Friday 23 July 2010

Sexual harrassment at sea - & Akhona's tragedy

The more I think about cadet Akhona Geveza's death at sea and the alleged sexual harrassment it's exposed, the more I feel appalled.

Latest news is that there's no news - and that no-one has asked for a second autopsy on her, to clarify whether she was murdered or killed herself.

The United Filipino Seafarers website ( has added this: The SA Transport and Allied Workers' Union (Satawu), which said it was horrified by Geveza's death, sent its "heartfelt condolences" to her family.

"Akhona’s death should signal to our government the importance of developing our own ship’s register, where South African seafarers can work on ships owned and registered in South Africa, and therefore be protected by South African laws, including labour laws," the union said.

Satawu would seek a high level meeting with Transnet to discuss measures that must be taken to protect trainees from further abuse.

Several cadets in the maritime studies programme, speaking to the Sunday Times on condition of anonymity, said there was systematic abuse of power by senior officers, who threatened cadets’ careers if they did not perform sexual acts. The sex abuse allegations include claims that :

* Two male cadets were raped by senior officials while at sea;
* A female cadet terminated two pregnancies that followed her rape at sea;
* Three female trainees were pregnant at the end of their 12-month training stint;
* A male cadet was sent home a month before finishing his programme because he refused to have sex with a senior official; and
* A female cadet has a child with a married South African Maritime Safety Agency executive after he forced himself on her and threatened to cancel her contract if she told anyone.

Said a former female cadet: “When we arrived on the vessel, there were 10 women, and we were told that the captain is our god; he can marry you, baptise you and even bury you without anybody’s permission. We were told that the sea is no man’s land and that what happens at sea, stays at sea.”

Said another former female cadet: “It was like we were dumped in the middle of a game park.”

Thursday 22 July 2010

Women on the canals, 1940s.

Pic: WW2 Boatwomen: Rose Skinner (from the traditional boater community) & Sonia Rolt, trainee who later married into that community. Rose helped Kate with her script.

At the moment I am writing the section in my book that includes the middle-class women trained to work on canals in WW2. So it was great to have a very canal-y weekend in Oxfordshire.

I walked along some of the routes the women had taken, like the locks at Fenny Stratford on the Grand Union Canal. It made me realise just how very cut off from war the women were, and therefore how extra tricky it was for them to manage their relationships with the traditional boater community.

At Banbury I saw Kate Saffin's two one-woman plays about women on canals. She staged them at Tooley's boatyard. Ironically the auditorium was the dry dock, where her boat has been fixed at least three times.

Isobel's War is based on accounts of the women who joined the Women's Training Scheme during the war and worked on the narrow boats, a kind of counterpart to the land girls.

The other play is Mary Rose, the poignant story of two sex industry workers who briefly set up a brothel on an old landing craft. Moored on a deserted arm of the Oxford canal near Wolvercote, they encounter a range of responses from the locals, not all of whom are queuing up on the towpath for their services.

Kate based it on a short factual memoir: 'A signalman's story' by Hedley Hunnisett, in Driving Wheels, number 44 (Autumn 2002)

You can see the double bill on this Saturday, July 24, at Kizzie's, Lower Heyford (also on the Oxford canal, bridge 206). Go to for more info.

For further reading about the women trainees see see Margaret Cornish, Troubled Waters: Memoirs of a Canal Boatwoman; Susan Woolfit, Idle Women; Emma Smith, Maiden’s Trip, Eily Gayford, The Amateur Boatwomen. .

You can also learn more about women in the traditional boater community by reading Wendy Freer, Women and children of the cut, and Sheila Stewart, Ramlin Rose: The Boatwomen’s story.

Requiem for a Wren, summarised

WW2 Wrens appeared a fair bit in fiction at the time, but there are one or two novels which have rightly beome classics. Here's an extract from Angela Hickman's blog, about Requiem for a Wren.

'...most of [Neville]Shute's [war] novels ... feature a narrator/side character in the present, a section of reminiscing about the war and then a return to the story's present, in which the consequences of the memories unfold. Shute used that structure in ... in Requiem for a Wren.

It should also be said that Shute is a bit of a romantic. And in Requiem for a Wren he serves up two love stories: one that is beautiful and complete, though short-lived, and another which is enduring and unrequited. Those stories, about two brothers in love with the same woman (although not in a jealous, competitive way) overlay the larger story about WWII and its often undocumented affects on the psyche.

So, the story goes like this. Alan Duncan, an Australian who fought in the air force during the war and lost both his feet in a crash, only to subsequently become a lawyer, returns home to his family's sheep ranch. (Shute is as much a fan of Australian vistas as I am, it would seem). Alan hasn't been home for a long time, so he's surprised that his father is a little down when he picks him up at the airport. It turns out that his parents' housekeeper – and English woman named Jessie Proctor – of whom is mother was especially fond, just committed suicide.

As it turns out, the suicide is quite recent and the body is still in the house. Alan, quite curious about the whole thing – especially because she didn't leave much in way of explanation – goes searching for her personal papers, which he feels certain she must have cached somewhere in little suitcase the suicide attempt failed. Well, he finds them. But they are not what he expects.

Jessie Proctor is really Janet Prentice, his dead brother's fiancee, who he has been searching for. He discovers this, not by looking at the body, but by reading the diaries and letters she left in the case. The documents chronicle Janet's time during the war and her relationship with Bill, Alan's brother. In England, Janet fought as a Royal Navy Wren – a female gunner who shot at enemy aircraft. She was quite accomplished at her job, which was good for England but left her with a horrible guilt she felt the need to atone for. After the war, after Bill died, Janet set off to find Alan. She travelled to Australia, where instead of finding him she found his ailing mother. Janet decided a life of service to her dead fiancee's parents would perhaps help her repay her debt, so she changed her name and stayed on at the ranch.

Without going into all the details, I will just say that the picture Shute paints of female service during the war is a really interesting one. There aren't a lot of mainstream portrayals of what it was like to fight as a woman (especially written by a man) and Shute brings a lot more to the realities of Janet's service than an endless swirl of suitors and parties. Make no mistake, Janet and her Wrens were fighters and, Shute seems to say, there is nothing particularly glamourous about that life, despite the fact that she managed to fit in a little romance.

As I said above, Shute's narrative style follows a bit of a pattern. But, by layering his story he draws you in to one part, then throw you backwards into another one (which ups the stakes in the first one) and then pull you back to the present with a new understanding and let the story unfold. It's almost sneaky, except that he's pretty open about what he's doing. That's what I like about Shute's writing. I mean, yes, it's a little old fashioned and of a certain style, but he makes you really care about his characters and what happens to them: He allows you to understand them – to see them for who and what they are – and let's you judge them as you wish. Not a lot of authors are that brave.

Requiem for a Wren is ultimately a rather sad story, but it is also full of sunny moments and small victories. By the end, you are left rather like Alan is, in love with Janet, unable to have her, but glad you got to know her so well anyway.
(pic shows from Vintage Classics edition)

Angela Hickman's blog at

Cadet Geveza's death exposes shipboard sexual harrassment

This week South African media are reporting the tragic death of Akhona Geveza, a nineteen-year-old South African woman cadet on a cargo ship.

Clever, beautiful and set for a career at sea, she disappeared from the British-registered Safmarine Kariba on June 24. Her poor body was found drifting in the sea off the Croatian coast three days later.

Was she killed by shipmates? Did she kill herself?

Either way,the key seems to be that the day she died a fellow cadet reported (on Akhona's behalf, and against her wishes) that a senior officer, had repeatedly raped her.

Cadet Nokulunga Cele stated that Geveza had said that the Ukrainian officer first tried to kiss her while he was teaching her to swim early in May. Later he apologised to her and called her to his room. But there he allegedly raped her.

Cele said Geveza was not willing to report the matter to the shipmaster because she feared that nobody would believe her. What a lonely, terrible, situation. What an indictment of the shipboard regime.

There is no way that people trying to do their job should ever, ever, be allowed to be abused. It is especially outrageous when the victim is young and at sea because of economic need. (Akhona's father John Geveza, said the career of his only child had represented hope for her unemployed parents in the Eastern Cape).

It is even worse again when their abuser has additional social power over them - such as the ability to enable promotion, or even just daily wellbeing.

Akhona Geveza was a cadet on the Transnet National Port Authority’s maritime studies programme. It was set up as part of a campaign to encourage young women to become seafarers.

But the few stories leaking out so far suggest just how much the merchant shipping industry still has to learn about respecting and supporting vulnerable women - and young men - at sea. More than encouragement is needed. A decent working situation, free from violence, is crucial.

Geveza’s fellow cadets subsequently revealed that there was systematic abuse of power by senior officers at sea “who threatened cadets’ careers if they did not perform sexual acts” reported the South Africa Sunday Times. A woman had to have two abortions, after being raped at sea. Two male cadets were raped by senior officials.

At 10am on June 24 Shipmaster Klaudiusz Kolodziejczyk heard about the rape. He says he immediately confronted the officer and convened a conference with him and Geveza for 11am.

When she failed to arrive for the meeting,he organised a search. Kolodziejczyk, alerted by some pills and a bottle of thinners found on the forecastle of the ship, sounded the alarm and called Sea Rescue at Rijeka.

Captain Kolodziejczyk was no doubt well-intentioned in organising the three-way conference But really! It's insane to subject a victim to that, especially when she was to work with that officer for a long period in an enclosed institution far out at sea. Doesn't Kolodziejczyk know how bullying and social pressure work?

Not only would the rest of her voyage be torture. It's also wrong to treat a rape as a personal dispute between two parties. Rape is a crime. Doesn't officer training include basic procedural advice about how to support the victim? Even the newest police officer ashore knows how traumatising a confrontation could be.

The very least that should be done by Transnet is ensure that this can never again happen on any ship. Akhona's death should alert all masters and shipowners to the very drastic need for training. All ships should be respectful workplaces, where, if there are any such crimes, they are dealt with appropriately.

Thursday 8 July 2010

Women on sailing ships 1650-1850 / Black sailors

Through my Google Alerts system I've found an interesting web forum, with a subsection about women on sailing ships. Go to, then go to 'Women at sea.' The site was mainly active 2003-2008, but it's still viable.

Some of the women discussed are cross-dressing sailors, some are wives of officers, two are mothers who gave birth at sea while their husbands were in Nelson's navy; Nelly Giles on HMS Bellerophon at the Battle of the Nile, 1798, and Louisa Phelan on HMS Swallow in June 1812.

They may have known the two women whom Thomas Maclise represented in his 1860s painting, The Death of Nelson. I was looking at it in Liverpool's Walker Art Gallery last week.

I noticed that of the three 'nurses', the central one is a man. But he's looking very tender. I wondered if the artist gave some thought as to how prominent a woman should be - and decided against it.

The Walker website has an interesting article about how Maclise based his painting on real details of the Victory's complement in 1805. "The inclusion of two black people in the scene - a seaman in the centre of the painting and a cook to the left - was in part a matter of historical accuracy. The Victory's master book of 1805 refers to a small number of foreigners amongst crew members and mentioned that "some must have been Negroes � Two give Africa as their birthplace".

The black seaman plays a key role in the painting not just because he is in the centre, but because he points to Lord Nelson's assassin as well. The black seaman is not a symbol of "otherness" or difference of identity and culture; rather his presence serves to strengthen British identity.

Like other historical paintings, "The Death of Nelson" not only commemorates an important event, but also fulfils a didactic purpose: the representation of black people and women together with Lord Nelson suggests that Victorian society was a harmonious whole, despite its class divisions and inequalities.

In reality 19th century black sailors in British fleets were poorly treated. Although they usually worked in the lower ranks of the ship's company as cooks, deck hands or stewards, they were not slaves but free sailors. The hardship of living at sea meant that the life of a sailor was less attractive and for this reason black people were easily accepted.

It is believed that towards the end of the 19th century a quarter of all seamen in the merchant navy were black. Black people at sea were not isolated by their white shipmates, but mixed both in work and in leisure time. Black seamen from West Africa, the West Indies and the United States were a particularly common sight in Liverpool."

Monday 5 July 2010

Lifeboat women

Struggling to write my book on women on the wartime seas, this week I've been investigating lifeboat women.

It's been fascinating to find out that war didn't change the tradition that women helped launch the boats (before sea tractors did the hauling) but they didn't crew them. Exclusion continued.

Probably the main reason they didn’t sail was superstition. The ages-old defensive belief that women at sea brought ill-luck was so strongly entrenched that women could or would not challenge it. They either respected brave men’s convictions or had a sense of impossibility; there were better things to spend your energy on.

Newbiggin by the Sea have a great website about their launchers. And its historian, Richard Martin, is a godsend for explorers like me.

One of the Newbiggin launchers, cleaner Bella Arkle, said of a 1927 launch:

‘Rain speared down from black skies, a howling freezing gale tore at the roots of the fishermen’s cottages by the shoreline, a boiling sea was thundering ashore with huge combers breaking over the rocks in a fury of spume…

when the alarm went off I ran to the Lifeboat house where all the women were gathering. The weather had really turned bad when the Lifeboat was brought out and got into the water but waves threw it back. We had to straighten her up by wading right in. I was up to my neck that day, but we managed to get the boat away

… all the fishing boats were brought back safely. In fact the boat was out for three hours and the Newbiggin womenfolk for the most part waited on the foreshore in their wet clothes, facing into the gale, to help haul the Lifeboat in. That… was tradition.'

I really appreciate the help of Sue Hennessy in helping me understand their situation. In October she is bringing out a book about women's contribution to the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, published by the History Press, Stroud. (see pic).