Friday 29 September 2023

Seawomen of colour: Where were they and why not?

In 40 years of researching seafarers’ histories on UK ships I’ve found very few women of colour. Was this somehow my error in researching?  Surely it was not an accurate picture?

Wrong. Speaking to Fazilette Khan (pictured) one of the few trail-blazers of women’s maritime history in the 1980's for #BlackHistoryMonth, it seems that yes, women of colour were indeed rare.

 The best known are:

  •  Fazilette herself, who was a radio officer from 1984, then electro-technical officer and finally an Environmental Officer
  • Belinda Bennett,now a captain, who began training in 1990. (See my video interview with Belinda for Lloyd’s register Foundation’s Rewriting Women into Maritime History Project: ).  


Fazilette (born 1960) worked at sea for 30 years. She still knows the industry well, because she networks as she campaigns for a better maritime environment (see #GreenSeasTrust:

Can she remember any other brown or black women colleagues on cargo vessels and tankers, (where she was often the only woman anyway)? No, she realises.

However on passenger ships from the 2000s she increasingly found a few women of colour. They included

  •  pursers’ department officers from South Asia, such as  a captain’s secretary and accountancy workers
  • tours department onboard staff who knew the countries being visited, such as Caribbean islands, or sold future cruises  
  •  housekeeping staff from the Philippines

The key question is how was the imbalance achieved? Did women of colour not apply, perhaps assuming they’d be blocked anyway? Or did schools and colleges fail to suggest such careers? Or did women train, but fall away after negative early sea experiences?


What about Fazilette’s own experiences of racism on board? She finds ‘I often can’t see whether the hostility was racism or sexism. It’s hard to tell the dividing line. You’re just getting negativity and you’ve got to deal with it.’ 

She was born and grew up in the UK. Her dad was a seafarer. Her mother Haida Khan was a renowned poet. Both supported her 'unusual' wish to go to sea

During her training at the Merchant Navy College in Greenhithe she was one of 3 women among 300 men on her course. ‘You learn to toughen up. You fight your corner.’ 

The hostility at that point was about gender. ‘After a while, it became water off a duck's back. Thinking back, it was probably quite character-building!’ The other two women were white, as were 98 per cent of the students. A few foreign male students from the Bahamas, Middle East were on short courses. 

Women at sea take care of all aspects of their personas so that they don’t get extra-victimized. Fazilette had thought ‘”Fazilette” sounded quite sweet - a bit of a pushover. But “Bobby” has a feisty resonance about it! It was actually my pet name since I was a kid. So on the tankers etc I was “Bobby”. And on the cruise ships I was “Fazilette”.’

She enjoyed the life, mainly. But on a tanker very early in her career she had a bad feeling even as she walked up the gangway: the only woman.  Men expressed hostility verbally and informally, mainly in off-duty moments. She identifies the slurs that she encountered as racial rather than gendered. 

But she was determined to carry on with her career. After all her years on investing in training she would not let a minority of bigots drive her out of the profession she had worked so hard for. 

Fed up with their constant goading, Fazilette decided to tackle the situation head-on. She used the analogy of the Klu Klux Klan's practice of hooded men burning crosses as they persecuted black victims to death in the US. 

As she stepped into the onboard bar one night in Rotterdam she challenged them from the threshold: ’Listen! Are you going to burn the crosses tonight? Or can I come in and sit in peace?’ 

They were quite taken aback, she recalls. ‘I don't know whether this was because I was no longer prepared to take it on the chin, or the fact that I was comparing their attitudes with such a prejudiced organisation. Either way, it worked!’

Her shipmates hadn’t realised that their so-called ‘banter’ was having a huge negative effect on her. Her challenge led to the racists backing off. Men even increasingly isolated the ring leader for his hostility too.

She tackled gender and race matters sassily. On a couple of documents that asked about her complexion she wrote ‘permanently tanned.’ 

One time, to halt a resentful but superstitious officer who was trying to make her life a misery, she made a BluTack voodoo doll in front of him. Quickly ‘he was cowering under the settee vowing to never bother me again. Sometimes having a thick skin and a smile like the Mona Lisa just isn’t enough!’

Fortunately Fazilette encountered many fair-minded shipmates over the years, who urged ‘give the girl a chance.’ (She was one of the pioneer non-Marconi operators, changing shipboard radio culture, which meant she faced discrimination on those grounds too.)

These days she’s seeking publication for an expanded version of the salty sailor articles she wrote for maritime magazine TradeWinds  in the 1990s.  

Learn more

  • her memorabilia are on display at Merseyside Maritime Museum’s ‘Life on Board.’ (pictured). Her artefacts are in the archive.
  •  See also 
  •  The National Maritime Museum’s Making Waves online exhibition features Fazilette’s story  as a campaigner against maritime pollution:


So what’s to be done about women facing racism on ships today? Many maritime professionals are working on diversity, equity and inclusion. See Maersk event this year (pictured), for example.

Fazilette thinks women need to assert themselves too. ‘Nowadays we are led to believe that our managers have the authority to deal with any and all problems. The reality is, it is simply not true.’

 As bigotry will continue, she advises women to do as she did and challenge the perpetrators. 'Don’t just complain to HR, who may not be effective enough. Deal direct with the men – even captains – who don’t play fair.’ She’s done so, and been surprised at how oppressors have backed down. Respect can indeed come.  

The off-the-record stories she’s told me show how much the tables can be turned by a brave challenger. But to my mind, systemic united team efforts, education, a changed culture, and enforced policies really help too.

I look forward to other women of colour getting in touch and telling me about life at sea for them before DEI policies began and sea women were even more isolated.

Friday 15 September 2023

Rainbow Seas in Maritime Museums: group summary

There's no doubt about it. Most maritime museums  could do with representing aspects of seafaring life that have hitherto been marginalised. That includes the ways LGBT+ seafarers used voyages as a exceptional opportunities to explore new identities and relationships. 

On some ships you could go beyond heteronormatvity. However, it took a while before seafarers could be seen brandishing rainbow flags at Pride (see above). Now there's modern visibility and inclusion, but the history is still under-visible. 

Since 2005 a number of museums in Euope, and two in Canada have put on special temporary exhibitions focused entirely on gay life at sea. See the main images of Victoria, BC, exhibition, right.) 

Other museums arrange events for LGBT+ History Month every February.

Curators and community outreach staff who work in this area are often trailblazers. They seek hard-to-find artefacts, struggle to be diplomatic, and sometimes face homophobic responses by visitors. 

Having experienced and supportive mates helps. Friendly peers share advice, explore, get inspired by others' ideas and endlessly seek to do better. 

The Rainbow Seas in Maritime Museums group has shared expertise remotely zoom for nearly two years. This blog is my attempt, as chair, to summarise it as I see it. And I do so in the hope that others with join in.

Describing a group that is evolving all the time is not easy. But these common FAQ's will help put you in the picture.

1.What does it do? Works informally via 90-minute meetings over Zoom to ensure the diverse history of LGBT+ life on ships and in ports is better represented in museums.

2. Who's in it? A small group of people in Europe, but with speakers from other time zones when possible.  Members are employed by museums, or work with them as expert consultants or interns. Some identify as queer, and some are queer allies. 

3. When do you meet?  About every two months over Zoom, usually on a Friday  morning (agreed at the previous meeting). The meetings are recorded so if you miss one you can still see the video of what happened, and make comments etc by email afterwards.

4. What happens in a typical meeting?  We check in briefly with news about what we are doing. Then the agreed speaker describes their current exhibition work (for example in Bergen 2023, see main image, left.) Or the guest speaker contributes for 30 mins on  a particular area. About 20 mins  chat follows, which usually involves a lot of sharing and recommending. 

5, How are meetings recorded? On the agreed platform, e.g. Teams. We do so because we see ourselves as creating something useful we can offer to the future.  

Sometimes I write a reflective diary,. I hope others do too. I circulate mine by email but am not sure anyone reads it!

6. What has the group done?  In 2022, when we began, three members were putting on displays about queer seafarers. Two others had already done so. 

Veterans offered a hand to the newcomers: this was both formal and informal consultancy. A key question was ‘How do we get hold of evidence?’ The answer: 'By appealing to older seafarers to come forward with artefacts and oral testimony and see themselves educators of newcomers.' 

Community participation is seen as invaluable. (Pictured, former steward Charles Traa and friend in foreign port. Charles was proud to help Amsterdam's National Maritime Museum by sharing his photo albums and being videod.)

7. Who are your guest speakers?  Sometimes we invite in speakers from the maritime industry today. That way, historical displays can be made relevant to present times and the future.  

8. What’s next?  It’s hard to know. It seems likely that some members will fall away because, having put on a exhibition focused on gay life, they now have to move on to mounting their next exhibition. It’s likely that they will be less frequent partiicipants, there in spirit but not in person. 

I certainly hope that people working with other maritime museums keen to represent the subject will join in. A dynamic organisation will be shaped by newcomers and new moves, such as rainbow capitalism. 

9. What future speakers do you have lined up? Professor Seth Stein LeJaq will speak at our next meeting, about using early Royal Navy archives. Our group members are always keen to work with local LGBT+ organisations including archives and universities. Luckily most museums offer talks programmes now, and even podcasts,  which continue to expand the positive effects of an exhibition long after it's over.   

And it seems possible that we may work with people in ports about queer seafarers’ use of ‘cottages’, gay brothels, Turkish baths, Seamen’s Homes. 

Antwerp, Australia and the Far East seem to be emerging as possible partners. We will be drawing in historians of queer life who are not necessarily interested in seafarers. Together we can make connections.

10. What are the side benefits of joining this peer support group with all its potential to help research? 

  • maritime museums are supported in being more inclusive (and thereby attracting new audiences)
  • museum workers don’t 'reinvent wheels'. It’s likely that increased international agency and consultancy will evolve
  •  there’s a domino effect: other museums will consider what they can do, even of it’s only expand their archives, not put on a whole exhibition.

11. How to join? Contact me by email in the first instance. Then I will put you on mailing list. 

Reading more 

Start here. For an introduction and recommeded reading see the LGBT+ Sea page on my website:

To read the latest on gay sea exhibitions see my articles:
  • 'Rainbow Seas Swelling:', Lloyd's Register Foundation Heritage and Education Centre, 20 June 2022, 
  • 'Museum musings: a cultural update from the world's maritime museums', Nautilus Telegraph,  26 August 2022,

Filmed talks by me. 
2023. “Revealing queer maritime history: international museums’ LGBT+ sea exhibitions,” Blaydes Maritime Centre webinar, University of Hull, May 2023.
2023. “Entertaining 4 Sanity@sea: Hull's glitzy ship’s steward Roy ‘Wendy’ Gibson and the history of shipboard entertainment,“ University of Hull, Blaydes Maritime Centre webinar, Feb 2023.
2023. “A Whirlwind Tour of a Jigsaw 1600-2020. 400 packed years of LGBTQI+ maritime history, “ Maritime UK, Pride in Diversity network webinar.
2008.  Homotopia. “Hello Sailor,” filmed interview with me touring an interviewer round the Merseyside Maritime Museum version of the Hello Sailor exhibition, 2008.