Monday 21 March 2016

Belinda Bennett, first black woman cruisehip captain

Today a Southampton woman, Belinda Bennett, became the first black woman captain in the cruise industry. Captain of the Windstar, she joins the handful of pathbreakers who have become captains of cruise ships since 2007.
‘“Having been with Windstar for the past 11 years, I couldn’t be more honored to serve as Captain with such a respected and hard-working team,” said Bennett. “Earning this title has been a long and exciting professional journey.”’

Windstar wrote:
“We are thrilled to have appointed Belinda as Windstar’s first-ever female Captain and we understand may be the cruise industry’s first-ever black Captain,” said Hans Birkholz, Windstar Cruises’ chief executive officer.
“She has earned her spot at the helm and I’m excited to see her in action, guiding the crew and our guests on Wind Star through some of the world’s most incredible destinations for years to come.”
‘Hailing originally from St. Helena – a part of the British Overseas Territory, encompassing Ascension and Tristan da Cunha islands – Bennett naturally became immersed with life at sea, having started as a Deck Cadet at age 17 on her home island ship the RMS St. Helena.
‘Just four years later, she climbed the ranks as Third Officer and ultimately stayed on board for an additional five years, until departing in 2003 as Second Officer.
'Following a brief stretch as Chief Officer for the SS Delphine, a private charter yacht, and Isle of Man Steam Packet ferries, Bennett joined Windstar Cruises as Second Officer at the Port of Monaco in September 2005.
‘Bennett worked on a variety of Windstar Cruises ships over her 11-year career with the small ship luxury line, transitioning to chief officer and now captain.


1. What did you want to be when you were little?
I wanted to be a marine biologist in my younger years. I guess I always had a passion for the sea!

2.What qualities must someone possess to become a good cruise ship captain?
You have to be a good communicator – able to both talk and listen. You also need to be visible to both guests and the crew.

3.What are your favorite ports-of-call and why?
I so love the Dalmatian coast. The Croatian coastline and ports are beautiful! And for anyone who has sailed with me, they know I have a particular affinity for Sorrento in Italy, where I have a personal traditional of buying Italian leather handbags. You’ll notice the word “handbags” is plural.

An illustrated summary of the modern pioneering women captains can be found here:

But women captains on all sorts of ships do have an earlier history, from Betsy Miller in the 1860s. Tellingly, few were black or even mixed race until the last few years. (But that's as far as we know, from a western perspective. There will be other, African and Asian, stories.)
Want to know what it took to be a woman master in a man's world, in the past? Try my history book, From Cabin ‘Boys’ to Captains: 250 years of women at sea.‘boys’-to-captains/9780752488783.

Saturday 12 March 2016

Serena Melani, first Italian woman cruiseship captain takes over

Regent Seven Seas has just appointed Italian Serena Melani, 42, as captain of the 48,075-ton Seven Seas Mariner. I think she is now the tenth woman in the world to attain such a position.

Although women have had Masters certificates for over 140 years, women were only allowed to become captains of cruise ships in early 2000s.

Today, as I post this blog, her ship is at Boca da Valeria, Brazil, on an Amazon cruise. Seven Seas Mariner (pictured) was one of the world's prize-winning first all-suite, all-balcony vessels in 2002. It carries 700 guests and 400 crew.

From Livorno (Leghorn), Captain Melani graduated in 1993 as yacht engineer. She is the first Italian woman to become Captain of a cruise ship.

And 98 years earlier....

Serena is by no means the first Italian woman to qualify. She was preceded in 1918 by Elise Belluomini of Viareggio, the port on the west (Tyrrhenian Sea) coast.

Elise travelled 45 km south to train at Livorno nautical college, despite all odds. Local people thought when she told them of her ambition that she must 'certainly be possessed by the devil'. But a veteran sea captain mentored her - as so many generous senior men have since helped women with their start in seafaring.

At college Elise made 'astonishingly rapid progress'. See

It was almost certainly the famous institute founded in 1863, which five years after Elise qualified became the Istituto Nautico Alfredo Cappellini (pictured, thanks to

Today the Institute still offers training for Merchant Navy personnel, but seemingly in Elise's time was for the Royal Navy too.
Elise qualified circa March 1918, when the First World War was still being waged. In fighting spirit she told a Paris correspondent:'I will show my crew that a woman can be as brave as any man'.

It's not known if Captain Belluomini ever commanded her own ship. However, she would have been unlikely to do so for at least another ten years.

Any captain usually takes that long. Women tend to have to wait longer again. This is not least because shipping companies are happy to publicise equal opportunities achievements but cautious about the officers to whom they entrust expensive real estate, especially if they fear passengers will worry about a woman being in charge.

Serena Melani

The article below is a straight lift, with thanks, from this site: 'In a first, a woman takes the helm of a Regent cruise ship' by GENE SLOAN,March 10 2016.

'Another glass ceiling in the cruise world has been shattered as luxury line Regent Seven Seas announced its first female captain.

Serena Melani, 42, of Italy, has been appointed the new master of the 48,075-ton Seven Seas Mariner, a position that puts her in charge of 450 crew. Melani becomes one of just a handful of women to command a major cruise vessel at any line.

"Of course, I am very proud," Melani told USA Today in an exclusive interview, noting that breaking into the still-very-male-dominated world of shipping wasn't easy.

"It was hard finding a job (on a ship) at the beginning of my career," she said in a phone call from Mariner, which was sailing along the coast of Brazil. "It took me five years."

Melani's first job at sea was with a cargo ship where she said she was the only woman on board. She also worked on oil and gas tankers for several years before moving to cruise ships. She joined Regent in 2010, quickly rising through the ranks from second officer to safety officer to staff captain.

In a statement accompanying today's announcement, Regent president and chief operating officer Jason Montague praised Melani's leadership on Regent ships and said the promotion to captain was well-earned.

"I know she will perform admirably in guiding Seven Seas Mariner as she sails from the Caribbean to Alaska," he said.

As is often the case with people who work on ships, Melani said it was a lust to see the world that first got her interested in a career at sea. She grew up in a little town along the coast of Italy, and she said she knew from an early age that she wanted to spend her life exploring.

"It is a very gypsy life; you are most of the time away from home," she said, noting that that's just fine with her.

Melani and Captain Teo Srdelić, from whom she took over the Seven Seas Mariner last month.

Melani's mobile life

Melani spends about six months a year at sea. But even in her off time, she gets antsy to hit the road, along with her husband.

"When I am 'home,' I am travelling," she said. "Not by boat, because I want a change, but we like to move by motor bike or car depending on the season. I really enjoy the mountains. At least two or three times a year I go to the Italian Dolomites for hiking and climbing."

Melani said books about travel, particularly tales of women travellers, are always by her nightstand. And she's always looking for the next adventure, which in some cases can be had just outside her floating office. Regent ships are known for globe-circling itineraries that often include stops at off-the-beaten-path locales.

"On my last trip here on the Mariner, we went down from Lisbon to South Africa, and we visited several West African ports," she noted. "It was a beautiful experience."

Melani joins a very small circle of women who have commanded a major cruise ship.

Her appointment comes just eight months after Celebrity Cruises appointed its first female captain, Kate McCue - the first American woman to command a major cruise ship.

Royal Caribbean is widely credited with hiring the first female of any nationality to command a major [cruise] ship, Karin Stahre-Janson of Sweden, in 2007, and the line added a second female captain from Portugal in 2008. Britain's P&O Cruises, Cunard and Silversea also have appointed female captains over the past five years.TNS'

An article about Kate McCue and this picture appear at

Sunday 6 March 2016

Pregnancy and Mothering at sea in the nineteenth century

Today on cruiseships voyaging with your children can be a pleasure. On Mother's Day, as on any day, amusements, crèches, and babysitters abound. Usually no-one gets seasick. Falling overboard is rare. And women don’t give birth there because shipping lines don’t allow you to sail after 27 weeks.
Refugee mothers, of course, have a frightening time. Survival is the issue on their risky ships and on voyages that take days,not months. See by Reuter/Alkis Konstantinidis

Mothering at sea in the nineteenth century
In the past mothering at sea meant not only keeping the kids amused (Ooh, look at that porpoise) and safe (Christine, do not climb on that rail, you’ll fall and drown).
It also meant risking being where illnesses such as measles and dysentery could spread, fatally for you and your offspring.
On top of that, the dehydration caused by seasickness led some nursing mothers to stop lactating. Their babies then were distressed and colicky, causing the mother more distress. One or both might die.
Did mums get any help? Yes, they did, in the nineteenth century depending on the circumstances. Busy stewardesses helped with childcare. Other passengers looked after the children and even gave their own milk to breast-fed babies
And wealthier women had their own servants to help them, especially if they thought they were going to give birth on the voyage. Details of this can be found in the 1826 voyage story of two of Australia’s founding families: that of pregnant sisters-in-law Harriet Parker King and Mary Copland Lethbridge (nee Parker King).

Mothers of Oz’s founding families, afloat
Harriet Parker King, nee Lethbridge (above pic), a thirty-year old Launceston-born woman (1796-1874,) was travelling to Australia in September 1826. She was emigrating to Dunhevid, in New South Wales, the farm of her distinguished husband’s family.
While Harriet and the children were sailing by merchant vessel ship her husband was leading an expedition to Patagonia on the HMS Adventure, accompanied by HMS Beagle. Phillip Parker King (1791-1856) was to become an increasingly famous Royal Naval hydrographer, and surveyor. Phillip was later celebrated on postage stamps.
Harriet had married 26-year-old Phillip in January 1817 when she was 21. By the time of her 1826 journey she had six sons. Four (Robert, Essington, Charles and Baby) sailed with her to Australia, when Harriet was five months pregnant with her seventh or eighth child.

In their large party on the sailing ship Cumberland were also Mary Copland Lethbridge (1805-72) (Phillip’s sister, and also the wife of Harriet’s brother Robert).
The couple sailed too, along with Harriet's Nanny, Phillip’s brother-in-law Hannibal Macarthur, and Miss Waring, the future governess of Hannibal’s family.
Mary Copland Lethbridge had only married on 25 July. Age twenty-one, Mary too was pregnant. perhaps just three months by comparison to Harriet’s more advanced stage.

Help needed on the trip, whatever the price

On arriving at the port of Plymouth, Harriet wrote her husband that she had found that on their pre-arranged ship ‘there was no surgeon engaged, and as it is almost probable I will confined ere I get to Port Jackson I could not [make myself]….sail without a nurse.’
She found one, Mrs Rowland, for £100 (the equivalent today of between £740 and £40,000 depending on what conversion method is used).
‘I did not expect to give her so large a sum but no woman, who was qualified for such an event, would give up her practice here without a handsome remuneration.’ And Harriet liked her ‘very much.’
It sounds as if Mrs Rowlands who a professional midwife and children’s nurse who was using the opportunity to leave her business and settle in Australia if she took to it.
On the four-month voyage Harriet was feeling the stress of mothering her big family at sea.
‘Our dear Charles’ was poorly but ‘rallied amazingly the last month we were at Sea, and I now beginning to hope he will be spared... but my Nurse says, he is too sensible to live.
Harriet was also ‘most anxious’ about Essy as he had ‘much spirit’.
Seeing so much of their (cooped up) children on ship must have meant mothers got to know them better than at home, and worried about their developing characters.
‘Mrs Rowland, my nurse, I find very handy with them. I do not now I should have done without her as Charles is quite as much, if not more trouble, than the Baby.’
But at least the party on the Cumberland weren’t in livid seas beset by fierce winds. And there were no epidemics. ‘We have had a fine breeze and … the Weather is beautiful’

Miscarrying at sea
Without a surgeon, women on ships had to help each other if they started losing their foetuses, as roughly 30 per cent of all women did at that time.
On 13 October Harriet wrote that after several days of Mary being poorly, 'This morning I was called up to her at 3 o’clock as she was very ill, she has since been very bad and it has ended in a miscarriage. She is now doing well.’ Seemingly Mrs Rowland wasn’t expected to help.
Their voyage took four months. Published extracts from Harriet’s letters don’t speak of homesickness or of expectations of NSW or even the discomforts of pregnancy on sailing ships.
Her main feelings are that she misses her husband and is concerned for the welfare of those in her party.

After landing
Luckily Harriet landed on 24 Jan 1827, sixteen days before baby Arthur Septimus Parker King was born on 9 February. He seems to have been her last child.
Mary went on to have eight live children.
Finally settled, Harriet wrote to Phillip on 20 March that their Nanny was going to carry on working for the family, despite her brother trying to persuade her to marry a man he knew in Sydney.
And the nurse, Mrs Rowland, decided to ‘return to England, her time with me is nearly up.’
Five years later Harriet’s (poorly) husband and eldest son returned safely from Patagonia in 1832.
Harriet and Mary founded some of Australia's 'royalty'.

(Sources include Dorothy Walsh, ed, The Admiral's Wife: Mrs. Phillip Parker King: A Selection of Letters 1817-56, Melbourne, 1967. Hawthorn Press;

Picture: Mary in 1874, 47 years after her momentous voyage.

Tuesday 1 March 2016

War, Oral History and LGBT lives in the Merchant and Royal Navies

Queer, Proud AND in the armed forces or Merchant Navy? Yes, it happened – and happens.

Imperial War Museum North is concerned that this queer military history should be out in the open. And one of the best ways to do it is by talking to the queered people who’ve been in that position, and recording their stories on audio and video for posterity
So on Thursday 25 Feb the museum and Schools Out jointly hosted a Manchester day on oral history: LGBT lives in the British Armed forces and Merchant Navy.
As part of the LGBT History Festival, which took place in 6 cities this year, the speakers (see pic) were me, Dr Emma Vickers, Prof Charles Upchurch and Jonathan Snipe.

Emma’s path-breaking account built on the interviews with the trans people she did for her book Queen & Country: Same–sex desire in the British Armed Forces, 1939–45.

Charles' summary appears here: He is known for his book Before Wilde: Sex Between Men in Britain's Age of Reform University of California Press.

Merchant Navy

I spoke about the particular challenges and benefits of doing oral history with LGBT men in the Merchant Navy and to a lesser extent in the Royal Navy.
The struggles include:
~ people find it hard to speak out freely if they were earlier demonised and shamed
~ finding the occluded non-camp stories of homophobia
~ that some informants retract. Going public is just too painful.

The boons include that interviews often produce vital evidence, including photos and objects museums can use.

The MN and RN had very different queer cultures: camp MN people, especially stewards, were welcomed on ships, unlike the non-camp deck and engineering officers who had to be much more covert – in fact, rather as their colleagues in the forces did.
being out in the MN was easier if you were camp.

Beforehand I’d had my doubts about whether we should even be talking about MN and RN in the same space. But actually I ended up seeing a lot of relevance, including the tragedy of young people in both services committing suicide or losing their careers, just because of their orientation.

LGBT Veterans speak

For me the highlight of the day was the brief autobiographical summaries by three veteran activists: Elaine M Chambers, Caroline Paige and Ed Hall (L to R in pic).
Caroline afterwards made the important port that ‘military LGBT history is being glossed over, even driven underground, by the MOD itself … [in] for a desire to show off a good PR model of the military of today … it isn't portraying the historical truth.
‘A few of today's generation are being 'shown off' and credited with making the military inclusive’ she said. By contrast, she declared, the change was mainly due to ‘the inspirational efforts of a previous generation of role models and doers. ‘
Her article appears in the Huffington Post,
Ed made a vivid point that will long stand out for me: that only in military could such opposed orders be carried out with such alacrity. One day ‘homosexuals’ should be rooted out. The next day homophobes should be rooted out. And it was done.
Afterwards I went away and read his book in one all-night sitting: an important asset to queer history that should not have gone out of print.

Future steps

For me the day was a very moving and inspiring one. It revealed a much more complex, long and nuanced version of queer armed forces history than is currently evident.
And it showed how vital it is that survivors of this past tell their story and have it fully represented in all our museums. Some military veterans deplore this past as insufficiently masculine and brave.
But being out under all sorts of fire is an impressively courageous way of living.