An Australian Merchant Seaman’s Story In His Own Words – Captain John Quinn

Australian Workers Film Guide


Part of a series of interview segments produced by the SUA/MUA in which retired Australian merchant seamen recount their working lives at sea as well as their engagement with union campaigns and activities. Each episode features a seaman, or sometimes a pair of seamen, sharing their story in a largely unstructured and extended interview. They form an important on camera collection of oral histories about Australia’s unionised merchant seamen.

In this episode Captain John Quinn recounts beginning work in 1945 as a 16 year old deck hand working on coastal steamers. His mother told him to say his prayers, keep his chest warm, avoid tattoos and be careful of VD, all of which he complied with. After 2 years at sea you became a seaman and he remembers the Australian ships being 100 years ahead of the British ships.  Leave was based on the “discretion of the master”. He remarks that the Australian ships were not looked after and looked like third world ships, exploited by cheap rates and third world seamen. This was a shame because the Australian seamen were the best in the world.

There was a loyalty and comradeship on the ship, a brotherhood where unions were made up of men of sincerity and honesty, dedicated to improving the lot of others.  He feels ashamed of taking command of a vessel transporting weapons to Vietnam to murder people unjustly.  Says the British union was compulsory but it was run by the ship owners. He painted a kangaroo on a ship’s funnel when he arrived in Melbourne. The ship owners told him to remove it.

He is very proud to have sailed on Australian ships, but is saddened by the state of the industry now. Australian seamen were second to none but economics and politics destroyed them. Even BHP has no ships left. He describes seamen as ants on the sea’s back.

Special Notes/Achievements

Picture and sound quality is low given low budget production.

Author: J Bird, 2023

Duration: 69 mins

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Film Director: Wayne Finch, John Brittain,

Film Producer: Wayne Finch, John Brittain,

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Film Cinematographer: Wayne Finch, John Brittain,

Film Editor: Jennie Finch, Jamie McMechan,

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