Showing posts with label regulation. Show all posts
Showing posts with label regulation. Show all posts

October 18, 2020

Regulatory Comparison: How is the 19th century merchant shipping scene similar to today's ancient art market.

East Indiamen Madagascar by Thomas Goldsworth Dutton (fl 1840)
National Maritime Museum Greenwich, London

A lesson from our regulatory past. 

The more ship you can see, the higher the vessel sits in the water.

The less ship you can see, the lower the vessel sits in the water.

If you own a ship, you make more money by transporting more goods. 

Logistically, ships sitting high in the water carry less cargo.  Those seen sitting low in the water carry more cargo. 

Either is ok when the ship is moored safely within a harbor and in most cases when the weather is calm. 

But when a large vessel sets out to sea, the heavier ship, sitting lower in the water, suffers from increasing drag as it moves. It is generally less responsive to steering making a heavily laden ship more difficult to manage in rough seas.  If an overly-laden vessel gets caught in a storm, it's easier for it to take on water and also to sink.

When ships sink, sailors and passengers drown and cargo is lost to the murky depths.  But the insurance fees paid out to the voyage's financers and ship owners were designed to cover such financial losses, so for the shipping industry, more cargo (still) equalled = more money.

That’s how it was in nineteenth-century Britain. 

A ship's crew and passengers might die, but the ship's backers and owners were still compensated financially through marine insurance.  Likewise, due to the booming trade market of the period, the demand for marine insurance created opportunities for profit for both the marine merchants and their voyage underwriters, who in turn profited from high premia which more than compensated the underwriters for the losses incurred when an insured merchant's vessel sunk. 

In 1871 alone 856 ships sank off the coast of Britain. Nearly 2000 sailors and an unknown number of passengers drowned at sea.  

Profit-driven, many shipping barons were unpulsed, more interested in how and when the merchandise got from point "A" to point "B".  More so, with the death of all hands on deck, it was sometimes impossible to verify or disprove events which had occurred in distant ports or on the rough open sea.  To them, the risk to human lives was not a particularly motivating factor to change the status quo of overloading.  Humans may have been drowning, but merchants and many of their underwriters were still making fortunes. 

Sailors often referred to these overly-laden vessels as coffin ships, a way to describe a ship that was overinsured and worth more to its owners sunk than afloat. To them, merchants turning a blind eye to the coffin ships represented the depths to which the merchants operating in the market could stoop.  

But despite their worries, it was an offense for a sailor to refuse to sail, and to do so could mean many months, or even years, in the gaols.  Such were the state of affairs that in 1871 alone, 1628 sailors, including two complete crews, were jailed for refusing to work on overladen merchant vessels.  For many, despite their reluctance and awareness of the awful toll on human life aboard such ships, desperation drove their decisions, forcing them to agree to work as the crew, making them part of an equation that valued commerce and merchandise over humanity. 

Despite the sometimes strident calls for help from worried seamen and the families of those lost at sea, the general consuming public seemed blindly unaware or disinterested in the problem.  That is apart from one man, Samuel Plimsoll, an English social reformer.

Plimsoll fought for a safe loading line on all ships to be passed into law on all English ships and asked for regulation to prevent the overloading of cargo encouraged by the ships' greedy owners.  Plimsoll's principle was based on one already known by seamen as far back as the Middle Ages.  Back then, ships from Genoa, Italy in the Venetian Republic, and the Hanseatic League, required ships to show a load line indicating how heavy the vessel was weighed down with merchandise. 

Yet Plimsoll's reasonable proposal met with powerful opposition and earned him the hatred of many shipowners.

Many of the most vocal members of parliament against reforms were these self-same shipowners and underwriters; men more intent on maximizing their profit than bowing to the expense of morally and ethical moderation.  From their point of view, shipping was a lucrative business couched in the notion of free trade. Their profits should not be bogged down under the weight of moral and ethical considerations.  

Fortunately, in 1876, after years of fighting, Plimsoll's calls for reforms succeeded and Britain's Parliament passed the Unseaworthy Ships Bill into law.  But while this Act required a series of 'lines' to be painted on the ship to show the maximum loading point it didn't specify where.  As a result, some unscrupulous shipowners chose to paint the load line in areas of the ship more convenient and continued this ruse, to disguise their overloaded vessels. 

It was not until 1890 that the country's Board of Trade officials finally applied the regulation that every ship must have a clearly visible Plimsoll linea line on a ship's hull, in a very specific place, which indicates the maximum safe draught, and therefore the minimum freeboard for the vessel in various operating conditions when loaded with cargo.

I suppose one could draw a few parallels between this maritime story and today’s art merchant climate, where the art market's focus seems to discourage regulatory oversight in favor of self-regulation, ensuring the free movement of merchandise. Likewise, many collectors seem oblivious to, or disinterested in, the problem of illicit trafficking. 

Despite cultural Plimsoll lines, like local legislation and international conventions such as the UNESCO 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property and the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects, disreputable commercial actors in the art market continue to conduct commerce outside calculated ethical lines. 

And like the sailors on ships, desperation sometimes drives the decisions of subsistence looters in source countries who facilitate the supply chain, and remain as actors to the commerce equation, despite whatever harsh penalties they might face. 

It’s hard to envisage a non-legislative solution that will protect commerce and protect culture at risk.  For now, the foxes in charge of the art market hen house are woefully incapable of self-regulating, and are resistant to the idea that there is even a problem worthy of being addressed. 

By:  Lynda Albertson

h/t to Dave Trott for his details on shipping regulations and statistics.