Near the end of his own stormy passage through life, Mark Twain began an untitled story that he never finished. Its setting was an endless voyage on a sea teeming with terrors, such as the “spider-squid,” which surfaced to snatch the captain’s little boy from the deck of the ship. As it turns out, the vessel is microscopic, plowing through an ocean-like drop of liquid on a slide, under a microscope. The sea monsters that menace it are such miniscule horrors as bacteria and viruses.
Today, a version of that nightmare has come to life onboard ships—containerships, oil tankers, cruise ships—among crew members and passengers alike, who find themselves virtually imprisoned.
Merchant ships continue to circulate around the globe, maintaining the tenuous international supply lines. From one port of call to another, cranes unload thousands of truck-sized boxes full of products from containerships, and pumps fill-up and empty-out tankers, but the mariners working on those ships are not permitted to disembark. The March 26 New York Times cited a single example: an oil tanker manned by eight sailors, plying from China to Singapore to Sri Lanka, due to go on to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, with each destination having in common a prohibition against anyone coming ashore.
That means that workers on merchant ships, even those who have fulfilled their contractual terms of labor, are forced to continue doing their duty indefinitely. An estimated 150,000 individuals, mainly from the Philippines, China, India, Indonesia, Ukraine and Russia, find themselves in a nether-region of un-free employment. They have no options other than to toil on, seven days a week, for monthly pay ranging from $400 to $1,000 for ordinary seamen. Officers make more, up to $10,000 per month, but they have the same chance of going home as the greenest oil wiper: zero.
How long can that last? The situation resembles the customary abuse of maritime labor that prevailed in the 19th century, which the Supreme Court approved in its 1897 ruling in Robertson v. Baldwin, known as the Arago decision, after the name of a ship from which four sailors deserted due to brutal treatment. In that case, the justices found that the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery in the United States, did not apply to mariners! This form of legalized exploitation of workers endured until the Merchant Marine Act of 1915, which afforded American sailors some basic protections. But many countries have never promulgated such a measure, leaving their seagoing citizens prey to conditions of pseudo-slavery, in particular in the outlaw world of commercial fishing in international waters.
Now, the international community is collectively shrugging and acquiescing to this backward leap in workers’ rights. Global demand for the goods the ships deliver outweighs the world’s regard for the people who deliver them.
Cruise ships have had to return to port and stay put, but there are stragglers still out there. One of them has become a disaster zone—Holland America Line’s Zaandam. The ship inexplicably left for a cruise from Argentina to Chile on March 7, more than a month after Princess Line’s Diamond Princess imported COVID-19 to Yokohama, Japan, and at the same time the Grand Princess was bobbing about fifty miles off the Golden Gate, trying to deal with an outbreak of the disease. The Zaandam left Buenos Aires just the day before the State Department’s tardy warning against such herding onto artificial islands (which cruise ships are). It got as far as the Strait of Magellan, where those among the 1,243 guests who were ambulatory went ashore to see the faded grandeur of Punta Arenas, while most of the 586 crew members cleaned their rooms, prepared their food, and maintained the manifold operations of the ship. That was their last port of call. That was March 14. The cruise was supposed to end on March 21.
Since then, Zaandam has made its way up the west coast of South America, from one potential refuge to another, denied entry to all of them, while the deadly novel coronavirus has spread throughout the ship, without discrimination, from roomy penthouses to kennel-like crew quarters. Zaandam reached the Panama Canal with four corpses in a walk-in refrigerator. Another 138 people had reported feeling sick—53 paying “guests” and 85 employees. Two of them had tested positive for the coronavirus in the brief interim since test kits arrived on the ship.
After an initial delay, Zaandam gained permission to transit the isthmian passage, but now has been denied entry into any port in Florida.
Holland America Line is a cruise industry cliché—it caters to the most elderly segment of the market. It is the Geriatric American Line. Anyone a few years short of qualifying for Medicare will feel like a young whipper-snapper on a HAL cruise.
HAL’s Zaandam is a huge ark of wealthy, vulnerable elderly, and relatively penniless, vulnerable servants.
Micky Arison is the Chairman of Carnival Corporation, which his father founded and ran for decades, before expatriating himself, along with his vast, virtually untaxed wealth. Carnival includes a dozen brands, including Princess and HAL.
Micky Arison failed to bring his fleets to port before the inevitable nightmare scenario came to pass—that COVID-19 would hijack a cruise ship like a legion of invisible pirates. While that was happening, Arison offered the idled vessels of Carnival Corp. to the federal government, for use as hospitals—charging a rental fee to cover costs. The president has praised Arison’s proposal as a patriotic, selfless gesture.
In truth, the audacity of Arison’s gambit to salvage revenue at this moment of crisis defies description, if not divine judgment.
In the meantime, Holland America Line’s Zaandam has reached Miami, with nine people onboard having tested positive for COVID, and another 200 showing symptoms, and those four corpses still onboard, maybe in the freezer by now. The Carnival Corp. COO has called Florida its “port of last resort.” At this writing, Governor Ron DeSantis is denying Zaandam’s bid to find shelter in this viral storm. In the interim, the chorus of coughing along its narrow corridors grows louder, coming from behind more and more closed doors, with every passing hour…
Eric Paul Roorda is the editor of The Ocean Reader: History, Culture, Politics. He is a Professor of History at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky, where he specializes in the diplomatic and naval history of the Caribbean Sea. During the summer, he directs the Munson Institute graduate program in Maritime Studies at Mystic Seaport Museum in Mystic, Connecticut. He regularly lectures on cruises on the Regent Seven Seas Voyager. He is the author of The Dictator Next Door and co-editor of The Dominican Republic Reader, both also published by Duke University Press.