February 22, 2019

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Alastair Couper obituary | Education

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My father-in-law, Alastair Couper, who has died aged 87, set up the Seafarers International Research Centre at the University of Cardiff. He was also instrumental in securing financial support from various sources and worked with others to establish Seafarers’ Rights International in 2010, which promotes research on the rights of people working at sea.

From the 1970s to the 2000s Alastair also worked with the International Maritime Organisation, International Labour Organisation and other UN agencies to put in place the law of the sea convention designed to enhance seafarers’ training and rights as well as to tackle environmental issues.

He also focused his efforts on improving their plight through his writing, which included co-authored books such as Voyages of Abuse – Seafarers, Human Rights and International Shipping (1999) and Fishers and Plunderers: Theft, Slavery and Violence at Sea (2015).

Born in Aberdeen to Daniel Couper, a stonemason, and his wife, Davina (nee Riley), Alastair was educated in the city at Powys school, and then Robert Gordon’s School of Navigation, before joining the merchant navy and working up through the ranks. In 1951, aged 19, he found himself in the middle of a labour dispute in New Zealand, in which around 20,000 people were on strike in support of dockers protesting against poor working conditions.

He chaired one of the meetings that ensured British seamen joined the strike and supported the dockers. His political life was under way. A dedicated socialist, he later smuggled anti-apartheid books into South Africa on ships that he captained, and in the UK he took part in the Aldermaston marches against nuclear weapons.

From 1947 to 1957 Alastair was an apprentice navigating officer with Denholm Shipping. He left the merchant navy as a master mariner to take a degree at the University of Aberdeen, securing joint honours in geography and archaeology in 1962. He then took a PhD at the Australian National University in Canberra (1963-66, living in both Fiji and the Gilbert Islands as he studied the ancient navigation methods of South Sea islanders as part of his research.

He took up his first academic post in the UK in 1967 as a lecturer in geography at the University of Durham. In 1970 he was asked by the University of Wales to establish its new Department of Maritime Studies and International Transport, and he became its first chair. From 1987 to 1989 he was a professor at the World Maritime University in Malmö, Sweden.

He is survived by his wife, Norma (nee Milton), a civil servant whom he met in Aberdeen through local trade union activities and married in 1958, and by their four children, Callum, Rona, Katrina and Roderick.

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