Monday 30 October 2023

‘Florence Nightingale’ afloat: Jane Fennell Swinton and the worst ‘coolie’ voyage to ‘El Dorado’, the Salsette 1858

 A full version of this item will appear here shortly. Here is the prelude.

The long-overlooked backstory of Jane Fennell Swinton (1821-72) is an odd and highly original finale to my contributions to Black History Month 2023. 

Cotton merchant's daughter Jane Fennell married Captain Edulph (sometime written Edulfus or Edolphus) Swinton and sailed with him on the most infamous ‘coolie ship’. On the Salsette 120 of the 324 Indian indentured labourers and their children died between Calcutta and Trinidad in 1858. Almost one a day died from starvation, dysentery, typhid, and pining.

Jane wrote up his account, added her comments, and had the story published, as part of what we might now call the black rights movement. Journal of a voyage with coolie emigrants, from Calcutta to Trinidad . By Captain and Mrs. Swinton, late of the ship Salsette (1859) can be read online, free, in an hour.  

There is also a hard-to-get facsimile edition edited by Ron Ramdin (1994).

She critiqued the damage caused by profiteers who sent unfit and distressed people far away on ill-provisioned ships. There were too few interpreters and no medical and nursing staff able to act as helpful intermediaries for people who were alarmed at Western medicine and uneasy about reporting to a western doctor.

Jane was not black. And she used racist language. But this brief book is important. No other captain, or captain’s wife, has written such a useful first-person account of life on what were, in effect, successors to slaveships, 1834-1917.

Who knows how much Jane contributed to the lessening of shipboard abuses? Her personal story  has never been told before, and it is only fragmentary.

Please keep your eyes open for my forthcoming blog item about this member of an Irish Quaker dynasty. Genealogical research reveals bankruptcy. It shows that she herself was of a family of migrants. Feminist abolitionism may have been her London context. And she had informed opinions about human cargo, including Chinese ‘coolies.’

 No other woman was in such a position of expertise about race on ships. Briefly, she was as effective a campaigner as Elizabeth Fry and Caroline Chisholm.  

Friday 27 October 2023

Maritime union women pulling together: visible

Women in maritime trades unions and guilds. They're not very visible. That's what I keep finding out as I research seafaring women's history. 

What's the reality? What's just inadequate recording?

The lack of available information about gender in maritime history means it's good to be able to pick out a few highlights from Pulling Together, Nautilus International's history, which has just been published this week. See 

Pulling Together's author Andrew Linington (pictured) mentions the following items about women in this history. Since 1857 predecessor unions have included MNAOA and NUMAST :

1933. Supporting the new  Watch Ashore (organising supportive women relatives of members)
1979. NUMAST establishes the Victoria Drummond Award for an outstanding contribution by a woman, boosting women's achivements at sea. (The first recipient is Sheila Edmundson, the first woman captain. Others are Rachel Dunn [2012], Barbara Campbell [2015], Helene Peter-Davies [2019].
2010. The Women's Forum begins, see pic.

2014. Union campaigns about cadet Akhona Geveza, who disappared overboard following her rape allegation
2016.  After working since 2002 at eliminating bullying and harassment at sea (which disproportionately affects women) Nautilus, ITF and the International Chamber of Shipping publish global guidance.
Many matters, of course, affect seafarers whatever their gender. The book is replete with evidence about how much the union has done.  

Other maritime unions

My knowledge of other unions, such as the National Union of Seamen (which was for ratings, and is now RMT), suggests that key milestones are when: 

  •  the first woman joins a union executive (usually early 1980s. I think Sheila was on NUMAST's council. She was certainly active in union matters.
  •  union has its first women's conference  (usually mid to-late 1980s. Women are so few in the maritime industry that a full 3-day conference would hardly have seemed appropriate)
  • union campaigns on behalf of a woman member who's experienced major, and symptomatic, difficulty in the industry
  • union appoints it first female general secretary (Brenda Dean of SOGAT was the first in UK in 1985).

The Captain's crucial partner

Spouses have played  a crucial part in the maritime unions community. They've been supportive 'members' while husbands were away at sea. Among their campaigns have been safety at sea and longer leaves, as the cartoon shows.

So it's important to mention the 1933 founding of The Watch Ashore by Dorothy Nelson-Ward, who was married to Philip, president of the Officers'  (Merchant Navy) Federation.  (page 59). 

# my blog about Dorothy:
# my article on seagoing wives in the union: 'Wives welcome ... with sewing kits,'

Key fragments known about UK women's maritime organised labour history generally are:

1775. In the Liverpool Seamen's Revolt a woman is among those imprisoned for  'aiding and abetting' the protestors. Crowds released her and others from jail.

1913. A Cunard lady passenger tries to set up a Guild of Stewardesses. (Women are already allowed in the seamen's union NUS so the Guild may have been a ploy to set up a conservative body, pitting ladies against militant men) 

1917. Suffragist Adela Pankhurst Walsh, Emmeline Pankhurt's estranged daughter, is active in the  Seamen's Union of Australia. She was criticised, then embraced, by the British NUS for her activism.

1913. Southampton politician Emily Palmer (pictured) becomes treasurer of the British Seafarers' Union. 

1953. The Queen honours Irene Combs, the Watch Ashore’s vice-president and treasurer,  for services to the Merchant Navy

1980. With the backing of the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC), Lucy Wallace, cinema projectionist, wins the very first maritime test case. Tribunal finds P&O had wrongfully discriminated against her.

1980s. Women join NUS executive

1988. UN agency International Maritime Organisation's gender programme begins. It's supported by unions, and continues today.

2013. International Labour Organisation brings out Working  Paper 298 on employing women in transport, which includes maritime

2022. International Day for Women in Maritime is instituted (May 18)

Pulling together matters

Not all human beings recognise how helpful a trades union can be. So there are also negative stories maritime labour I have glimpsed over the years. 

When  Aquitania seafarers struck in 1921 some stenographers were prepared to be strikebreakers. See pic of Cunard ladies standing by in the London EC headquarters. They signed up as 'volunteer helpers.' 

By contrast, the 'perspiring gang' of women supposed to be cleaning the ship emitted  'a running fire of comment' at the gents who'd laid down their pens to  scupper the solidarity. 

Reading more

  • A brief history of UK maritime women breaking through into non- traditional jobs, including the first coastguard Sue Nelson, in
  • UK women at sea. Pioneers are briefly discussed at
  • See the global and European story of formal challenges, in the ITF's Gender and Transport discussion paper, 2011, at
  • Canadian waterfront women: Linda Cullum, 'In Whose interest? Women Organizing on the Waterfront - St John's, Newfoundland, 1948' in Journal of Historical Sociology22.1, March 2009, pp108-44

Wednesday 18 October 2023

Queer Navy: seeing the documents, hearing the stories. Seth Stein LeJacq

I’m delighted that Dr Seth Stein LeJacq, my friend and colleague in queer maritime historiography, is bringing out his new book and giving a free zoom talk. 

Seth is an expert on the Royal Navy’s GBTQ+ history pre1900. By contrast, I know about the merchant service, from 1900. We dovetail well. I constantly learn from his findings - including Jane Austen's brother's role in judging a midshipman's alleged  heterosexual assault of a girl. 

If you want to see a collection of important records of 'gay' naval history, as evidenced by “the unnatural and detestable sin of buggery’ and how the Royal Navy handled 'homosexuality' – and more – then explore these transcripts. They reveal:

  • trials that erupted into public scandals
  • cases that offer a vivid window into naval sexual cultures
  • implicitly, varying attitudes towards diversity, human rights and inclusion that contrast with today's social climate 

Seth, an Assistant Professor at New York Institute of Technology, accompanies this verbatim material with invaluable editorial commentary. Together such material opens up an obscured past that is usually only accessible to those able to spend months in London archives reading handwritten ledgers. 

From November 9 2023: Pre-order a discount copy of Seth’s edited collection: Sexual and Gender Difference in the British Navy, 1690-1900, Routledge, London. ISBN 9781032409900.

January 30, 2024: Catch his free online talk ‘Recovering the Queer History of Britain’s Navy in the Age of Sail’. From 5.15pm to 6.30pm, by Zoom only, from the National Maritime Museum, London, UK . There is no need to book. Just before 5.15pm on the day simply click. For more information please go to

Seth finds gender and sexual diversity on naval ships, and a surprising amount of tolerance for that diversity. The talk will ‘investigate sexual cultures at sea, discipline and military justice, including the 1698 trial of Captain Edward Rigby. See pic.

Seth will tackle some FAQs about GBT+ maritime history:

What is the queer history of the Royal Navy in the age of sail? 

How did seafaring men break their society’s rules about sex and gender? 

To what extent did men enter into same-sex relationships, how and why? 

‘Queer’ can mean non-conforming, especially in social relationships. So in what other ways did that these men also act in other ways that men ‘weren’t supposed to’? 

What were the consequences of their diversity?

How can we learn more about these seafarers’ lives?

Why is it so important to know about LGBT+ lives?

Learning more

Going deeper, sooner: get instant free online access to both lite and academic pieces in the writing section of his website

Going wider, in terms of periods and navies:  see my online timeline of Queer seafaring history in both Royal and Merchant navies in the UK, up to the present day:   (Please feel free to add to it. Doing history is a cumulative ongoing process and you can enrich it.)