Sunday 1 July 2012

Studying the lives of people in port cities

Port city lives. Conference at Blackburne House, Liverpool, June 29 -30 2012

Organised by Liverpool University’s Centre for Port and Maritime Histories, this highly innovative two-day interdisciplinary workshop marked the re-launch of the centre. Port studies might be expected to involve the giant skeletal cranes that dominate quayside skylines, terminal logistics, dock roads layouts complex as airport runways, and the invisible diverse contents of all those seemingly identical containers only differentiated by their matt reds and blues and their stencilled names such as Maersk.

But the organisers’ deliberate focus was on ‘lives’. Therefore the discussions were of those in the borderlands who deliver and unload the goods; those such as sex industry workers who profit from proximity to seafarers and the liminality of the waterfront world; and those who organise trafficking from their high panelled offices far from the seagulls' cries.

Indeed, we were appropriately in a space endowed by cotton broker and abolitionist, George Holt. His profits enabled many privileged Merseyside girls to learn within these stylish walls and go on to Girton and St Hilda's from the early twenties. Edwina Currie attended school assemblies in the very hall where we assembled for our much more earthly purpose.
Blackburne House, formerly Liverpool Institute High School for Girls

If the topic is ‘lives’ then the question has to be ‘how did people in very different positions work together? What was the impact of the port on their lives, and what was their impact on all the aspects of the port's life?' And the ports in question ranged from Liverpool itself to Nantes, Barcelona, Thessaloniki, Matamoros, Rotterdam and Salvador de Bahia, Hamburg and Cork as well as Portsmouth and Hull. It was an international gathering but also speakers were international in their focus. And indeed, as both the keynote speakers showed, the people in question were global citizens, be they elite British merchants easily connecting to New York or the slavery triangle, or black seafarers in Cardiff with a Pan-Africanist focus.

Strands at this Port City Lives conferences include marginal workers, commerce and trade networks, networking and organisation in the early 20th century, case studies of early modern cities, culture and representation, memory and ‘restructuring, redevelopment and renewal.'

Participants came from a range of perspectives and disciplines, principally maritime history, business history, cultural geography, and migration studies, folklore and linguistics. One eynote speaker, geographer Dr Dave Featherstone (University Of Glasgow) dealt with a topic for too long occluded in maritime historiographer: black seafarers. The surprise was not only the extent of black internationalist activity in early twentieth century Wales. On one occasion, we heard, rank-and-file white seafarers actually supported their black colleagues. They did so in the face of lack of cooperation by their union’s leadership, which at that time was highly reactionary.

Ports are places changed beyond measure by palletisation, containerisation, fast turnarounds that don't allow the visiting seafarer any time ashore, the competition of air travel, and above all industrial decline.Three indelible images remain for me after the conference: sad grey photos of Hull’s rotting wooden jetties; advertising-bright images of the sleek access roads in Thessaloniki’s drastically restructured ports; and the replica of a wife’s severed head in Tunisia, on an old house wall above a tangled garden.

As Sarah DeMott explained, living in a port had enabled a local wife to meet a foreign sailor (and commit adultery with him). Maritime life had provided the ship that helped them move away. But the white carved head, a replacement for the real and bloody original, was the husband’s assertion of conventional morality and gendered power. Wives risk death if they choose new lovers, perhaps especially foreign ones. It underlines Dave Featherstone's point: it is important to not simply see ships as heterotopic spaces but to understand how the shore and the sea interact. Mores and values extend their tentacles from land as well as to it. It is the overlap as well as the exceptionality of ships that make ports such compelling foci for study.

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