Book Review – ‘Forty Years Master: A life in sail and steam’ by Frank Scott

By Frank Scott, published February 2021


The title of this autobiography, Forty Years Master, sums up the dominating theme in Killman’s recollections: being in command of a merchant ship for four decades. This is also its structure, ship by ship, and the style, ‘authoritative’. The autobiographical text occupies 250 pages, and the remaining 100 pages are taken up the editorial team, to clarify, correct or confirm the author’s remarks.

Captain Daniel ‘Crazy’ Killman (1860– 1936) was born in Maine, USA, into a seafaring family. Owing to the death of his mother, and remarriage of his father, he asserted his independence by leaving home not yet in his teens, and seeking farm work. Five years later in 1878, and almost 18, he went to sea in a ship commanded by one of his brothers on a voyage from New York to Nagasaki. He was not entirely ignorant of the sea, as he had made at least one voyage as a young boy across the Atlantic with his father. But this trip threw everything at him: a man lost overboard, dis- masting and repair, and the murder of his brother by the ship’s steward. This all takes only four pages, and it sets the standard for a compulsive read.

With less than two years’ sea time Killman had made it to junior mate, which is remarkably early by British standards (even uncertificated), and soon after that he made the jump to chief mate, all without any need for examinations or licences. When he did eventually attend nautical school, it was to qualify to command steam vessels up to 600 tons. By 1886 he held command. Up until then he had sailed internationally from the east coast of the USA, but it was the ports in Puget Sound on the West Coast that became his operational base thereafter.

Killman is believed to have written his memoir soon after retirement in 1929, probably with the aid of records in his possession, none of which seem to have survived. Typing the manuscript, along with detailed research and editing, was done in the mid-1970s, and this was the work of two of the great names of that era, John Lyman and Harold Huycke. Unfortunately family objections then caused the project to be laid aside, and it was only picked up again some 35 years later by Harold Huycke’s daughter, Rebecca. The passage of time ensured that there were no further objections, and she was able to complete the book.

There is a good index, and most of Killman’s ships, sail and steam, are shown in 32 clear images. The very full notes include bibliographical sources, but some primary sources, such as official records or ships’ log books and crew agreements, do not indicate the archive in which they are held. Perhaps this is because they could not be tracked down since the original work was done, or they have been lost. Petty quibbles aside, this is an extremely well-presented maritime autobiography, which fills many gaps in our understanding of American merchant seafaring and shipmasters.

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Filed under: Atlantic | Other (Twentieth C) | Nineteenth Century | Other (Nineteenth C) | Twentieth Century | Pacific
Subjects include: Biography | Merchant Marines

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