Erland Viberg Joensen

Lossingarmenn í Havn

Annales Societatis Scientiarum Fćroensis, Supplementum XXXVII

Tórshavn 2003


ISBN 99918-41-37-7

DKK 280

(Order through a Faroese bookshop)


On the basis of concrete observations and accounts of the work at the harbour in Tórshavn the aim of this thesis has been to include the aspects necessary to give a general description of the discharging and the dock workers as a specific work unit.

In principle the research comprises the period from 1930 to 1980; it is a contemporary historical observation and treatment of Tórshavn viewed from its role as a port. Also some considerations are made regarding aspects behind and before the contemporary community.

The research concerning the dockers in Tórshavn is based on the historical scientific method, in the so-called oral history, relying on living sources and references. The method is identified as the history "from below" where silent people are included and influence their own history.

In a social historical way the introduction discusses the origins of the working class in the town consisting of a growing proletariat towards the end of the 18th century. This part is an account of the period until 1930 when the Faroese working class public was establishing itself and labourers in Tórshavn had organised themselves in a union, Havnar Arbeiđsmannafelag. The period around 1930, when the world-wide economical crises also affected the Faroes, was characterised by activity, efficiency and of progress. An obvious example was the biggest construction work in the islands so far, the new harbour in Tórshavn, resulting in the end of an era with lighter boats transporting goods between ships and land, from the anchorage to one of the two landing places, Kongabrúgvin or Vágsbotnur. Vessels now put in at the port and then the discharging work was carried out over the edge of the quay. This newly constructed harbour – the Quay – was taken into use towards the end of 1929 and is a watershed in the history of the town and a distinct turning point in the discharging. The account is an attempt at presenting a survey of the social circumstances in the town, to grasp and put the discharging and its labourers in an historical perspective.

Then Tórshavn is described as a port and compared with bigger ones elsewhere. This has been done to reveal the distinctive marks, the framework and the spaciousness of the discharging. A port is part of a town but also an independent part of the town. In this case the Quay is part of a capital and its situation provides the whole community with services.

The Quay has had other representatives than its dockers. Apart from being a gateway to the villages and the outside world, wholesalers and timber merchants were part of the harbour environment until the late 1970s when the social development resulted in a lack of space there, so these businesses had to move outside the town.

The sea port Tórshavn has been described in its diversity and should be regarded as a small Nordic port. There is an historical description of the various activities along the shores of the two creeks, the Eastern and the Western, in the period up to 1930. The technical progress regarding the discharging until modern times had been divided into four distinct periods: the lighter boats period until 1930, traditional discharging from 1930 to 1960, mechanical standard discharging 1960-1975, and the container period since 1975. The old, traditional discharging and the mechanical standard discharging have been emphasised, but the periods of lighter boats and containers have only been touched upon. It is worth mentioning that the periods and the changes in the discharging do not happen overnight because they overlap in time. The cargo industry may seem conservative, but changes in other respects should be regarded as paradigmatic changes that have characterised the various stages in the trade discussed. The  historical periods specified also take other changes in the environment into consideration.

From the external framework the environment at the Eastern Creek of  Tórshavn harbour, the Quay, was a public space and the heartbeat of the town until around 1980. It has been regarded as important to observe the places where workers spent their spare time and breaks because this promoted a common working class culture. This is an attempt at defining the environment as a work community, but it does not refer to the environment as such rather than a territory of the town.

The co-operation characterising the job must ensure that men working in discharging are distinguished. This has been necessary; and in large ports, even in Tórshavn, work in discharging has differed from other work also connected with a harbour. This has not been done to make the business performed in the limited and small Tórshavn Harbour smaller but rather to get a more consistent and accurate picture of the worker directly involved with discharging. In the 1950s the western part of Tórshavn Harbour developed with various businesses and gradually became an industrial harbour while the Quay on the other side remained the harbour handling goods and cargo. The distinction and the differences of the workforce in the two creeks have been difficult, but a man unloading and a man landing cannot really be regarded as performing the same work. In spite of this the landing of fishing vessels will be included.

The recording of work and other procedures may seem to have interest for gathering information only, but the way in which the dischargings were planned and executed is of importance for the identity of the individual. It is not the various stages in the discharging that decide the treatment, but they demonstrate an adaptability, an interaction between people and tools because progress in technology affects and leads to changes – what position and attitude you have towards both your work and the environment. People working together build and carry a common work identity. In the working life where experiences are made, people create their own common trade culture. The functions at the Quay are results of social connections, of a mutual interaction. It is a joint performance where the discharging labourers continually, everyone having specific tasks and responsibilities, everyone his function. These functions combined are necessary to make the loading and unloading of a ship possible.

To empty and fill holds has always included fixed and monotonous proceedings. The work has been carried out from habit, it is said. However, discharging includes many things. Before containers were introduced, there were several kinds of discharging. This made the work varied. It changed and was flexible. Labourers had to be flexible; and when dockers themselves claim that nothing serious was required from them, the young boy or the new man had to learn several skills concerning a work although it was obvious. This might include learning how to lift, to place in a strap, to take care of oneself, to respect one's elders, to show friendship, to adapt to

the tone, etc., all simple skills but necessary to acquire the right role for oneself. With care this should be regarded as training, a socialisation. Dischargings are followed when almost everything was performed by manual power. The dischargings are divided into the unloading of coal, salt, cement, and timber, landing fish, and loading or unloading general cargo that was the most regular kind of discharging.

 Next the places directly connected with the discharging are discussed. Loading and unloading in the traditional way was principally based upon co-operation between people, between workers in the hold and those at the hatch, between workers at the hatch and the winch man, through the various processes and eventually by the labourers in the storehouse. The foreman went between these work places ensuring that everything was performed as planned. This is a brief summary of the work and the procedures of the traditional discharging. The more recent methods are similar to the discharging in big harbours although technology and gear, shipping and the number of labourers obviously cannot be compared, but the co-operation is inevitably the same.

Automatic tools and machinery have replaced manual power and therefore the discharging of containers is touched upon.

From technology, work and procedures, from working conditions as a whole, the thesis moves on to discuss circumstances that can be found behind the co-operation, behind the loads lifted by joint effort. Discharging requires joint responsibility, a sense of solidarity, loyalty, and respect for those that you work with. The Quay has been an open work environment that did not ask who the new working partner was, where or whom he came from. Solidarity is one of the first things that people remember. Regard for and benevolence towards older men, young boys and new labourers. However, some clear antagonisms within the environment can be clearly identified, perhaps mostly in times of need when it could be difficult to get only one discharging a week. At the Quay, that in most cases received workers with open arms, it could also create dissatisfaction when others than unskilled dockers took up work there due to unemployment in their own trade. Similar hostilities could also occur between older and younger workers, between inexperienced and experienced ones, between breadwinners and single men, between native townsmen and villagers just moved to Tórshavn when one of them was not hired and felt discriminated against.

Discharging should be regarded as an organised working process, a social microsystem. It should, however, not be regarded as a hierarchy; but in spite of this it reveals levels of dignity connected to the special responsibilities that the workers had, how regular or causal they were bearing in mind that in principle almost all dockers were day-labourers throughout the 20th century.

The mental co-operation in the working procedure is then disclosed in order to recreate the outlook and emotions of the dockers. Insight into these matters can be obtained by studying the attitudes to the work, the work environment and the other workers, i.e. when the social and cultural behaviour is observed. Here the aim has been to get beneath the discharging and discuss the short moment before work starts when it was necessary for the labourers to line up to get work, a discharging.

The lining up at the door of the storehouse when the foreman picked out from the crowd turned up and the fate, as it were, was decided for that day. The tradition of employing people for one discharging or one day at a time was used in the period of the lighter boats but continued when ships were put in at the port and still went on in the 1970s when finally this tradition was abandoned, probably finally in 1980. This tradition is not special for Tórshavn at all but a common feature for almost every port in the world and probably the most visible characteristic in such an environment. These conditions have been explained accurately and the tradition deserves a discussion because they lead to so many diverse emotions in the lives of both the dockers and their families. Without exaggerating it may be claimed that the moment contained a sense of drama with excitement, envy, ingratiation and anger, followed by relief, pride and happiness or by disappointment, frustration, fear, humility and by silent acceptance. It could hardly be otherwise. Every single docker was evaluated and they have all experienced some of the emotions mentioned above. The tradition was also connected with the situation in the community. In the socially and economically difficult times of the 1930s, in the changing 1940s, throughout the 1950s and in the 1960-70s the lining up was an everyday situation for the dockers as well as for the foremen who had the task of picking out. The system of lining up was controversial but this does not take anything away from this method of employing dockers. Regardless of the opinions of the men that have experienced the procedure at the entrance of the storehouse or others outside that have not tried this, whether the system was fair or insensitive, that it indicated an exploiting and an exploited part, this historical phenomenon works as a nerve system in the work environment. The dockers knew nothing else. They were aware of the conditions to get work. Those who are able to visualise the crowd and the foreman can see a panorama in front of themselves, consisting of vessels ready for shipping where the foreman makes decisions and men wait and offer themselves to earn wages to subsist. Thereupon the relations between the workers and the foreman can be distinguished, based on a relationship of trust; and a certain degree of reciprocity went on between them. This is not to claim that the foreman of the discharging and the docker were equal in the working process.

Other aspects can also be found in this phenomenon and the treatment has been supplemented accurately by examples. In summing up this situation demonstrates the previously mentioned relationships between work and capital. Here wages are offered for the work that is to be done and this is a concrete situation of buying and selling labour that again demonstrates the relationships between owner and worker, the relationships between the capitalist class and the working class.

Apart from the relationships between work and capital that are governing and decisive aspects, not all in the working class enjoy the same living conditions, and everyday life has not the same to offer everybody within the class. From the oral sources it is repeatedly maintained that one did not ask for work at the Quay; and the tradition of lining up outside the storehouses reveals a working class life style characterised by an uncertain and unsteady day. The treatment of this life style is based on and derives from the notion of class. It is still about the historical perception presented, that history is viewed as contrasts between classes, that classes are concrete and real entities rather than just theoretical ones. If the perception is based on classes being directly observable and not just scientific ideas and with the confirmations, that although people are united in the same class either because they own or do not own the result of their production or because they either regulate or work the tools of production, it must also be acknowledged that people belonging to the same class are also disconnected, they are heterogeneous. People have had varied lives, living conditions and cultures. Within the working class there are several life styles but in the narrow and limited Faroese community it does not seem possible to indicate or recreate more than two, the more regular hands and the casual life style of the day-labourers. In the Quay environment it was the latter one, at a harbour that has employed a mixture of people on a daily basis, such as unskilled workers, sailors and fishermen, qualified mates and skippers, craftsmen, former clerks, schoolboys and sometimes students. Those approaching the harbour might get a discharging, a day's work. These have been united in the life style of day-labourers at the moment and while discharging, regardless of social background, although the life style in most cases has borne the stamp of unskilled workers, sailors and fishermen.

Distinctive features and patterns common to men that have been discharging are discussed, and others connected with the Quay have recalled their adolescence, living conditions and material circumstances, the path into adulthood, the existence and the working life in the town; likewise the same matters regarding the changing life style of day-labourers are discussed. Until the 1950s it was quite common that those engaged in discharging had other sources of income such as smallholding and inshore fishing in open boats in addition to the responsibilities necessary to keep house. Being a day-labourer at the Quay did not differ that much from the traditional life in the villages but without the wages earned for the hours at the Quay there would not be any housekeeping. An insignificant smallholding and some fishing were not enough in the capital in the modern community. In the 1960s people in Tórshavn gradually abandoned the little that could be earned from the land and the small boats; and increasing construction works, wholesale industries, etc., competed with the Quay for manpower. Discharging was not such an important and tempting work any more because the income was more stable in other industries. Tórshavn has always had the characteristics of being a town with a certain degree of urbanity, but at the same time the place has felt like a town containing a certain rurality well into the 20th century because the inhabitants have utilised what nature had to offer. This gives a particular mixture and the description of the development of the modern community is of importance because it demonstrates how dockers have lived and thought.

Regarding the recreation of the life style of day-labourers – that obviously was about lining up at the storehouse entrance, some snapshots have been presented to illustrate the labour market in Tórshavn in the 1950s and 60s. They reveal where the weight lay, where special kinds of work took place and also the importance of the discharging for the private market in the town. Furthermore an attempt is made at illustrating the workforce at the Quay during the same period while day labouring still existed and the tradition at the storehouse entrance was still practised. The workforce at the Quay is divided in various ways, for instance according to regular or casual workers, and the work through the year is also described.

The casual and changeable discharging contributed in forming the lives of the day-labourers. One feature is the external circumstances such as the number of assignments that have characterised the life of the day-labourer and was the constant uncertainty. Another was the voluntary feature. The job had its drawbacks and its advantages. The Quay that has attracted workers – it was necessary for them to earn wages; but it has also enticed workers - the casual and unsteady discharging was suitable to their everyday habits and temper.

Nobody could plan further ahead than one discharging at a time. The working hours were not always from 8 to 5 but casual and at random. Sometimes the work was inhumanely hard with long days; sometimes there was little or nothing to do. This led to a peculiar phenomenon that was actually a contradiction. The dockers owned the day as such but at the same time they had to be available and ready to check in. In addition they had a concealed sense of pride. To a certain extent they could manage the speed of the work and partially decide when to go back to work. The irregular work also contributed to the fact that the turnover of labour was often quite substantial. Some dockers came from fishing vessels, skipped a fishing expedition to stay at home for a while and then left again. Some such workers were always at the Quay between fishing. Retired fishermen and sailors took up work at the Quay permanently. Others came to work at the Quay when there was little to earn in other industries, they took a break, searched for something else, waited and eventually went on to something else. Some came when they were 14 years old and stayed on for their whole working lives. Consequently the dockers differed in the stories of their lives but these individual differences should not prevent the mutual characteristics and patterns that, after all, can be distinguished because there was not such a big gap between the men and, based on the lives of the day-workers, they acquired the same life style.   

A life style also refers to culture. Some aspects in connection with the life style of day-workers regarding the class concept are being discussed, first of all cultural differences in the town, then the public working class culture. Obviously most men discharging were quite ordinary workers, loyal towards the employer and his family and came home with the wages straight away. Some were social-democrats and favourably disposed towards their trade union, others were more bourgeois minded; some liked the drink so much that all the wages did not reach the home, and others went faithfully to the hall of prayer meetings or the temperance society after work. In all this whirl there were models that everybody regarded as genuine and trustworthy dock workers and there were also men that represented the opposite. Both types are described. The independent work environment at the Quay was governed by unwritten laws and rules. Laziness, complacency and working to please was not accepted although it was part of the working day as elsewhere. Being intoxicated, shouting about, petty theft and real theft, all these things were impossible but yet possible and went on, it is said. Connected to this there are many tough myths, prejudices and  anecdotes. All this can be recognised in the big ports abroad and fills up the memories and consciousness of the dockers, of people that know the Quay in Tórshavn and should therefore be regarded as part of the special work culture. These phenomena should also be regarded as a paradox. The unwritten leading rules are not always easy to understand and interpret and should be kept together with different concepts such as work obedience, morality - and humour that is a conspicuous part of the work culture and is governed by the spontaneity existing among people working together in manual work. This has characterised the discharging, the whole of the Quay. It was not solemn but lively, the interaction was quick and swift, easy and good-natured, with shouting and bawling, aphorisms, nicknames, teasing, competition, bravery and fearlessness, in short an informal working class culture.

Similar informal conditions can be distinguished if the consciousness and the ideology in a working life only offering a day at a time are scrutinised. Dockers in Tórshavn, like all other workers in the town, had to be registered members of the Workers' Union, Havnar Arbeiđsmannafelag. The relation between dockers and the Union has been such that in some cases men at the Quay have exposed a rather strong consciousness and have been among the most progressive in Union politics, but it is also said that the only contribution they made was to pay the compulsory membership fee. This is a relationship within the class at a formal level, arranged and organised in such a way that theoretically all workers stand together as one man in the labour market. At a more informal level the dockers have made themselves conspicuous. In a variety of ways they were able to organise stoppage of work, demonstrate their dissatisfaction and establish their rights. This is the Quay when it makes its appearance as an independent community.

The organised working class in Tórshavn came into being when the Union, Havnar Arbeiđsmannafelag, was established in 1916 and has been followed throughout most of the century in the thesis. The Faroese working class movement emerged early in the 20th century and is also discussed. The conditions of the class in Tórshavn with the social-democratic working class ideology have also been illustrated and discussed. Tórshavn did not acquire the same social-democratic class consciousness as the working people in Tvřroyri although several noticeable initiatives were carried out. Class consciousness as a concept and as consciousness put into action is reiterated in the thesis and is counterbalanced with the historical approach that ordinary people are historical actors and have had influence on their own historical role themselves.

Based on two isolated events in the working environment of the dockers, two professional tests, aiming at strengthening the solidarity of the workers, improving the working conditions at the Quay, etc., it is asked whether these were signs of a certain radicalism. The incidents took place around 1960 and around 1980 respectively, at the same time as the changes that technological developments brought about; simultaneously  changes in the mentality could also be observed. The former was an attempt to create a section for dockers within the Union and is based on the workers' strike in Tórshavn in 1958. This has been included to establish at importance of the harbour, Tórshavnar Havn, for the town and it illustrates how the workers thought in union terms at the time. These attempts at establishing a special section for dockers did not lead to any direct results, but on the other hand they demonstrate the intention of supervising the discharging and control the environment.

The thesis on dock workers in Tórshavn is not a work mainly concerned with union history. Rather it is a work on the history of workers, on the ingredients of the common everyday, on a special work and a work unit that has remained concealed in its own unwritten history so far. Together with own words and statements from men who have discharged, the real purpose of the thesis has been directed towards the dockers' lives and their existence.