A SAILOR’S CERTIFICATE OF DISCHARGE (May 1/07)

“It was by sea that the founders of Wolfville came, and it was to the sea that for many years they looked for links with the outside world,” writes the editor of Mud Creek, the Wolfville history.

Wolfville was still looking to the sea when Charles Scott Cook was born there in the early 1880s. At the time Wolfville was one of the busiest ports along the Minas Basin. The editor of Mud Creek mentions a “shipping boom” in Wolfville in 1885, a boom that lasted well into the next century. Ships sailing out of the tiny seaport provided those links with the outside world, running to points along Minas Basin, the Bay of Fundy, and to foreign shores. Thus it isn’t surprising that like many young men of his time, Charles Scott Cook was drawn to the sea.

Documents possessed by Cook’s family indicate that he was sailing out of Wolfville as early as 1904. Those documents and various souvenirs collected by Cook on his journeys tell us he had sailed on schooners out of Wolfville as far away as Germany. There were other ports of call as well. His son Roscoe of Port Williams remembers his father talking about voyages on merchant ships to Jamaica, Barbados and Bermuda and his remark that on those voyages there “wasn’t much to eat but lots of rum and molasses.”

Cook served as first and second mate on at least four schooners out of Wolfville and also out of Canning. According to the documents Roscoe has, Cook’s last voyage took place in 1908. Cook lost an arm in a lumber mill accident in Wolfville, and this terminated his career as a seafarer.

I had the opportunity to look at Mr. Cook’s “sea chest” (actually an old tobacco tin) in which he had kept various documents attesting to his life as a seafarer. Among the documents were several “certificates of discharge.” The certificates named the schooners Cook sailed on and rated his conduct while at sea. I learned that the certificates were of vital importance if one pursued a seagoing career in the era of sailing ships.

Maritime Museum of the Atlantic curator Dan Conlin tells me the certificates were required by British and Canadian law for sailors on any vessel above a certain size. “Mariners were hired on a voyage by voyage basis and the discharge certificate proved he had completed his contract. Along with a little passport sized booklet called the ‘Discharge Book,’ they made up the sailor’s resume and would be scrutinized by all future employees.”

Conlin added that failure to obtain a certificate of discharge was an offense under maritime law. “Quitting without getting your discharge certificate was desertion, breaking a contract and a fairly serious offense. The discharge papers also regulated performance. They were usually stamped with VG for very good if you did your job. Anything less would make it hard to find work on another ship. Captains had to submit reports on all discharge papers they signed to the government.”

Charles Scott Cook’s discharge papers indicate he was a capable seaman and must have enjoyed sailing to foreign ports from Wolfville. Under “conduct” and “character,” his papers are marked with a large, bold VG.

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