Thursday 27 August 2015

Giving birth to babies at sea

Sophia, aged 3 days, is currently the most famous baby, certainly sea-baby, in the world. Representations of her, her mother and the surgical team are on youtube ( because she was born on a ship. Her refugee mother Rahma fled Somalia five months ago.
Sophia was born on the naval frigate Schleswig-Holstein on 24 August which helped the multi-navy rescue of 4,400 migrants in four struggling craft last Saturday, 22 August. The UK Navy's hydrographic vessel Enterprise took Rahma aboard first, before transferring her.
Francesca Marina, a Nigerian baby (see pic below) was born in May on an Italian Navy ship. The Bettica rescued her economic migrant mother Stephanie Samuel from a people-smuggling boat that stalled after only being at sea for three hours.
“I didn’t expect the baby, you know, but she just came,” said Ms Samuel. “I just wanted to leave Libya. Italy is better than Libya and Nigeria is the worst.”
The baby was named after Italy’s Marina Militare (Navy.) (For video see Her dad is still in Libya.
At that point Francesca Marina was the sixth baby to be born on an Italian Navy ship.
Sophia is said to be the first to be born on a German Navy ship (but records of such matters are usually unreliable)
Sophia and Francesca are symbols of the human side of refugees’ plight. The media spotlight on them should help generate more sympathy for other fleeing people, although Sophia is already also the target of xenophic posts.

Babies have been born, conceived, aborted and miscarried on ships for centuries:
~ European women fleeing the fall of Singapore went into labour on tiny rust buckets, under fire in February 1942. Some miscarried.
~ Nineteenth-century British migrating mothers headed for new lives deceived doctors about how pregnant they were (28 weeks is today's maximum). Everyone on board celebrated the arrival of these non-paying passengers and contributed items for their layettes.
~ Muslim pilgrims in the 1950s thought it lucky to have a child on route to Mecca. So British women doctors such as Joyce Watkin gained some of their first opportunities to work at sea, on Blue Funnel Line pilgrim ships. There they dealt with miscarriages as well as births.
~ In May Alice Keir secretly bore, then neglected to death, her full-term first baby on a Caribbean cruise ship. Cleaning team staff found the corpse under the bed. Alice is on trial.

Naming practices
On merchant and warships alike, new arrivals are named after the ship or the surgeon. Naval history books routinely celebrate babies born on battleships, such as Daniel Tremendous Mackenzie on the Tremendous in the Battle of the Glorious First of June, 1794.
He even got a medal for being in that battle. (His mum didn’t. Women weren’t even allowed to apply for awards.)
By this token, we might wonder whether Sophia will be called Schleswig-Holstein (a bit of mouthful); after the surgeon who delivered her, Darius X; or what.
But how does the trauma get recorded too? In an invisible middle initial 'T'?

A counter-intuitive ‘maternity ward’
There’s a fascinating piquant irony about a new infant emerging in container devoted to war. Unlike a maternity unit, a battleship’s a place where carnage was normal. The blood that surgeons routinely dealt with is that spilt by male warriors as a result on enemy action.
It feels so counter-intuitive, that something so tiny and politically innocent can appear in a climate of conflict between nations, of hyper-masculine heroic endeavour, and only patchy tenderness and vulnerability.
Certainly a new baby and an umbilical cord, on a warship, seem like a classic example of matter out of place, in anthropologist Mary Douglas’s terms.

Symbolic meanings
But more interestingly – and less traceably – what has Sophia’s delivery at sea meant to all those involved?
Travel is transformative, as scholars such as those at argue. Transfers, as the journal of that name ( reveals, have all sorts of significances.
# So what will it mean to the grownup Sophia’s sense of identity that she was born in this military container, after being at risk in a tiny craft full of traumatised migrants? That she and her mother were transferred from African strugggle to privileged Europe in this water-bourne way?
# Will her mother have a slightly easier life in her new land, because the high-profile (but anonymised) transfer of the baby from womb to warship will bring charitable gifts and offers of support?
# Will German sailors be enabled to think differently about this Other – a young female, a black civilian, a migrant in desperate need (not a state employee like them) – because they witnessed this ‘anomaly’ close-up in their own home-workplace? They know the reality of voyages for the less-privilegd people like these migrants pictured below, often the victims of people smugglers who would,presumably, disregard pregnancy.

Friday 14 August 2015

Singaporean women head for maritime engineering

Singaporean women are turning to maritime engineering, reports Olivia Ho in today's Straits Times 14 August 2015
World wide, women have been under-represented in enginering work on ships. In the UK they're less than one per cent, and some maritime colleages have no women at all doing their engineering courses some years.

Olivia tells a more positive story:
'"One should not think that seafaring is restricted to a man's world," Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA) chief executive Andrew Tan said at last month's Maritime Manpower Conference. In fact, more women are joining the industry, he added.
'An MPA spokesman said more than 20 Singaporean women obtained their first Certificate of Competency from 2011 to this year, up from about 11 from 2000 to 2010. The qualification is required for those working on ships.
At the Singapore Maritime Academy, female students make up 20 per cent of the Diploma in Marine Engineering cohort, up from 15 per cent in 2010.

Engineering cadet Lim Pio Teo
'For Ms Lim Pio Teo, 27 [pictured above] becoming a maritime engineer was a chance to turn the excitement she felt as a child, when taking a ferry to Batam, into a career. "I have always liked the sea a lot. It calms and relaxes me," she said.
'Ms Lim, who first set sail in 2008, is now a second engineer with global shipping company APL, and said she hopes to work her way up to become the chief engineer of a vessel.
'Her 52-year-old father, who sells pork at a wet market, surprised her with his support when she told him of her career choice. She said: "When I drop by to help at the market during shore leave, he will always tell customers that this is the daughter who has gone sailing."

Family support helps women get on

'Singapore Maritime Officers' Union (SMOU) general secretary Mary Liew [pictured above, photo from SMOU] said family support is a key factor in getting more women to become seafarers. It is also important to fight close-minded attitudes among some bosses and colleagues.
'Ms Liew, who in 2013 became the first woman to helm the 64-year-old union, said: "A common mindset is that women are physically less able than men, so it may be unsuitable, or unsafe for them to be out at sea for months with a predominantly male crew.
'"It is a lack of understanding and awareness that gives rise to such misguided conceptions."
'SMOU's Tripartite Nautical Training Award, a place-and-train programme for naval officers that began in 2009, has started seeing female cadets in only the last two years. The first two were admitted last year, and the third, this year.

"I can do it too!"

'Ms Nurfaezah Ithnin, 24, was one of the two female cadets admitted last year. She left a bartending job last year to pursue what she felt were better career prospects at sea.
She said she was nervous when she boarded her first ship. Now on her second voyage, she said: "The only way to not be teased by the crew was to show them that I could do the same jobs. The crew knows to help only when I ask for it. Other than that, I can do it."'

~ This URL also provides interesting links to other seafaring women in the region.
~ Women seafarers are featured at:

Wet nursing on ships: sisterly support and a necessary business

A hot topic today

Breast-feeding other women’s babies at sea. Where in maritime historiography are these lost stories of generosity, of life-saving, of sisterly support -- or, more practically, women’s private enterprise in a monopoly situation, the ship in mid-ocean?
Is it the general lack of work on travellers' emotions,including necessary trust, that means we don't we know much about situations of heightened mutual dependency at sea, apart from during the wrecking of ships and in lifeboats?
I'm thinking about those troubled intense times on voyages when people absolutely have to supplement for each other when (sea- or other) sickness hits. That includes seafarers generously covering each other's jobs when a shipmate is ill or distressed, or ships' passengers looking after the children of mothers too incapacitated to do anything? (This can be taken as a proof of the African adage that it takes a whole village to bring up a child).

The question comes up because wet nursing is a hot topic in the UK this month. Today BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour focused on wet nursing ( Debate has been triggered because a picture of Jessica Anne Colletti (pictured above) breastfeeding her son and a friend’s child went viral. (
Also a survey by Netmums, the website for mothers, last week found one in 25 British mothers are already wet nursing another's baby. Two in five women said they would do so.

Wet nursing at sea in the past

On ships this intimate supplementing happened too. However, the extent is not known because the subject, like menstruation at sea, has been regarded as not quite seemly.
Passengers' letters and diaries certainly make clear that some women on ships helped each other, with child care and especially when ill.
But there's little detail about the physical realities and emotions, so we can only speculate on the meanings of these intimate exchanges.
How far did that help extend? It’s partly dictated by the weather.
Wet nursing and seasickness are crucially linked because if nursing mothers suffer badly from mal-de-mer they become dehydrated and eventually stop lactating. At least one in ten people suffer from seasickness, and effective remedies were rare before the 1940s.
No-one would stand by and let a baby die of starvation. Of course shipmates who had copious enough milk would have stepped in. Peer pressure might have propelled them, too, if the child was so very distressed that the crying disturbed the whole ship.
Class relations and custom meant that the family of an elite mother would think it quite normal to send down to steerage for a labouring-class woman to do this job.

Wet nurse saves Manuel Lagos Besteiro’s life
In 1912 when Pepita Lagos Besteiro was returning to Havana from Madrid with her husband and baby Manolo, the six-month-old became so sick that the ship's surgeon pronounced that he would probably not survive the voyage.
But a willing wet nurse was found on board. And, says the family’s website, this unnamed woman (pictured with Manolo) successfully suckled Manolo back to health, ’to the point where it was noted that he had a ruddy complexion by the time the boat arrived in Cuba.’(

Different ships, same needy babies
Without doubt other nursing mothers fed their shipmates’ babies too, on:
~ convict ships in the 1700s
~ migrant ships in the 1800s and 1900s
~ floating nurseries, post-war bride ships in WW1 and WW2

(WW2 brideship babies, mothers and nurses dine on board. Pic by Barney J. Gloster/Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-175792)

After world war one, women on bride ships were in a particularly intense mothering situation, which could become a health-care crisis. Mothers of babies and children were traveling to the homes of their new servicemen husbands, on troop-ships unsuited for this new purpose.
On some WW2 brideships nursing mothers were much more officially controlled by the military than in WW1, partly to avoid epidemics of infection. On Canadian ships infants' mothers were made to switch to using formula milk - which of course caused stress. It was a hard situation for both babies and mothers to adjust to.
At least one in ten people are seasick. So on choppy voyages to the Antipodes and South Africa warbrides, and later Ten Pound Poms, would surely have assisted each other in providing breast milk.

Wet nursing at sea: the meanings
Historian Christina Hardyment, on Woman’s Hour, differentiated between two sorts of wet nursing arrangements on land:
~ between friends or family, when it was done out of kindness and concern
~ paid relationships, which would have meant both that an obliging woman was found, and employed on a casual basis, or that the passenger took her wet nurse with her

Wet nurse Margaret MacIwain (probably a mis-spelling), aged 26, sailed on the Manhattan from Liverpool to New York in September 1857. If she was lactating at that point she would have helped any needy baby -- for money, or at least for a grateful gift.
However, if she was sailing with a family by whom she was already engaged as a wet nurse, then she might not have been able to be generous. This would be especially true if she had a small supply of milk, perhaps because she was already feeding more than one greedy baby, or because she was too poorly.

Feminist journalist Margaret Fuller (1810-1850), by contrast, prepared for her voyage from Italy home to New York by weaning her son in spring 1850. Angelino had been born in early September 1848, so he was nineteen months old.
Margaret and her revolutionary marquis partner couldn't afford to pay for his 'great stout Roman mother of the flesh’, the wet nurse, to accompany them, even if the woman had been willing. Nino had to learn, in two months, how to do without the breast.
On the three-masted sail ship Elizabeth, Nino got his milk from the nanny goat. The five-week voyage ended fatally for them all when the ship foundered, and sank, says Margaret Fuller’s biographer Megan Marshall.


Voyages can often be very bonding experiences enriched by intense but fleeting friendships. Comradeship and the suspension of xenophobia are the most fascinating aspects of this heterotopic off-shore place.
For me it's rather a moving idea that not only did some people step off at the other side with new friends for life (which was particularly the case with WW2 bride ships). Children also left a ship with milk-kin, 'sisters and brothers' bonded by the shared breast.
The lost history of wet nursing at sea would be invaluable in helping us understand how gendered power relations were changed in these peculiar floating hotel and boarding houses so far from land.
My questions, which will probably never be answered, are:
~ how did this once-acceptable practice of hiring a wet nurse worked at sea when family were white and the wet nurse was a Chinese amah or Indian ayah. Did she have to feed the baby in private, to avoid onlookers’ racist distaste? Was she allowed to take her own baby?
~ Wet nurses' successful production of milk would have been crucial to their value on the voyage. Did their luggage include herbs to help promote copious milk production?
~ When late-nineteenth-century shipping companies advertised that their passenger ships carried a cow, was this a recognition that taking a wet nurse was something fewer people could now afford? Were children weaned early if they were involved in migration?