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.  

No comments: