Tuesday 29 November 2011

Queer US seafarers and their union

Allan Bérubé has long been one of my favourite historians, so it was a great treat when his new book arrived through my letter box last week: My Desire for History: Essays in Gay, Community, and Labor History, Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2011. And it was even better than I had imagined possible. Do get it!

Although Allan died in 2007, he is very much alive in people’s minds for the important community history work about sexuality that he did, most notably Coming Out Under Fire. And I am one of many who mourn that his incomplete history of the US Marine Cooks and Stewards Union is still not published.

Several draft chapters from it that appear in My Desire for History give us a taste of path-breaking material that deserves to reach the wider public: the story of men’s – and women’s - co-operation in building a union in the 1930s and 40s that was progressive, pro-black, gay-led (and then wrecked by the Cold War, as so many laudable initiatives were).

It’s very much a story that parallels my work on gay seafarers in the UK, 1945-1990. But Bérubé writes about men who camped their way across the worlds oceans two decades before most of my informants, and who were far more active in their organisation than British queens were in The National Union of Seamen.

The project of editing his manuscripts deserves prompt attending and funding. Such an extraordinary and heartening history is needed in a world where LGBTTQ matters and unionisation do not go hand in hand.

Imprisoned on a Scientology ship

Pic: Valeska Paris with son Declan

Ships can be prison-like enough, so who needs to be ideologically imprisoned too? Who needs to be kept from leaving by a guard at the bottom of a gangway?

The Village Voice today released an interview with Valeska Paris (born 1977) who was imprisoned for twelve years on the Scientology cruse ship Freewinds. The vessel sails the Caribbean and 'caters to wealthy Scientologists paying for the highest level of spiritual training' at $8,000 a time.

At 17 Valeska, from a Scientology family, was put on board but told her stay would only be two weeks.'For her first six years, she worked as a waitress in one of the ship's restaurants... [later she]became an auditor and an instructor of courses.'

Isn't a life on the ocean wave OK? the reporter asked her. No. '"The schedule in the Sea Org is very different than in the real world. You'd get up at 6 and go to work, and you'd work until midnight. In 1997 and 1998, after our regular jobs we were up every night until 4 am cleaning up asbestos," she says. "There was rubble on the deck. We'd have to go behind the guys doing renovations, vacuuming up dirt until 4 in the morning."

'For several months, she alleges, she was punished with an assignment in the ship's engine room, where at one point she passed out from the noise and heat.'Men were put there as punishment too, so it wasn't gendered. But she didn't leave. Why not?

'"You're so resigned to it," she says. "I had grown up in Sea Org. I never had a bank account. You get 50 dollars a week. You don't have a passport. If you want to leave the ship, you have to go down the gangway, and there's a security guard there 24 hours a day." (Valeska's passport had been taken from her when she boarded the ship; the church says that was just maritime procedure.)'

For all that her situation was so appalling, essentially it is not unlike that of many crew members on some cruise ships today: long hours, low wages, gaol-like conditions and the maintenance of a disempowering mindset that means people think they can't get away.

Tony Ortega, 'Scientology's Cruise Ship as Prison: The Voice Interviews Valeska Paris' Village Voice, 29 November 2011. http://blogs.villagevoice.com/runninscared/2011/11/valeska_paris_chris_guider_scientology_freewinds.php her career).

Saturday 12 November 2011

Missing –woman crew member, and evidence about her disappearance.

Pic: Rebecca Coriam with parents Anne and Mike

Another woman missing from a cruise ship. Yesterday (11.11.2011) a Guardian journalist reported on what he’d found when he went looking for evidence about Rebecca Coriam, a youth activities worker on the Disney Wonder. http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/nov/11/rebecca-coriam-lost-at-sea?newsfeed=true

At least 171 people have disappeared from cruise ships since 2000, but she is Disney's first. Sixteen had vanished this year alone, before Ronson set sail. By the time he got off the ship, the figure had gone up to 19.

Rebecca, an Exeter University sports science graduate from Chester, UK, vanished in March. The formal position is ‘the investigation is ongoing’ – seemingly meaning nothing is happening. Her distraught parents, who believe she was murdered, have created a website; http://www.rebecca-coriam.com.

Rebecca was last seen on CCTV camera looking distraught while taking a mobile call at 6am – and was known to be in a volatile relationship (with another young woman aboard) .

Ronson found the following things that illuminate life on cruise ships today – the non-magical, non-cute, un-Mickey Mouse context for a 'non-stop fun' brand.

• Only one police officer has ever been assigned to investigate Rebecca's disappearance, and did just one day’s on-board investigating.
• There’s official silence and denial, although the crew think something’s up. A waiter tells Ronson, '"It didn't happen. You know that's the answer I have to give.”’ ‘Melissa’, a shipmate, told the reporter that "‘After Rebecca went missing, Disney had a little ceremony. They put flowers at the wall next to the crew pool, "where they think she might have jumped from. But they didn't say. They put these flowers down but refused to answer any questions as to why… Nothing was clear."’
• There are CCTV cameras everywhere. Ronson spotted ‘four CCTV cameras on deck 4 – two on the port side, two on the starboard, evidently capturing every inch of the deck. They're hard to see at first as they're shaped like long tubes and look like some kind of nautical equipment.’ But the company say they have no CCTV footage about her death. When Ronson asks ‘Melissa’ why a shipping line would they suppress such information she replies ‘"To try to protect the brand. If it was 6am and they were doing their job and watching the front, someone must have seen her go over. Or if they didn't, they're covering up why they didn't.”’
• Crew say all phone calls are taped (so knowing about Rebecca’s call might have helped the investigation). But when Ronson asked the company if they had the tape, he was stonewalled:'"That pertains to specific details about the investigation and so it's not appropriate for us to share that kind of information."'
• The crew say life on board is ‘about the show’. Some crew members tell Ronson ‘“All the big smiles and happiness, it's all real. You couldn't act that." And "Disney wouldn't hire you if you weren't that sort of person."’But it’s a very hard job with long on-duty hours – until the kids are in bed, in fact. For background see a blog by former Wonder worker Kim Button: http://allears.net/cruise/issue404.htm. The policy of passengers getting unlimited drinks for one price on Royal Caribbean, and Celebrity, thinks Mike, Rebecca’s dad, adds to the risks of trouble aboard.

Ronson talked to Kendall Carver, who now leads a lobby group called International Cruise Victims, after his daughter died on ship.http://www.internationalcruisevictims.org/.

‘Over the phone, he told me theories of murder, negligence and cover-ups. Sometimes he sounded angry and xenophobic; at other times he was incredibly compelling… It's true that passengers on just one ship – the Carnival Valour – reported nine sexual assaults to the FBI in less than one year.

‘"In other corporations, police get involved," Carver said. "On cruise ships they have, quote, security officers, but they work for the cruise lines. They aren't going to do anything when the lines get sued.”’

Stephen Mosley Rebecca’s MP, who on 1 November raised her case in the House of Commons, said, says Ronson, that Disney was "more interested in getting the ship back to sea than in the case of a missing crew member."' Yes, it would be. Port charges cost a five-figure sum every day.

What this sad story makes clear is how much can happen because these ships are far away and - if under flags of convenience - not much supervised by others. And as the crew are numerous, young, diverse – and not even relatively effectively unionised as in the old days - then anything can happen. It’s so unlike a Disney fairy tale.

The international trade union for crew, Nautilus International, yesterday (vol 44 no 11, p.25, http://www.nautilusint.org/Resources/pages/Telegraph.aspx) wrote that the Coriams have joined the campaign advocating that the UK and EU copy the US Vessel Security and Safety Act 2010. This law applies to all cruiseships carrying over 250 passengers on international voyages that embark or disembark passengers in any US port.
Vessels are required to:
• have visitor identification peepholes on cabin doors
• set the minimum deck rail height at 42 inches
• have information packs on how to report a crime
• have examination kits for alleged rape victims onboard, as well as medication to prevent sexually transmitted diseases
• train medical staff to deal with assaults
• provide confidential access to sexual assault helplines
• keep a log of all shipboard crimes and immediately report serious incidents to the FBI or US Coast Guard
• have at least one crew member certified in maritime crime scene preservation

Friday 11 November 2011


Pic: Outcry about nurses lost on the Anglia.

Today on Remembrance Day I'd like to remember particularly the women who died at sea in WW1 and WW2. Most people don't know that there were such women, but I've found there were a number.

Of course they deserve to be commemorated. To put a face to a phenomenon let us remember Violet Long, drowned at sea on Saturday 3 August 1918. A Chief Controller of Queen Mary’s Army Ambulance Corps, she was 32 and had two young daughters.Her long bright brown hair was later described by her vicar as ‘magnificent’.

On her way back from Le Havre to Southampton to give a progress report, her ship, the HMAT (His Majesty’s Australian Transport) Warilda was hit by a torpedo. They were 37 miles south east of Selsey Bill, nearly home.

Charlotte Trowell, her orderly, was coming home on special leave to marry a man who had just returned from Mesopotamia. She told journalists:

‘There was no warning of impending disaster when I retired to my bunk at a quarter to twelve. Mrs Long came to my bunk just before retiring herself and inquired, “Are you comfy?” and gave me some chocolates.

'When the torpedo struck the vessel I was thrown out of my bunk. I hurried on deck, and just as I got up there the stairway was blown up… I was put into a boat filled with wounded, but as the vessel sank our boat was not level. A davit rope was cut, but the boat capsized and we were thrown into the water.

'I clung to a rope and a wounded American Officer and an Australian pulled me into another boat. The wounded soldiers who were in that boat insisted on wrapping their saturated blankets around me.'

While Miss Trowell was sitting in lifeboat number four with her feet in the water ‘someone said “that is a woman” and I saw Mrs Long clinging to our boat and heard her murmur “Oh save me. My feet are fastened. I have lost a foot."’

Violet Long had become entangled in some rope. ‘I caught hold of her hair to hold her up and she said “You are hurting me.”’ Despite all efforts to free Mrs Long’s limbs and get her into the lifeboat, Miss Trowel says, Mrs Long's

'grip suddenly loosened and she collapsed and fell back into the sea. I felt like collapsing also at the sight, for she had been very kind to me, but I took courage from the fortitude of the suffering and dying men around me. Strange though it may seem, the thought that was uppermost in my mind was that I should have liked those who strike in wartime to be there to witness the scene.’

They were about two hours in the boat before a patrol boat picked them up. ‘An officer called out “The badly wounded cases first,” but the wounded replied “there is a girl in the boat. Go on, Miss” and that despite the sufferings they had endured,’ Charlotte Trowell marvelled

With hindsight the attack is understandable. The ship was a legitimate target. It was armed and it was what the Admiralty termed as ship an ‘ambulance transport’, rather than a ‘hospital ship’. This meant it was permitted to carry ‘Government stores’ which of course could include war materials. But as this ship was homeward-bound, rather than outward bound, it would have unlikely to carry armaments.

It took two hours to sink, which meant many could be helped into lifeboats. 123 people out of the 801 on board died.

There’s confusion about who was aboard and what happened. The hurry to be gallant did not necessarily help the women, who tried to keep calm and do their job but found it hard to withstand men’s pressure to evacuate sooner than they wanted to.

Interestingly, British newspapers did not use the Associated Press report carried by the New York Times that said ‘Women were placed in the first boats lowered, notwithstanding their protest that they should not precede the patients.

The London Times headlined celebrated Mrs Long as ‘Last woman to leave the Warilda.’ However, as there were only seven women, and they were all herded into same boat, this matter of minutes seems hardly to be significant timing. Steward TE Redman said she was on the first boat with him.

In the media Mrs Long’s loss was treated as a key part of the tragedy of a precious hospital ship being unfairly sunk, in ‘one more [of] the most dastardly crimes committed by a dishonoured enemy.’The image above indicates the tenor of the media outcry.

But it did not bring calls to stop women sailing. They had become too crucial to the war effort for such exceptionalising to be possible

Thursday 3 November 2011

Women’s role in naval song

Left: Songwriter Charles Dibdin:set off for the East Indies but turned back at Torbay

PATRIOTIC SONGS were one of the Royal Navy’s key recruiting tools in times of wartime need when retention rates were already poor, argued Dr James Davey at Greenwich Maritime Institute, London, on Wednesday Nov 2. http://greenwichmaritimeinstitute.wordpress.com/2011/10/28/singing-for-the-nation-wednesday-2nd-november-2011-6pm/

Such songs led potential sailors to understand that not only would they be doing something fine for Britain/England. They would also gain personal wealth, social mobility, renown and jolly camaraderie if they joined up.

Lyrics valorised hegemonic masculinity (though Davey didn’t used that term) and mocked any cowards who would disregard the call.

In the long eighteenth century the songs were mainly produced as broadsheets by commercial companies – you could say the navy was outsourcing part of its public relations. The musical propaganda was concocted not by Admiralty wordsmiths but by a range of freelance writers. Charles Dibdin, the most famous of them, briefly enjoyed Pitt’s government fee of £200 a year for his work in 1803, at a time when Able Seamen got a shilling a day (less than £18 p.a.).

James Davey’s thorough and elegantly-organised presentation made clear these were honeyed lyrics, imbricated in imperial needs and myths.

But the labouring classes have always been good at ripostes that expose manipulation for what it is. By definition any such conformist represention of the Navy must have been countered by radicals who protested‘Hang on a minute, mate’ or ‘Who do you think you’re fooling, Admiral Anson?’ Davey explained that in this case it was cartoons, not songs, that showed the other half of the story: the horrors of the press gang and the difficulties of life at sea.

Of course I was interested in how women were represented in such songs. Three categories seem identifiable.
1. Potential wife. She'd say yes to a marriage proposal if Jack could bring in the promised financial rewards. Implicitly this posits women as motivated by greed and akin to prostitutes. It also suggests that the Jack-to-be is insecure about his desirability and thinks he has to top himself up with this inducement for consumers.
2. Soppy liabilities. They are wives and mothers who hold real men back from becoming naval stars. Would-be Jacks need to step up and shrug off such wimpy emotional ties, assert the lyrics. In this classic version of hegemonic femininity, women’s lives are implicitly represented as the binary opposites of career success, action and mobility, which actually takes no account of real women’s many strengths in supporting men and households.
3. Self-sacrificing patriot. A sweetheart in one song tells her man to go, because the country needs him even more than she does…. Well, it’s a good line, ladies, if you’re looking for excuses to get rid of a man.

In being flippant I’m making the point that these songs are simple, one-dimensional, and not realistic about naval careers nor human relations. But the con worked – Dibdin was worth 10,000 recruits, a sizeable percentage of the 40,000 men who were needed then.

The songs feel like they belong to a different world to the shanties that evolved in the merchant service a century later. Shanties were not designed to recruit personnel for defence work, but to harness workers’ labours as they shared physical tasks that benefited from concerted breathing.

Women in these shanties, as I argued in a recent paper, were sung about in the following, usually autobiographical, ways:
• She’s run away, cross-dressed, as a cabin boy (sometimes to find her sailor boy who’s gone before). E.g. The handsome cabin boy
• The sweet lassie who’s waiting for (undeserving) me. She’s my honourable muse/true love back home. E.g. Walkalong, my Rosie; Rolling King.
• Tarts who fleece and betray us poor innocent lads just back home from the raging seas with our big pay packets. E.g. Maggie May; Heave away boys, heave away; A-rovin.

The songs varied with the direction of travel. Outward bound shanties revelled in the thought that a range of wild (sometimes black or yeller ) gals are waiting somewhere exotic, with rum, to give us roving he-men a good time. E.g.The Gals o’ Chile; The plains of Mexico; Rio Grande; Johnny come down to Hilo; and Mobile Bay. Homeward bound songs about leaving those wild girls (alack but whoopee) include Spanish Ladies.

Such shanties therefore ignored:
• Women going to sea in their own right, with a sense of vocation
• Women who might not be interested in men, actually
• Women who were competent at ‘masculine’ tasks
• The more usual view of women as low whores and objects in a quick cash transaction
• Men who preferred to have relationships with other men and form a shipboard culture where women are not needed


If there is anything that an uneven comparison between the 18C recruiting songs and 19C shanties can tell us, it is that there was an enduring, but differentiated, binary. It linked men with sea and action, in contrast to women’s connection with land, non-public life and passivity. Songs didn’t just reflect an existing binary. Their attractive memorable rhythms continued to reproduce it, and thereby reinforce gendered norms.

This worked to the benefit of society’s dominant groups, and seemingly arrested women’s motility and mobility. So I value the modern feminist ripostes – like the shantywoman who sings of circumnavigating Cape Horn on a microwave.

Maybe the call is 'Woman that satnav!' 'All Marigold-gloved hands to the pump!' 'Stand by the pink fluffy MP3 players!'

Where are we bound? To that free country some of us have espy'd: Beyond Hegemonic Masculinity and Hegemonic Femininity, just a short trip away across the Sea of Outworn Habit.

Tuesday 1 November 2011

Wrens’ founding myth dispelled

Was the initial idea of having ‘a women's navy’ the initiative of a smart feminist – or a pragmatic move by a chap who had no other choice?

At her talk at the British Commission for Maritime History Seminar at Kings College, London, on Thursday Oct 27 Ph.D researcher Hannah Roberts has shed new light on that pivotal moment in the Women’s Royal Naval Service History.

Up till then most people had accepted the story that in March 1917 the enterprising Lady Rocksavage, Sybil Cholmondeley (pic, left), was giving drinks to Sir Eric Geddes, the First Lord of the Admiralty (pic, right). He was worrying about the Navy’s shortage of people (well, men). So many sailors were dead or injured.

‘Why don’t you use women for shore jobs such as driving and typing? The Army does, who not the Navy?’ she asked. Although he was shocked, the idea went ahead, quickly. By November it was agreed: 3,000 service women were to be recruited for this new auxiliary service, the WRNS.

That’s the founding myth – which was surely enjoyed by the suffragette directors of Wrens, Katharine Furse in WW1 and Vera Laughton Mathews in WW2.

But in looking at Geddes’ records Hannah Roberts has found that as early as 1915 he was recognising that the war could only be won if women were recruited to do the work of men who were away fighting. His can-do approach - as Director-General of Munition Supply 1915-16, Director of Transportation on staff of C-in-C British Army in France 1916-17,and Director-General of Transportation for all theatres of war 1916-17 - meant he recognised economic necessity. His views on women's emancipation were not the point.

In that case, Lady Rocksavage would have been preaching to the long-converted when she buttonholed him over gin two years later. I like to see myths demolished, but I’m rather sad to see this sparky one go.


NB: The King’s seminars open to the public, and take place on Thursdays at 5.15pm. They are held in the Meeting Room of the Department of War Studies, 6th Floor, Old Main Building. The British Commission for Maritime History seminars are organised by Professor John Armstrong and Dr Alan James and are supported by the Department of War Studies, King’s College London, the Society for Nautical Research and the Maritime Information Association. http://www.maritimehistory.org.uk/kings-seminars.htm