry, such as problems in Ireland unloading grain for a distillery, when
a lack of manpower delayed matters. There were the challenges of dealing with
obdurate port authorities and the time taken to clean the holds between cargoes
such as loading maize wheat after carrying coal. In Algeria there were language
problems when the bill of lading, which needed careful checking, was wholly in