The Balclutha

Friday Sept. 04

Hypocrites, keen observer of human nature first descried a 4-box model of personality types in the 4th century B.C. In the intervening years of about 100 generations not much has changed. Our technology advances relentlessly but the human psyche is the same.

A visit to the great sailing square-rigged vessel Balclutha, fully restored as a living maritime museum at the bottom of Hyde Street in San Francisco will confirm this observation.

The Balclutha was built in Scotland in 1886.   She was caught in an earlier time warp of technological change. Europe was running out of timber for wooden ships and searching for an alternative (sound familiar?) So she was an early adapter built out of steel. During the same period, thanks to James Watt, the coal fired steam engine was replacing sail power. But steam wasn’t entirely accepted or trusted so there you have it: the curious anomaly called the Balchutha with its post Industriously Revolution use of below deck steel hull powered by the pre Industrial Revolution known for centuries as wind power.

Back to my central point that technology advances but human nature does not.   At the top fo the food chain is a singularly skilled person, the captain. He lives in lavish, some say extravagant, spacious quarters in the most desirable part of the ship, the aft, and his quarters are outfitted with expensive furnishings and his own private head.   Next in the pecking order are about eight senior officers or craftsmen. They have their own section of the ship, in the middle.   And then there were approximately 20 scurvy crew, who lived in the bow, and whose legal status was better than slavery, but their freedoms were not. Any one who has ever tried to sleep on a recreational vessel in the V-birth knows it is the most uncomfortable part of a pitching vessel. The crew shared their quarters with the massive steel windlass, and in rough seas (nearly all the time) water came in through the ports where the anchor chain exited, making their common quarters cold and wet.

In summary the ship was organized in a strict hierarchy — with a few highly educated and skilled people at the top; a bunch of mid-level managers trying to work up the career ladder, and the scurvy crew of social misfits and undesirables subscript for the voyage. When you walk the Balclutha you see the strict hierarchy in the architecture and feel it in the bones of the men. Perhaps it’s a bit too close to the way we are organized today.

To this day we accept that’s it’s good that the captain have control of the ship.   And that society of necessity has a benign form of economic human trafficking… or economic slavery………. for the greater good.

This form is an interesting experiment in leadership. — thrown together and caged like rats in a little laboratory experiment — whose lives are dependent upon one another, and who could despise or love one another, but they had to function together for the common survival and good The captain must retain control over the men. But he also must gain their respect. It is a delicate balance, a balance lost in the famous stories such as the mutiny of the Bounty.

the tension and balance exist among all humans. The tension between the forces of good and of evil have been played out in ships and societies since the beginning of time.

Go see for yourself.   Live as a scurvy crew member with little control over your life – a life you may hate. Or play the role of an educated gentleman officer – committed to your career and carefully watched and judged. Or be the captain, who has absolute authority, yet must do a balancing act of leadership in order to survive and bring home the bacon — or coal, or wheat, or timber, or furnishings, or humans.

Some things never change.   We use our and our hierarchical society to make and distribute more goods cheaper and faster for 7 billion inhabitants than in any previous society. Our Western medicine in genius, and we are the first generation to organize our technology and our society to put a man on the moon. Aren’t we the greatest?

I dare say we have as many evil leaders in the world as good. On board we either have a captain Ahab or a loving (though disciplined) captain.   We never seem to abolish the one nor the other. In the worst of circumstances the captain is selfish and tyrannical. In the best of circumstances the captain percolates upward and is accepted as first among equals. We never seem to abolish the one nor the other. Technology marches forward while human nature takes many generations to advance. Is there a better way? You can come away from a tour of the Balchutha with a glimmer of the great age of sail… and a lot to think about.


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