In the 1890s, when British-owned ships carried 70 per cent of all seaborne trade, legislators worried about the proportion of foreigners who served in their crews; which could top 40 per cent. Their worry is not surprising, given the verdicts gathered from British consulates in port cities on the native seaman: ‘drunk, illiterate, weak, syphilitic, drunk, dishonest, drunk…’ In 1894, a parliamentary committee interrogated officers about manning and skills in the merchant marine.
One informant was a British-naturalised master ‘with 16 years’ experience’. The MPs, who didn’t presume to ask this expert witness specifically about foreign crews, recorded his name as ‘Mr J. Conrad Korzeniowski’. He had, as Maya Jasanoff puts it, ‘come a long way since landing in England in 1878’ as the penniless, orphaned son of Polish gentlefolk, his parents driven into penury, exile and early death by Tsarist persecution.