Monday 28 January 2013
What a revelation this image is! A Chinese female shipboard worker in wartime. It's evidence of a past that is not at all visible in mainstream historiography. It shows that at least one Chinese women worked at sea despite the war. Not only that, she traveled with her child (meaning working a double shift). Not only that, both were captured by the enemy.
Women in many countries worked at sea as stewardesses throughout WW1. (Far fewer did so in WW2, in Britain at least). They faced risks of capture and shipwreck, as male crew did. They didn't necessarily count themselves as women when the 'abandon ship' order said women and children should leave first.
As the war went on ships' stewardesses dwindled in number. This was partly because of the convention that women should not be in danger zones, which increasingly meant European shipping lines replaced women crew with men. But also, so few women passengers (bouches inutiles) were allowed to take up scarce space on wartime ships, that there were no women for the stewardess to serve.
Many women were prepared to travel, no matter what the risk. They regretted that they were forced to stay home.
I've found evidence of only one British stewardess sailing by 1917. But this Chinese stewardess was sailing as late as 26 September 1917. She was on the Indian Ocean on the Japanese freighter, Hitachi Maru.
Having her her young daughter with her was not exceptional. It was a Chinese custom for seafarers to have families at sea. Many women passengers were on this ship too.
This image from the Australian War Memorial shows the unnamed stewardess and her girl among the Chinese crew. It's taken after they were all captured by the German armed merchant raider, SMS Wolf, south of the Maldive Islands.(Image number P05338.160, Photographer unknown)
After being captured crew and passengers alike had to wait a month at Suvadiva Atoll. The ship was scuttled. And they were, presumably, freed. German crew were often gallant to women and children, even at that fierce stage in the war. In some cases German crew let women go free or gave them priority.
Was this the case here? And what did the women make of an experience that is normally traumatic experience? It looks oddly matey here. Who knows. But how useful it was that a man on the Wolf had his camera with him, used it, and that the picture survives.
Black women's history is so hard to find. But in exploring who sailed where and why and how in WW1 and WW2, I've found some things by accident, not least because the original label doesn't say 'black' or 'African-'.
First there's this great picture which has been put in Wikipedia Commons (by the US National Archives and Records Administration) meaning everyone can use it. Hopefully it should give these African-American nurses sailing in WW2 a high profile. Most people in Britain know about we had black GIs here, but not women too. These women are sailing into Greenock on Tuesday 15 August 1944.
Having seen hundreds of images of white women and men in transit it seems to me that what it shows is par for the course on wartime voyages. You're marshalled in batches. There's nowhere to sit and have a hot drink (a joke!). You wait around, for this, then that, then wait again. And if you're lucky it isn't raining as you queue on an open deck.
Although these 'enforced travellers' were be thrilled at being selected for the 'adventure' of going overseas and really keen on contributing to the war effort, days of mal de mer often took the shine off arriving. (Women are twice as likely as men to be seasick too; it's a not-understood physical problem connected to women being more prone to migraines than are males. Even nurses didn't get issued with motion sickness tablets, which were anyway still in their chemical infancy. Clever ones bought their own Mothersills).
At least they were crossing in summer (less choppy), As it was just after D-Day, they had grounds for being optimistic about victory. They'd be nursing troops injured in that successful Allied landing in occupied France two months earlier.
These women's crossing from the segregated US must have had gendered and racialised aspects, but obviously they are not officially recorded in publicity photos. That's why doing oral history is essential.
Some of my finding are in a light article (2,000-ish words), Searching for Histories of Black Women’s Service across the Seas in the Second World War which is newly posted on the History Workshop blog. It has been tweeted a lot already, as 'interesting'.
There's also a great film about Afro Caribbean women's experience here, Frances Anne Solomon's Reunion. http://francesannesolomon.net/films/reunion/