How exotic shipping used to be; how glamorous. There were sails, and countless ports in distant lands, and spices and riches. Later, there was Marlon Brando on the waterfront, and the chaos and colour of docks and sailor-towns. Then came the container. Boxing or containing discrete items of cargo wasn’t a particularly new concept: even the ancient Romans packed oil in amphorae. Ships from the beginning of the twentieth century began to box things in. But only the vision and stubbornness of Malcom [sic] McLean brought us into the era of the Twenty-Foot Equivalent Unit. It was McLean, a trucker by trade, who saw that a multimodal unit that could be seamlessly shifted from ship to truck to train would do to shipping what Henry T. Ford’s production line did for automobile manufacturer. It did. Lines were streamed; dockers lost jobs by the thousand as new, deeper ports were built for new, deeper ships. The change wasn’t immediate, but it was, at least unless unmanned ships take over, permanent. A seafarer today lives a very different life to a seafarer of 1970: the speed of cargo movement now means that container vessels are rarely more than 24 hours in port. Proper shore leave is scanty and rare. Crews have been slashed, so that where a small bulk cargo vessel in the late 1960s would carry a crew of 50 or so, a ship five times the size, carrying 18,000 boxes, can be crewed by 18.
In this version of history, the modern world of shipping, dominated by the millions of containers that carry everything we consume, play with, need or don’t need, is a soulless place. When I went to sea on Maersk Kendal, that is what the crew thought of their job. Boxes, they sniffed, when I gazed at the towers of container stacks, as high as monuments, wondering what was behind their corrugated sides. Boring, they said. Stuff carrying stuff. They didn’t know what was in the boxes, a peculiarity of modern shipping, where full manifests are kept in shoreside offices but no onboard. And they didn’t care. I did, because the 6,000 or so containers on Maersk Kendal told me much about the economy, globalisation, life. They were mostly empty on the way out to Singapore; on the way back they would be stuffed with some of the ninety percent of world trade that still travels by ship, although the industry has retreated from public imagination, as ports have been secured, and seafarers are now recruited from labour pools cheaper than American or European ones, such as the Philippines, India, Pakistan, China. Who now encounters a seafarer? And who notices these boxes on the trucks that travel our highways? They should, because there will be more of them, ever more. Shipping is predicted to grow by 2% a year in the near future, because we do not stop wanting stuff, and wanting it to be brought cheaply by men who stay nine months at sea and miss the birthdays and births of their children. Shipping stuff in a box is the most environmentally friendly form of mass transport, by a long way. But shipping is not benign because there is so much of it: On a list of the top countries producing carbon dioxide emissions, it’s already just under Germany.
Even so, those boxes entranced me. They were mysterious. They were less mysterious after I’d looked at them for five weeks from my porthole, but they still intrigued me. I read through the hazardous material list, which is kept on board in case of fire or emergency, and tried to piece together what we were carrying from the chemicals. Airbags? BMW cars going to Asia. Paint. Fertilizer. Hair dye. Later, Maersk sent me a list of the contents of the boxes outside my porthole. This was more information than most customs authorities get, as fewer than 10% of containers are eve physically inspected, and in the US, it’s 2%. Three contained personal effects, of people moving to Asia. There was a box of Heinz canned products. More paint. Just stuff, being carried day in and out, by the 6,000 container vessels on the oceans, out of sight and notice, with no thanks.