Thursday 31 October 2019

10 FAQs. Black women in maritime history

1. Were there any BAME women seafarers in Britain's past? 
Yes, but not many and only post-1980s. A key example of success in that trend is Captain Belinda Bennett, (pictured above) from 2016 the world’s first black woman captain of a cruise ship. 
In countries where the majority of the population is black and brown then women had a more success e.g. in Ghana, Beatrice Vormawah, (pictured below) the world’s first black women captain in 1995.

2.  Did BAME women do particular jobs on British ships?  
Yes. The situation was and is culturally specific: women from the Philippines have predominated in domestic work; today women from India often work in finance departments on cruise ships. There’s no intrinsic reason for this. This is proven because o there have been BAME women engineers, and deck officers who have worked their way up to captain status.

3.  Why have so few BAME women worked on UK ships?  
It is odd. You might expect employers to take advantage of people who could be doubly low-paid because female and dark-skinned. This did not happen. 
Knowing the history of female maritime labour I deduce three explanations for this, apart from the fact that women were few anyway, and usually confined to domestic jobs mainly until the late 1970s.

# PROTECTIONISM. From at least 1900-1985 the National Union of Seamen argued that British people should be given jobs first, then white ‘foreigners’ second, then BAME people. 
When the UK’s BAME population was small, this made BAME women proportionately less likely to get into seafaring work as stewardesses (the main job open to women, which was highly sought after) than white women. 

# "CONSUMERS' XENOPHOBIA." It is likely that shipowners would justify preferring white women for this relatively intimate job by saying that passengers would not want BAME women as stewardesses.
 (This is not openly discussed in any documents I have seen; it’s something I gather from what I'm told off the record, and from detecting employment patterns from company records.)

# SEX FEARS. Relatedly, elite-ish white passengers on ships serving the Raj were used to having black servants. This is why companies such as P&O and British India could carry Asian male General Servants (as stewards were called) throughout the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. By contrast Indian women were not employed as such GSs or stewardesses. 
Reasons for this include shipping lines fears about social stability and intimate ’immoral’ racial mixing. There would be anxiety that the women might be used for sex – by passengers and other crew. The issue was not to protect such women but protect the shipping company from scandal and consequent reduced ticket sales.

4. What about BAME women passengers on UK ships? 
Yes, there have been some, including ayahs (see picture) and the multiple wives of some African leaders in the nineteenth century. Numbers have grown since cruising became more affordable from the late 1960s. 
Unequal pay practices mean single women and some BAME people tended to not have an income that allowed such travel earlier, especially as solo women. More BAME women came into the UK (e.g., Indian women for university education) than left its shores. 
This is because the biggest outbound traffic by women – as emigrants to the empire and US – was by white people, the majority of the population. I have not found any BAME women among the convicts or convicts' wives being forcibly transported e.g. to Van Diemen’s Land.

5.  Women are sexually abused on ships. Has this been worse for BAME women? 
Yes, the 2010 Akhona Geveza case is the key example of this.
See picture. The cultural idea that dark women are attractively exotic, and have animal instincts, has led to their being targeted. Most women do not report such crime, even in these #MeToo times.

6.  Have BAME women been stowaways on ships to the UK? 
Yes, a few. Especially from the Caribbean to the UK. The most famous is Evelyn Wauchope, followed by Hazel Brown. Both left Jamaica in this way in 1948, but Hazel was deported home. Stowaways’ motives include accessing a free passage. That means that women, who have usually been paid much less than men, would have particular need to stow away. If sage, women knew that ships’ officials and port magistrates would receive BAME women even less leniently than white women – but probably still give women better treatment than black men.

7. Did BAME women disguise themselves as men to sail on British ships? 
Possibly. About 44 such women are recorded. But the only known black one was ‘William Brown’. From Grenada, she sailed on the Queen Charlotte in 1815.
There is no reason to think that she was discovered more readily or ejected more quickly than white women. However this may have been so. Officers simply feared that the presence of any women not married to men aboard would lead to promiscuous sexual activity and men’s rivalry for access to the women.

8.   Were BAME women involved in maritime business ashore in the UK? 
Yes, but we don’t know the extent of this. One example is Mrs. Penelope Steel, from Jamaica. She part-funded the publication Steel’s Navy List, which was equivalent of a search engine like google, specific to the biggest employer in Britain. 
A surprising number of well-off white wives funded husband’s careers as naval officers. BAME women overseas certainly provided sexual, and laundry services for visiting sailors. It is likely that they would have also have done so in the UK. Such grey economy low-waged work is seldom recorded, whatever the worker’s ethnicity.

9. Have BAME women been in the Royal Navy for long? 
No. In both world wars there is evidence that women thought to have ‘a touch of the tar brush’ were rejected, or selectively processed, in the WRNS. This was partly out of fear that ‘foreign birth’ would compromise national security. 
From the 1970s personnel shortages meant recruits were actively sought in the Caribbean, women included. 
A small number of BAME women were in the WRNS (which was about 3,000-strong in the late 20C).  This pattern continued and increased when the WRNS was subsumed into the Navy in 1993. But there were no BAME Wrens among the first 20 allowed to go to sea in 1991.
Today BAME people are 3.8 of the Royal Navy/Royal Marines, which is strong on equal opportunities. As about 600 women are at sea at any one time currently, logically nineteen may be from a BAME background., (see page 7).

10.   Did UK girls’ sea training organisations include BAME girls? 
Yes, in small numbers and lately. The Sea Rangers began in 1920 and the Girls Nautical Training Corps in 1942.  From the 1960s both organisations had small numbers of BAME girls, and later a few officers. 
Numbers increased as the UK’s BAME population increased. The Sea Rangers website features BAME girls.

Saturday 19 October 2019

Navy tackles sexual assault: 'banter' and buns

This is a straight lift from an article in Metro, 16 Oct 2019. 
Sex-charge sailor ‘poked hair of his female colleagues’ by Annabal Bagdi.
I have added sub-headings for readabilty, as well as links to related cases. 
A surprising amount of sexist behaviour still exists within this 30,000-strong organisation, in which women are 10 %. 
Since 1990 the UK Royal Navy has officially been hot on supporting respect and equal opportunities. The Merchant Navy's record is poorer. 
Women either tackle the matter informally, leave their jobs, or - in most cases - keep quiet. › hashtag › whyididntreport

Court martial

"A SAILOR has been accused of sexual assault after allegedly poking the hair-dos of female colleagues.
   PO Patrick Bennett made lewd jibes while repeatedly touching the women’s bun hairstyles, a court martial heard.
   He is said to have shrugged off the remarks as ‘office banter’, telling one woman at the Royal Navy Air Station in Yeovilton, Somerset, that she would have a short-lived military career unless she played along.
   The woman told Bulford military court in Wiltshire that on one occasion the serviceman, based on HMS Diamond, grabbed her wrist and pulled her hand towards his groin.
   She recalled ‘snatching’ her hand away and managing to only touch his trouser material.

PO Patrick Bennett RN: Yeovilton

'Banter' and PMT

She told the court martial: ‘He said once “if you don’t take banter, you’re not going to get very far in the Navy”, and once asked if I was in a mood because I was on my period.’
   When interviewed, Bennett said he never intended for his comments to be taken as innuendos and apologised when asked to stop.

'Hairy bun hole'

A second woman said Bennett had poked his fingers into her hair bun up to 20 times while working at the air station and made comments about her weight.
    ‘When you have your hair in a bun, it creates a natural hole in the middle, and he stuck his finger in the centre of that bun,’ she said. ‘He would say “how’s your hairy bun hole?”’
   She denied fabricating the allegations to ‘get back at’ the serviceman and rejected claims she disliked him.
   Prosecutor Maj Lindsey Jones said: ‘This was not banter — this was uninvited, it was unwanted and it was sexual assault.’
   Bennett denies four counts of sexual assault. The trial continues."

Recent related cases in UK Navy

HMS Vanguard, Wikimedia Commons

2016. In August 2016 Lt. Basil Purdue was sacked in disgrace following a court martial. He had groped a junior's breast aboard submarine HMS Vanguard. (pictured)
The  woman said  “I am constantly battling to show women are equal in the RN but they are not."

2018. There were 65 courts martial of naval personnel. Six of these were for alleged sexual offences. Four of the six were found not guilty. Of the two found guilty, the lieutenant from Northwood convicted of rape and attempted sexual assault was give a seven-year sentence.

US and UK Navies

US Navy policy tries to prevent sexual assault.
In 2011 the policy was found to be inadequate.
In 2016 in the US Navy there were 1403 cases of sexual assault reported. Under-reporting is common.

288 reported cases occurred in the Royal Navy in the years 2017 and 2018 combined. 
Investigators found a further 60 cases that were not reported.

Thursday 10 October 2019

The black cook, the cross-dressed wife, and the ship's hot kitchen 1852

Here's a little fragment for Black History Month, though it's mainly about a white woman who  worked her passage from New York to Britain. Her mate - but seemingly not her accomplice - was a 'man of colour.'
The emotional element is absent from this tale, which appears in The Bradford Observer, 26 August 1852.  (I am grateful to John Ellis for drawing the article to my attention. )

New York 's East River, 1848. Public Domain,

On Good Friday 1852  'a respectable female from Spilsby' (Lincs)  married a Mr Bealby. He turned out to a ne'er -do-well. 
He was supposed to be opening a grocery shop in Boston, Lincs. But instead he booked them onto a ship from Liverpool to New York, telling his wife they were going to Scotland for a few days to see friends. 
When they got to New York on this unnamed ship, he wasted their money in idleness then wanted to go on to California. At that time it was seen as a land of opportunity, including for gold prospectors. 
But 'his wife having no faith in him, refused to accompany him and decided to return to England.' 


Trousers for safety

'To accomplish this, having no funds, she donned  a garb that would insure her from insult, and obtained  an engagement as a cook's mate on board a vessel bound for Old England. (The cook himself was a man of colour.)'
Black, brown and disabled seamen, especially those with peg legs, were often employed as ship's cooks at that time. real versions of Long John Silver were assisted by able-bodied boys. 

See this poem and image about Billy Peg-Leg's fiddle, by Bill Adams (

I've a pal called Billy Peg-leg, with one leg a wood leg,
And Billy' he's a ship's cook and lives upon the sea;
And hanging by his griddle
Old Billy keeps a fiddle
For fiddling in the dog-watch
When the moon is on the sea.

She arrives intact

There is a somewhat happy finale to Mrs Bealby's trip. She ended the voyage 'in the exclusive possession of her secret'. After walking 57 miles she and arrived 'in her sailor attire', at her parents’ house at 2 a.m..  We can only imagine how traumatised she must have been.
This saga feels a very interesting combination to me: Mrs Bealby and the cook sharing a galley, and presumably a sleeping space.  It was extremely rare for women to be allowed to be ship's cooks at that time, except on very small family-run vessels. 
Of course I want to know what happened. 

The questions

1. What was it like to be cooped up together 24:7 producing food for perhaps hundreds of people? They were trapped in a tiny space. They worked side by side for maybe 35 days (It can reasonably be assumed that they were on a sailing ship. Steamships did not really start on that route for another decade. The voyage took 7-10 days)

Galley of HMS Warrior, as built ten years later and in more pristine condition than a working merchant ship would have been. Wiki Commons

2. As such precise details about her marriage were available surely Mrs Bealby, and therefore the cook, could be tracked down? 
No such luck. Census returns and directories show that there are Bealbys in the area but none that fits this picture. No wedding record exists.
We are left with a story of a stigmatised seaman (the cook)  working in a mixed-race team with an upset person who withheld a major secret from him  for five weeks.

3.So did the cook know? Did he side with Mrs Bealby in deceiving the ship's officers? We cannot know if he ever guessed her sex, or even, perhaps, her distress? 

4. Did the cook - and crew - ever find out later? Probably not, because the newspaper report revealed no details about the ship. And maybe Mrs Bealby used another surname while on board, anyway.

5. Was this the first black person she had met ( as she didn't live in seaport or big city)? And what did she learn from the encounter, in a working environment which is often hot and irritable? We can only guess how that proximity affected her attitudes to race.

This is one of those stories that needs to developed into fiction. I hope someone enjoys the process.