Friday 14 October 2022

Jamaican ship's cook: her poison mystery 1764

 Maybe the mysterious cook previously worked in the Jamaican
canefields, like these women?

It's Black History Month. And here's a newly-found story about a rare BAME woman seafarer. 

So this is about race, gender, ships. It's part of the history of maritime diversity, labour and seafarers' forgotten lives. A fluke and your occupation could affect whether you ever arrived home from the sea. 

Only a fragment about this mysterious West Indian woman can be found. And the same words about her are repeated word for word in seven British newspapers. No more information than that is available. 

The story's a gift for a dramatist with a Sherlock Holmes touch. So I hope someone creative will make fiction from this small seed in the Derby Mercury, 10 Feb 1764. 

'We hear that a whole Ship's Crew, lately arrived from Jamaica, have been poisoned by a Black Woman-Cook they had on board, who after she had committed it, threw herself into the Sea and was drown'd. They are all dead except the Captain and two Men, who are very bad.'

Seven good questions to ask

Q. 1. Why does her story matter?

 A. Because women crew were very unusual.Black women  crew were even more unusual. This is the frst black woman ship's cook I've heard about in 40 years of researching maritime women.

Picture from 'Seamen “Love Their Bellies”: How Blacks Became Ship Cooks'  

Q. 2. How did the ship come to have a woman cook, unusually? 

A. Because a cook was needed. This person was available and affordable. It was was common for cooks to be black or disabled.
(See Guadeloupean William Buckland's story Buckland seacook BAME Maybe another black cook recommended  her. Indeed she may have been the widow of a black cook on board who'd died.  

Want to know more about the brief and late history of women cooks (usually white)? See my book From Cabin 'Boys' to Captains: 250 Years of Women at Sea,pp 214-219. 

This picture from it shows (left) Chief Cook Betty Fitch and Freda Price (right) Second Cook, in the tinned food storeroom on the Langleeclyde c1950. (Courtesy Maud McKibbin). Freda and Betty were highly appreciated for their good cooking.

Q. 3. Why did she poison these men? 

A. If it was deliberate, because she was angry and wanted redress. Revenge? Perhaps the ship was a slaver and she was one of the enslaved people who'd endured a bad voyage and seen her shipmates die. Perhaps someone on board had offended her. by assuming she was sexually available,  or had expressed dislike of food she had cooked?

A. If it was accidental, she might have had been supplied with bad ingredients.

Q.4. Why did she throw herself overboard

A. Surely because she knew she would be punished on landing. It was better to end the misery now, and by her own hand.

A. If it was accidental, she might have felt ashamed, and/or feared summary justice. Seafarers could hate bad cooks, because seafaring was hard enough without dismal food.

Q.5. What poison would she have used, if it was deliberate?

A. Women such as her were sometimes doctresses with a knowledge of herbs. Possibly she had a selection of herbs with her. 

A. If the poisoning was accidental, it could have been because the food she was expected to cook had gone off, There were plenty of opportunities were victuals to deteriorate as the 4,000-miles,oyage from Jamaica took between between three  weeks and four months depending on winds etc. 

Q.6. Why didn't everyone die?

A.  Possibly because the cook was given two lots of ingredients to cook, and those for the crew were inferior to the officers' rations. This status difference would not be unusual.

A.  Perhaps, if the poisoning was deliberate, she was targetting lower-decks crew, not officers.

Q. 7. So what else should we be asking about her?

A. All we can!

Pic shows sentimentalised version of a black male cook, with ayah and white girl on Victorian ship.

This story was drawn to my attention to John D Ellis. I thank him very much for his generosity in sharing it, and many other stories too. John is working on the history of black people in the armed services. Some of his work can be seen at

Friday 7 October 2022

Norway - gay seafarers' history is revealed


Queer seafarers and their history are revealed for the first time in a bi-lingual  exhibition opening on 28 October. In Norwegian it's called 'Skeive Sjofolk'. Skeive tarnslated as 'skewed'.

Follow it on Facebook: 

The maritime museum in Bergen is displaying this past as part of Norway's 50th anniversary celebrations of the abolition of a law that criminalised gay sex

Bergen is Norway's second largest city. The port was founded in 1070 and  still plays a major role in Scandinavian shipping.

Several exhibitions about gay seafarers have taken place: in Oslo; Liverpool then touring; and currently in Victoria (Canada) and Amsterdam.  I was co-curator of the  Merseyside Maritime Museum exhibition  (see pic) and continue to research the subject.

Bergen curators Gry Bang-Andersen and Bård Gram Økland asked veteran seafarers about the period 1950-1980

They acknowledge 'The ship was a workplace, but also a local community where feelings, friendships, intimacies and sexuality were expressed and suppressed. The community on board was strictly hierarchical, masculine and heteronormative.' 

Gry and Bard have found that 'on some ships, homo-erotic and homo-sexual relations existed ....[These included] relationships between men who did not identify as queer, and between crew members of different ranks, although mostly covertly.'


I'll be comparing this Norwegian pattern with that of other countries.  So far 3 key things I can say are:

1. DIFFERENT. No other nation's seafarers seen to have had had the kind of out, camp and proud subculture that evolved on British ships, especially passenger ships, 1945-1985. 

But certainly many US catering staff on ships were out, as the late US researcher Allan Bérubé  (pictured) found. See his videod talk about intersectionality in the US Marine Cooks and Stewards Union:“No Red-Baiting, Race-Baiting, or Queen-Baiting!: An MCSU History”

2. THEATRICALITY.  The camp, funny and showy British pattern may be connected with the very humorous theatrical tradition on both merchant and royal navy ships, and indeed in home entertainment on land. 

On many long voyages it was normal to put on rumbustious crew shows where men dragged up, including grotesquely: singing, dancing, and impersonating divas like Ethel Merman, Judy Garland, Dusty Springfield and Barbra Streisand.

3.NEW YORK,  AUSTRALIA  & SOUTH AFRICA. Relatedly, a lot of frisky camp activity happened on ships between the UK and its former colonies. 

Gay-tolerant P&O and Union Castle vessels were reputed to be the obvious place for a gay man to seek employment as a  steward. This clear 'go-to' pattern generated increasingly large and confident gay shipboard communities - as many as 70% of catering employees on ships were gay, say some. Success begat success. 

I wonder if Norwegian shipping companies - with their different destinations and clientele - were not magnets in the same way. Certainly Goteberg researcher Arne Nilsson found that the majority of gay Swedish seafarers sailed on Swedish America Lines to New York, not other destinations. 

See Arne's book (in Swedish, pictured) and his ‘Cruising the Seas: Male homosexual life on the Swedish American Line, 1950-1975', Queer scope articles, SQS, [Suomen Queer-tutkimuksen Seuran Lehti], vol 71, January 2006,


Bard and Gry's questions include: 

  1. How might seafarers see their temporary home?
  2. What were the limitations and possibilities that GBT+ men found on board? 
  3. How did “non-queer” seafafers regard the few queer shipmates who were out? 


The answers to these in the UK situation are:
  1. Home? As 'queer heaven', a wild hedonsitic haven which was the most permissive and supportive community/industry avaiable at the time, by far.
  2. Limitations and possibilities? A place where ratings and catering pesronnel could be as out and outrageous as they liked. Deck officers had to be closeted.  
  3. “Non-queer” shipmates? Some became contingently bisexual or simply 'men who had sex with men (MSMs) but did not see themselves as gay. Most were acceptant of gay men, if the gay man did not insist on pursuing him. Homophobes, outnumbered, sought a transfer. Women crew usually enjoyed 'sisterly relations' with the gay crew. It was a pleasure to be friends, not the object of heterosexual objectification.  


I hope you enjoy the exhibition. 

What a good reason to take an autumn holiday in Bergen