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. https://genderedseas.blogspot.com/2015/01/ghanas-pioneering-seawomen.html
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. https://genderedseas.blogspot.com/2010/07/cadet-gevezas-death-exposes-shipboard.html.
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. https://genderedseas.blogspot.com/2017/04/black-woman-cross-dressed-seafarer.html.
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. https://www.rmg.co.uk/discover/behind-the-scenes/blog/three-women-london-chart-trade-c1800-1860.
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. https://tinyurl.com/2018-gov-stats, (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.