US Army Nursing Corps Sisters wait to disembark at Greenoch, Scotland, August 15 1944.
One of the great benefits of Black History Month (October) is that it prompts us consider the absence of BME people, or even of references to race, in the subjects we are studying, if we can’t find their presence. For example, in writing about British women who sailed in WW1 and WW2 I’d initially thought that all the need for skilled personnel would bring large numbers of women from India, the Caribbean and other British colonies into the war effort. Surely they crossed the seas to help ‘the Mother country’ and the Allied cause between 1939 and 1945?
But they are barely on record – and it seems were barely involved. By contrast, US evidence, with all its clear racism, shows just how black women were excluded or relegated.
In Britain there’s no record of whether BME women were among the troops and voluntary workers who went overseas. And no black or mixed-race people appear to have been among the many women entertainers, such as Vera Lynn, sent out from Britain.
Afro-Caribbean enthusiasm for the war effort meant people from the West Indies were keen to participate. But the British government were reluctant to let black women over here. Years of argument about this, between the War Office and Colonial Office, ensued. One internal memo said ‘Dear Thomas: In brief we are quite prepared to accept European women from the colonies, but I must emphasize we cannot accept coloured women for service in this country’ [my italics].
An unknown number of nurses came privately from the West Indies to the UK. When they arrived they did not, of course, work solely with black men as their US sisters did.
Finally, policy changed. Near the end of 1943 black women sailed from the Caribbean to Britain to become part of the women’s branch of the army, the Auxiliary Transport Service (ATS). Fashion designer Hermione X and 299 middle-class ‘coloured’ women were ‘accepted’ onto Britain’s shores. Seemingly they paid their own fare.
A year later, and five years into the war, more Afro-Caribbean female service personnel were sailing to the UK to become ATS. Probably under 500 did so. In October 1944 they set off (via Trinidad and New York) on the by-then much-worn troopship Queen Mary to Scotland.
Because many had had a privileged upbringing they were shocked at conditions on the ship. One un-named woman said: ‘We had to sleep on wire covered with canvas. Sugar bags covering wire that was our beds! Some of them started to cry. I was always trying to make peace, telling them “You joined it, you glad to be coming, so you must accept what you getting.”’
White British servicewomen also sailed on such troopships as they went out to postings overseas. Perhaps because of the Blitz and being socialised to stay cheery, none of the testimonies I’ve read mentions the awful mattresses on ships. None, allegedly, let themselves cry either. They mainly complained in the approved stoic and jolly manner about water shortages and overcrowding on such vessels.
In the US the authorities were similarly reluctant to utilise black women’s labour. They imposed a quota on nurses that wasn’t successfully challenged until 1944. Only 479 of the Army Nurse Corps’s 50,000 nurses were black (0.8 per cent). They were expected to work with only black troops.
The first African American women to sail overseas in the war were ANC nurses who went to Liberia. Later they went to other parts of Africa, Burma (where they nursed Chinese troops) and the South Pacific (which suggests that a very different version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, featuring white nurse Nellie Forbush, could have been written.) In June 1944 a unit of 63 black ANC nurses came to the 168th Station Hospital in Warrington, Cheshire. Their role was specifically to nurse German POWs – the least desirable patients. 
6888th Postal Battalion women in Rouen, 1946
The largest group of African-American women who sailed to war were part of the army. 855 women were the only black WACs to serve overseas. They were postal workers in the elite 6888th Postal Battalion. They initially came to Birmingham circa January 1945. Later they crossed the Channel to work in Rouen, and later Paris.
Historian Brenda L Moore interviewed many of them, who said they had been trained how to board a ship via cargo net and to climb ropes (these were not skills with which any British women service personnel boarded ships).
They sailed in two batches, aboard two of the worlds’ most iconic liners, that had been converted to troop ships: the Ile de France and the Queen Elizabeth. Myrtle Royden on the Ile de France thought it was ‘loaded to the brim …with bombs and ammunition.’ This made it a legitimate target and Germany attacked. The ship had to take evasive action (zigzagging). And the convoy was attacked by a u-boat before reaching Scotland.
Women in the second contingent, such Dorothy Johnson on the Queen Elizabeth, didn’t have any trouble; she found it ‘a rather luxurious journey’ full of the mateyness and mingling that was so typical of troopships, where the rare women – whatever their ethnicity – were very popular indeed. First Lt Mildred Dupree Leonard made the crucial point that status was the key divide and so officers had it relatively easy on these hierarchical ships. ‘We [officers] were living in the best quarters [whereas some] enlisted personnel were down in the hole.’ She likened it to travelling on an ocean liner: ‘the further down on the ship you go, the less pleasant the trip.’
Women of 6888th on both ships made the comment that tens of thousands of servicewomen made, whatever their trip, whatever their ethnicity: seasickness was the main feature of the voyage. The Atlantic can be particular unpleasant in winter and the Ile de France’s zigzagging worsened it. One of the post women, Miss Rhoden, said she had to hang on with all her strength the veering was so severe – and noisy: ‘the sirens, the banging, the horns, and the whistles; the galvanized cans were banging and clanging.’ And in their cramped cabin women’s perfume and cosmetics whizzed off the shelves, ‘flying through the air like marbles.’
But they made it. And no black British or black American women were among the hundreds of women is recorded as being among those who died on ships in the two wars. However, I think this is highly unlikely, and that evidence of fatalities will emerge.
According to the information available, black British and US women were not allowed to play a proportionate part in either war. Consequently they did not experience full access to that bonus, mobility, that was such a key feature of war for white women.
For those who did travel, their experiences of overt and subtle discrimination during voyages is little known. Broadly speaking, all women tended to be seen as intruders on wartime ships. But as British merchant vessels were operated by crew used to dealing with a range of people from other countries, it may be that the African-American women travelling to Britain in WW2 experienced less overt racism than they usually experienced in the US. Certainly, in general, BME women suffered additional hostility – for example, delayed trips – which deserves acknowledgement.
Jo Stanley (c) 2012
Dr Jo Stanley, FRHistS, is an expert on the gendered sea. For Yale University Press she is currently writing Risk! Women on the Wartime Seas (2013). She is an Honorary Research Fellow at Lancaster University’s Centre for Mobilities Research.
 Ben Bousquet and Colin Douglas, West Indian Women at War, Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1990, p119.
 Judith A Bellafaire, The Army Nurse Corps, US Army Center of Military History. http://www.history.army.mil/books/wwii/72-14/72-14.HTM. See also http://5thplatoon.org/aboutus2.html
 150 Caucasion WAACs (their auxiliary status, marked by that exta ‘A’ was dropped in 1943) had served in North Africa from November 1942 and many other served in Europe. Although women were only allowed overseas later than men, Africa-American women were only permitted to go two years later than that. It was expected that African-American WAACs would come to Britain in 1942, as secretaries and chauffeurs who would ‘bring a touch of home to the [black] soldiers.’ But Director Oveta Hobby’s concern that they were just being seen as escorts for black US troops meant the plan was shelved for two years. Brenda L Moore, To Serve My Country, To Serve My Race, New York University Press, New York and London, 1996, p81.
 Cited in Moore, To Serve, p105.
 Cited in Moore, To Serve, p107.
 Cited in Moore, To Serve, p106.
 Cited in Moore, To Serve, p107.
 Depending on how long they’d served, these postal workers rotated back to the US, finally leaving in March 1946.
On Friday 23 June 1916, five seawomen were captured by the enemy.
Despite wartime dangers women crew were still sailing. These stewardesses were on the Great Eastern Railway ferry Brussels caring for Belgian refugees, after leaving the Hook of Holland for Britain. Their ship was captured after Captain Fryatt was accused of sinking a U-boat.
German crew who boarded the ship wondered at the women’s calmness. ‘Aren’t you afraid of being shot?’ they asked. After all, Edith Cavell had been executed by firing squad just seven months earlier. ‘“We are Englishwomen” was considered sufficient reply,’ claimed the women’s company magazine afterwards.
When the captured ship was taken to Zeebrugge then Bruges their blue uniforms with brass buttons caused a confusion about identity. ‘Germans took them for fighting women: England’s last hope.’
The women’s male Brussels shipmates were sent to Ruhleben, a civilian detention camp near Berlin. As females, the stewardesses were interned at the Holzminden camp, near Hanover.
Hungry and miserable, they must have been worried, too. Internment meant the women lost earnings. Many seawomen were family breadwinners so their dependents were at risk. No shipping company paid crew who were not working. Wages stopped the day after shipwreck. For the Brussels women this meant six months without an income.
They were released in October, 1916. One of them, Edith Smith, went straight back to marry her fiancée by special licence, just before his unit left for Egypt.
During Edith’s incarceration there was a high-profile publicity campaign and diplomatic initiatives to free the women. Indeed, they got more publicity than any other seawomen in that entire war. Media headlines spun the story into another shocking tale of Hunnish brutality.
Surprisingly no newspaper ever suggested the women should not have been working at sea.
Jo Stanley (c) July 2012
Jo Stanley’s book, Risk! Women on the Wartime Seas, will be published next year by Yale University Press
Brusselsstewardess at Holzminden internment camp, summer 1916.
 ‘The stewardesses released’, The Great Eastern Railway Magazine, November 1916, p273-4.
 ‘The stewardesses released’, The Great Eastern Railway Magazine,November 1916, p273-4.
 Great Eastern Railway Magazine, Vol 6, no 72, p302.
On May 21 1937, 75 years ago, British philanthropists helped thousands of children from a Spain being torn apart by war ( http://www.basquechildren.org). Los Niños (pictured arriving) were to stay in England for up to two years.
A conference, reunion and exhibition held 12-13 May 2012 at Southampton celebrate that mercy mission and its aftermath (http://www.southampton.ac.uk/ml/news/2012/05/09_exhibition_to_commemorate_child_refugees_of_the_spanish_civil_war.page)
Let’s give praise where praise is due. Women, socialist women, were the main organisers of that 1937 evacuation. They were led by Leah Manning (later a Labour MP) of Spanish Medical Aid, along with Edith Pye of the Society of Friends, and the Tory but progressive Duchess of Atholl, President of the National Joint Committee for Spanish Relief.
Leah Manning, MP
And women, particularly single left-wing teachers, were the main people joining the famous Habana evacuation on an especially charted ship. They looked after the children on the two-day voyage.
I found this when researching women who had been escorts on other ships, for my new book, Risk: Women on the wartime seas (Yale University Press, 2013).
In world wars, women, almost always volunteers, escorted children – together with disoriented adult refugees – on British ships. Often they were not even being paid expenses. Some were captured, interned and even killed during their WW2 voyages.
Called ‘aunty’, many of the women were experienced travellers and lively independent types, at a time when women’s mobility was still limited and their solo travel problematic. Unsung and overlooked, these pioneers deserve recognition. They were members of a minority who cleverly utilised gendered conventions (‘women are suitable carers for little ones’) to do all the travelling they could, despite low incomes.
- WW1: women escorts, especially Quakers, often suffrage campaigners, escorted Belgian families fleeing to Britain, or German women and their children who were being repatriated (usually against their will).
- WW2: female escorts were employed by CORB, Children’s Overseas Reception Board, in summer 1940 to take British children to the US, Canada, the Cape and Australia.
- 1937: In the Spanish case the children and their escorts sailed as a result of intense British socialist campaigning, after Guernica was destroyed, on April 26 1937. The British Government insisted that this was a one-off voyage.
Homerton graduate Leah Manning, Dr Audrey Russell and others went out to fetch the nearly 4000 children, helped load them in Bilbao, then sailed back to Southampton. Evacuations almost always meant ships were worryingly overcrowded. The ship too, which was supposed to carry around 800 passengers, actually carried 3840 children, 80 teachers, 120 helpers (escorts), 15 catholic priests and 2 doctors.
Teachers’ and escorts’ work was not only to help children find places to sleep – even lifeboats. It was also to help them settle despite the difficulties such as separation trauma, disorientation and homesickness.
On the Habana, said Leah Manning, ‘Head to tail the senoritas laid out our precious cargo – on the bulkheads, in the swimming pool, in the state rooms and along the alley ways. [They were] for all the world like the little sardinas about which they were always singing.’
The Bay of Biscay is notoriously choppy and it was on that voyage too. Most of the children were so seasick, that ‘for two dreadful days and nights … [we] slipped and slithered from one pool of diarrhoea and vomit to another… assuring them it wasn’t the fascists who had stirred up the troubled waters against them,’ wrote Manning.
No one has mentioned that the escorts must have been suffering seasickness too, as they tried to do their job. New research has shown that women are nearly twice as likely as men to be seasick.
So these escorts were labouring under additional difficulties. But their main role was trying to determine how to handle the unknown children, who were all too often unhelpfully reserved about their agonies, which were instead expressed through bed-wetting.
Such seafaring escorts still accompany children travelling alone today. Some are employed by the Universal Aunts agency, which was founded by Gertrude Maclean, who escorted her nieces and nephews from far parts of the empire to boarding school before WW1. The ship in the image (pictured) shows the lure of the sea. (http://www.universalaunts.co.uk/history.html
Others were/are paid employees of shipping lines. Usually stewardesses and children’s hostesses, they were seconded for this function.
And sometimes, although they initially fancied a ‘free voyage,’ as well as wanting to support a worthy cause, escorts must have been very glad when the ship reached its destination. Many such ‘aunties’ continued to maintain contact with those they escorted.
WHN member Jo Stanley writes about gender and the sea in history.
 http://www.spanishrefugees-basquechildren.org/C-Leah_Manning.html. The citation is from her chapter, ‘From Basque Children for England’ in a book called With the Rearguard, but I can trace no such book. Manning’s autobiography, A Life for Education, Victor Gollancz, London, 1970 describes the event but not quite so well as the quote here.
No, not a woman but a Luddite leader in drag.
Exactly 200 years ago this month West Yorkshire and Lancashire Luddites began smashing new technology because it was ‘hurtful to commonality’. In Huddersfield of the weekend 27-29 April we are celebrating our own very specific 200th anniversary of the Luddites’ actions there. It was in early Spring 1812 that unrest emerged in West Yorkshire. Wool shearers started attacking the new shearing machines in the wool industry. Weavers opposed the steam looms that wove cotton, replacing the cottage-based hand-loom lifestyle.
Women aplenty are at these 21st century celebrations. Not least among them is singer Annie Dearman, whose voice was raised in ’The Noisy Frame’, a compilation of song and testimony telling the lives of cloth makers 1780-1840.
But were women really Luddites, back then? Yes, but not many. There were activists (and stool pigeons) as well wives who supported and daughters who turned their backs and went off to work in the new mills.
Of the activists, the best-known are the Molyneux sisters: ‘Set fire to it! Now lads!’ the two very young women urged Luddite men on 24 April 1812, at Westhoughton Mill near Bolton, Lancs. It was only an hour after the soldiers sent to protect it had gone away. The mill was a cotton mill, newly driven by steam.
‘About fifty assembled near the mill…[descending on it]… they smashed through the gates and started to break windows in the mill, led by two young women, Mary Molyneux, 19, and her sister Lydia, 15, who were seen, according to court papers, “with Muck Hooks and coal Picks in their hands breaking the windows of the building”… shouting “Now Lads” to encourage the men on.
‘With the windows broken, men took straw from the stables and set a series of fires inside: “The whole of the Building,” wrote the Annual Register correspondent, “with its valuable machinery, cambrics, &c, were entirely destroyed. “’
Four days earlier four women had led an attack on Burton’s power loom mill, Middleton (now part of greaterManchester). It was 20 April and the women were Alice Partington, Anne Dean, Ann Butterworth, Millicent Stoddard. For rioting, making a tumult and breaking windows they were sentenced to six months apiece.
By contast Mary and Lydia Molyneux were acquitted. This was despite clear evidence to support the charge of ‘wilfully and maliciously & unlawfully setting Fire to and burning the Weaving Mill, Warehouses and Loop Shop of Messrs Rowe and Duncough at Westhoughton with intent to injure the said Messrs Rowe & Duncough’. They were not executed or deported, as Luddite men were, not least because of being female.
There are also women involved in the 1812 food protests in Leeds reputedly calling themselves ‘General Ludd’s wives’ , with one claiming to be their leader under the name of ‘Lady Ludd.’ 
There’s evidence that at least one woman sought to undermine the Luddites, or was suspected of doing so. On Friday (pay night) 24 April 1812:
‘Betty Armstrong was at the door of an Inn in Huddersfield when she was set by a group of people. Nearby were a group of cavalry soldiers, and one of them managed to get her away from the crowd before she was too seriously hurt. She was suspected of having given information about people held by the authorities on suspicion of being Luddites.
‘At midday on Saturday 25th, she was on her to way to see Joseph Radcliffe when she again set upon and badly beaten by a group of people. In the fracas, she had suffered a fractured skull.’ 
NOT REALLY WOMEN
Spoofy cross-dressing was not unusual, as a disguise; it was part of the prankishness too. ‘Ned Ludd’ (there are thought to have been many Neds) was said to have many wives. In April 1812 two men in womens’ clothes, claiming to be Ludd’s wives, attacked a Stockport factory owner’s house and his machines.
How do we know about such Luddite women?
1. Through court cases. http://ludditebicentenary.blogspot.co.uk/
2. But it’s through song we know about the conditions that brought about Luddism: In Weave by Steam (attributed to John Grimshaw), we hear the mother’s lament about generational change, indeed, betrayal:
…if you go into a loom-shop
Where there’s three or four pair of looms,
They are all standing empty,
Encumbrances of the rooms;
And if you ask the reason why,
The old mother will tell you plain
‘my daughter has forsaken them [the handlooms] and gone to weave by steam
So come all you cotton weavers, you must rise up very soon,
For you must work in factories from morning until noon.
You mustn’t walk in your garden for two or three hours a day,
For you must stand at their command and keep your shuttles in play.
And singer Annie Dearman has created an extremely cheeky song, The Weaver and his Shuttle, from a text in Bodleian library. It’s about a domestic row between a rebellious daughter and her mother who opposes her relationship. The chorus line is a defiant ‘I’ll have my weaver and his shuttle’ and there’s definitely double entendre there.
3. Fiction writer Rosanne Rabinowitz has written interestingly about women and Luddism in the novel Noise Leads Me. Mara, the vampire protagonist who strongly identifies with the have-nots and discontented, travels from 18th-century Montenegro and Vienna to the Luddite uprisings of 19th-century England and ends up squatting in Brixton and Reclaiming the Streets in the 1990s. 
 ( http://www.eco-action.org/dod/no6/luddites.htm, from a quote in Kirkpatrick Sale’s Rebels Against the Future, London 1995, p 143. )
 (See Malcolm I. Thomis, Jennifer Grimmett, Women in Protest, 1800-1850, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1982.)
 (Malcolm I.Thomis, The Luddites: Machine Breaking in Regency England, David & Charles, Newton Abbott, 1970, p22.)
 (Leeds Mercury of 2.5.1812 and other sources)
October 28 1954. On this day the movie, Carmen Jones, was released. And Dorothy Dandridge was launched on her course as the world’s first African-American female film star, some say ‘the black Marilyn Monroe. This mixed-race singer and performer became the first African-American to earn an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, was featured in Ebony and photographed for the cover of Life.
She matters because she is so controversial in race debates. Some black people see her as traitor because she had relationships with white men. It’s often forgotten that she integrated many previously ‘White only’ night spots when she refused to sing in clubs that wouldn’t permit a stage-side special table to be allocated to members of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People.
In the history of movies about women and the sea, Dorothy Dandridge has an entirely overlooked significance. She starred in two forgotten 1968 sea features: Tamango and The Decks Ran Red. Women in maritime feature films are classically the romantic interest, the distraction, the anomaly on board. They are passengers in every sense, minor characters – and almost always white. By contrast, men are the ones who work the ship as vehicle. The sea is the ‘frontier’ where these ‘cowboys’ display their technical competence, good judgement and courage. If they’re black – and it’s rare – they’re lowly.
So how come a black woman is the star – well, co-star – in these two films? What does it tell us about the difference race makes to the history of mobile women, on celluloid?
Tamango (CEI Incom) was a highly controversial film, initially banned in the US for breaking the Hays Code by showing an inter-racial love scenes between Dorothy Dandridge and Curt Jürgens. Her manager claims two versions were made of the love scenes – a non-sexual one for US audiences. 
The movie is about a captured slave (Alex Cressan) who leads a rebellion on board. Director John Berry, a black-listed socialist director, heavily rewrote a Bizet story. Central to it was Aiché’s (Dandridge) progress towards becoming principled and proud of her black identity, no matter what the cost.
Aiché is the captain’s mistress. Initially she’s shown as someone who colludes with whites. On a windy deck, she urges the enchained Tamango to act obedient – and survive. He rejects her advice. ‘White man’s trash’ he yells and spits. In the rebellion, Tamango takes Aiché hostage. Captain Reinker (Jurgens) threatens to fire into the ship’s hold and kill all the slaves unless they submit. Tamango offers Aiché the opportunity to go – and live. She chooses to stay. Reinker shoots the cannon, killing them all, and realising how much he loves her.
Thus Dandridge plays probably the most significant and inspiring role of any black women in maritime film history. She’s a Joan of Arc of the high seas. Her race and gender are crucial; her role couldn’t be played by a white person, or a man. Crucial too are her beauty and light skin. With such looks she could have got by as a white man’s compromised plaything, says the message. Instead she heroically chose loyalty to ‘her own’ people. And the movie did not do well.
A few months later Dandridge co-starred in MGM’s suspense thriller The Decks Ran Red,  which has since been hailed as one of her cult classics. Again it was initially banned in the US on racial grounds, because it shows Mahia, a black woman, (Dandridge) shooting and killing a white man (rebel leader Stuart Whitman). The movie features also what some claim is the first inter-racial on-screen kiss, when Whitman forces his lips on hers.
This time it’s the 1950s. The film is set on a freighter not a slave ship. Again she’s aboard because she’s attached to a man – this time the (white) cook. Again there’s a revolt. She’s part of it, but on the goodies’ side, with the captain.
The opening credits bill her as a ‘dangerously beautiful native woman’ who is ‘menaced by a love-starved crew.’ From the very start, it’s not just her gender that’s the problem. It’s that she’s so alluring that she should be locked away. When she first gets on board, the soundtrack’s Honolulu-style lazy guitars twang the message that she’s all the more sexy because she’s black (but light-skinned and ‘beautiful’). When she serves food in the cramped mess in a low-cut white dress, the captain (James Mason) suggests she ‘wears something less revealing’ on duty. Later he commands her to stay in her cabin and read. At this she protests she might as well be a prisoner. Indeed she might. And in this she’s typical of many women on ships – an object of desire that so upsets the whole crew that it would be better if she was absent. But… tension makes good movies.
Danger increases when she’s widowed. The tagline is ‘They murdered her man… and now she was at the mercy of the love-starved crew of the Berwind!’ This is reasonably plausible. Women without men’s protection could have a tough time on ships. But the point is that in this film Mahia is there just as an inevitable victim of future rapes. The celluloid excuse for displaying her flesh comes when Mahia rips her own bodice and pretends to have been sexually assaulted, in order to help quell the revolt.
Maybe some might see shooting a white mutineer as a heroic act. But Dandridge is not shown as heroine, just as additional trouble. So in both films the tense, intensive nature of a voyaging ship is made into an opportunity to cast woman as other, and black women’s as doubly other, with their troublesome sexiness and loyalty. No other setting is such a locus for conflict. And no other black woman has yet played such a troubling figure at sea. Dandridge is a path breaker.
Jo Stanley is the author of ‘Black Women on White Ships’, Black and Asian Studies Association Newsletter (April 2000). Find out more about her work at http://www.jostanley.biz/index.htm
 Earl Mills, Dorothy Dandridge: An Intimate Biography, pub, p.69
 It’s based on a real-life event in 1905.
June 24 2010. On this date Akhona Geveza, a nineteen-year-old South African cadet on a cargo ship, disappeared. Her body was later found drifting in the sea off the Croatian coast.
The question is still was she murdered to shut her up? Or did she indeed kill herself? Nokwakha and Zenzile, her parents, believe it was murder. What’s not in question is that attitudes to gender and race seemingly brought about her death. She was being harassed. The irony is that Akhona was aboard the British-registered Safmarine Kariba because of an equal opportunities campaign to encourage young women to become seafarers .
And her story is significant for black women’s history because it raises the question of how many more have been abused at sea, both as passengers and as very occasional crew? How typical and symptomatic is Akhona’s story?
The only child of unemployed parents in the Eastern Cape, she was set for a career at sea. But tensions seemed to come to breaking point for Arkona because she was going to have face officially-organised confrontation. At 10 am that day Akhona’s shipmate, Cadet Nokulunga Cele told the captain that a senior officer had repeatedly raped Akhona. On Akhona’s behalf, and against her wishes, Nokulunga reported that Akhona had said that six weeks earlier the officer, a Ukrainian, had first tried to kiss her while giving her swimming lessons. Later he said sorry, and told her to come to his room. But there he allegedly raped her. Akhona didn’t report it because she feared that nobody would believe her.
On hearing Nokulunga’s story, shipmaster Klaudiusz Kolodziejczyk says he immediately confronted the – still un-named – officer. And he set-up a three-way meeting with the officer and Akhona for 11am, as if it was just a personal problem.
Akhona did not turn up for that meeting. So the captain organised a search, during which pills and a bottle of thinners were found on the ship’s forecastle. Sea Rescue at Rijeka was alerted. Her body was found three days later. Then a (small) international outcry began.
Importantly, several other cadets in the same maritime studies programme anonymously told the South Africa Sunday Times about the way senior officers were threatening cadets’ careers if they did not perform sexual acts. One cadet former female cadet said, ‘“It was like we were dumped in the middle of a game park.”’
The sexual abuse allegations include:
- A female cadet had to have two abortions after being raped at sea
- A married South African Maritime Safety Agency executive forced himself on a female cadet and threatened to cancel her contract if she reported it. His assault resulted in her having his child
- Senior officials raped two male cadets at sea
- At the end of their 12-month training three women trainees were pregnant
- A male cadet refused to have sex with a senior official and was punished by being sent home a month before finishing his training.
The Croatian police later concluded that Akhona committed suicide. Their report said she was in a relationship with an officer that was “consensual but rough”. The seafarers’ union, Nautilus International, had doubts about this and called for a further investigation.
On March 3 2011, the House of Lords heard a new call for a full UK investigation into her death. In a debate marking the centenary year of International Women’s Day, Baroness Jane Campbell backed the Nautilus International call and drew attention to the particular pressures on female seafarers:
‘For women, living and working on board ship requires great dedication, tolerance and self-belief. Often they will be the only female on board, with a group of men used to a male-only environment. At sea it is impossible to walk away… Women from developing countries often secure employment only after making payments to dubious agencies. These women are exploited even before they have set foot on board.’
Akhona’s story is recent – indeed current – history. And maybe it’s a rare case as women workers have only be allowed on ships in large numbers and non-traditional roles, such as cadets, in the last forty years. But to me as a historian of gender at sea, Akhona’s unnecessary tragedy raises crucial questions about centuries of lost maritime history of marginalised people:
- How much has there been such systematic abuse of power at sea over the years?’ (It’s clear that women, black people, young people, and those with least power would be the victims).
- How much have victims, particularly impoverished black women, been silent because they knew they would not be believed and it would harm them? How has that impacted on them?
- Over the centuries, what other seafarers have died, been raped, had abortions, and lost their careers?
The point of uncovering such studies is not just to deplore, but to bring about a situation where this can never happen again. I do history not just because it’s interesting (it is), but because I want to change the future, which includes stopping the kind of bullying Akhona endured.
 http://www.news24.com/SouthAfrica/News/No-news-on-sailors-death-20100721 and http://www.ufs.ph/2009-10/node/3879, accessed September 15 2011
 Safmarine death probe call, March 7 2011, http://safewaters.wordpress.com/2011/03/07/maritime-safmarine-death-probe-call/ accessed March 9 2011.
September 4 1892: She’s Asian, she’s female, she’s just landed in England – and it’s a period when few working-class women of any colour speak up. But Asian nanny Minnie Green took her white employers to a white court. And won.
After a traumatic voyage from India, Minnie Green, whose name, of course, had been anglicised, successfully used the British judicial system against her violent and disrespectful employers. She was described by Lloyds Weekly Newspaper’s court reporter as ‘an intelligent Hindostani wearing pearls either side of the nose.’ On the voyage from Bangalore and on arrival in London she had been hit and underpaid by Harold and Grace Denton. She had been employed to look after the coffee planters’ baby during the voyage, for £7 a month (excellent pay at the time).
‘Arriving at the docks they [the Dentons] proceeded to the South of London in search of some friends and then got drunk on the way, she taking charge of the baby. In the Borough they quarrelled and Mrs Denton turned around and struck her on the face. On the voyage, the poor woman added, she had suffered from the violent conduct of the prisoners.’ Southwark court restored the three shillings wage Minnie Green was still owed ‘for which she appeared very grateful and turning to the Bench said “I have much to thank you for – you gentleman.”’
However the Dentons were not charged with assault. And indeed how could such systematic disrespect ever be re-dressed, and real justice won?
‘Minnie Green’ was one of hundred-odd ayahs (private nannies) who sailed the seas, mainly from India to UK and back, looking after other people’s children on the journey, from 1850 to 1939. Why are these early ‘business travellers’ of any interest to us today? Because they were show how ‘racially inferior’ women were able to transcend fixity, albeit in limited ways. Ayahs were people who seized exceptional mobility and acted with agency, despite three obstacles: gender, class and race. Ayahs not only dared to leave their country, and get on risky ships. Some sailed with additional bravery because crossing the ocean was against their religious rules. They had the determination to leave their own families, and the courage to sail to a cold and unknown country whose treatment of black people was sometimes reprehensible. Ayahs can truly be celebrated.
We can divide them into ‘ayahs who happened to travel’ and professional ‘travelling ayahs’. The usual pattern was that ‘ayahs who happened to travel’ sailed to Britain with the family they worked for in Asia, to help with the children on the voyage. The families were either returning home on furlough, or to re-settle. The ayahs then waited in Britain, sometimes at the Ayah’s Home in Hackney, for a new family who would engage them for the trip back to Asia.
‘Travelling ayahs’, by contrast, specialised in the crossing, working continually for different families, almost like frequent flyers or people couriers. Mrs Antony Pareira did at least 54 trips. A 1922 mission magazine article describes her as: ‘a past mistress in the peccadilloes of the high seas: an adept at doctoring in stubborn mal de mer; and as much inured to the customs and routine of a trim liner as any gold-laced skipper who ever paced a bridge or used a sextant.’ 
Significantly ayahs very seldom had their own passports or travelled under their own name: they were designated as part of their employer’s ‘family’, for example ‘Ayah Smith’. This reflects their complex and ambiguous position. They were non-white members of races that some employees saw as inferior, but they had huge authority over the children, who usually adored these ‘almost mothers.’ This brought contestation with parents, especially when the children’s first language was the ayah’s.
I research gendered mobility at sea, so I’ve looked at the history of many sorts of women on ships. It appears to me that in ayahs’ cases, tensions about race and about who had authority over the children emerged acutely on voyages. Here cooped-up people experienced a version of air-rage. The trip could take up to six months, and involved coping with storms; rocky ships without stabilisers; marshalling seasick or over-daring children in a hazardous situation; dealing with the confusing racist hierarchy on ship; and being too much under the eye of the children’s parents who could be fractious, anxious, and bored with the interminable trip. It was even worse if the ayah herself was suffering mal-de-mer; feeling uneasy with her employers; getting nervous about what would happen at her destination; and worrying about her own family back home.
Rosina Visram brought ayahs to UK attention in her seminal Asians in Britain (Pluto, London, 2002). But nineteenth century British newspapers online: http://newspapers.bl.uk/blcs now offer further information. The first sort is in advertisements. Placed by ayahs’ employers, would-be employers or ayahs themselves, this one in the Glasgow Herald of 8.6.1857 is typical:
‘A native female of India, about to return to Bombay, is anxious to be EMPLOYED by a lady going there, either via the Cape or by the overland route. Is well adapted for the care of children and can be highly recommended. Address “Ayah” Herald Office.’
The second category of information is newspaper articles about ayahs. There are two main themes: maritime and personal disaster at sea, and destitution/injustice in ports. Disaster articles show that at least eight ayahs were in ships that sunk. At least four died. Injustice articles summarise the plight of those ditched by employers and left destitute (at least one ayah ended up in the workhouse). My favourite articles are those that show, impressively, that three ayahs were very assertive in using British law against employers . Minnie Green was one.
Jo Stanley is the author of ‘Ayahs who travelled: Indian nannies voyaging to Britain in the nineteenth century’, Black and Asian Studies Association Newsletter, January 2011, pp.5-8. She has longer articles are in progress. For more information, see her website: http://www.jostanley.biz/
 AC Marshall, ‘Human Birds of Passage’, London City Mission Magazine, August 1922, pp.104-6.
Frenzied by media spin, some people were so exercised by the arson and window-smashing tactics of the Women’s Social and Political Union that they suspected militant suffragettes were lurking everywhere. News-seekers were as avid as reactionaries later seeking Reds under every innocuous bed.
Were these suffragettes even on ships threatening to torch teak super-structures or fling handy bricks through portholes? Well, no, actually. But at least one voyager decorated her liner with a purple, white and green banner. And some feminists used a voyage as yet another opportunity to convert those unconvinced of the justice of votes for women. Passengers and crew alike were urged to see the (long-overdue) light.
Christabel Pankhurst, a WSPU ‘Admiral’, had been on a speaking tour to the US. In March 1912 she was rumoured to be coming back to England on one of the world’s most iconic ships, Cunard’s Lusitania.
Round about this day, 99 years ago, Lusitania Smoke Room passengers (male) on board occupied themselves by writing a spoof poem on her behalf. They then allegedly sent it to the WSPU. The New York Times recorded its words:Please inform the ladies am at sea Where no doubt they would like to be, Carrying on movement when ship doesn’t roll; Have succeeded in smashing every port hole Created much havoc: course ship diverted; Where am steering cannot yet tell, But I’ll get there, you bet.
Punch caricaturist Harry Furniss jokily cabled his editor to report ‘I had carefully examined each port [hole] in the ship and found them all intact, so she could not be on board.’ 
Suffrage campaigners, of course, were excellent at metaphorical navigation. They knew exactly where they were steering. It was hostile currents that were their problem. But they would indeed get there, you bet. The ship of suffrage came triumphantly into dock: women won the vote partially six years later and then, fully, sixteen years on.
Dr Jo Stanley writes about gender and the sea. See www.jostanley.biz. Her forthcoming Yale University Press book is Risk! Women on the Wartime Seas.
 Harry Furniss ‘Furniss on Lusitania,’ New York Times, 16.3.1912.
The pioneering natural childbirth activist Sheila Kitzinger was born March 29, 1929 in Taunton, Somerset. It’s an appropriate setting. In Somerset was ‘a nest of suffragettes’[i], at a time when there was silence about ways of birthing and much ignorance about women’s bodies and reproductive rights.
Certainly suffragettes’ successors – new mothers in the 1970s and 1980s Women’s Liberation Movement – valued her books on childbirth and pregnancy. I remember very clearly that two books were seminal at that time, as women began to think about their rights to knowledge and choices: Our Bodies, Our Selves (1978) and Sheila’s The Good Birth Guide (1983). Although not a midwife herself, Sheila was part of a climate that produced the Association of Radical Midwives [ii]. It began in the 1976, as a means to support women in choosing to find better ways to give birth than having their labour induced by artificial rupture of membranes.
Sheila Kitzinger was the guru and indispensible guide for hundreds of my friends as they sought a self-respectful and new way to have babies. Her book was on every shelf, and it was one of the most popular works in the bookshop where I worked.
The social anthropologist still teaches – at Thames Valley University, the Wolfson School of Health Sciences and at various workshops. Aged 81 today, she said recently that far from yearning for more grandchildren, “I just want my daughters to be creative and to put a lot into life. We argue and discuss the major issues, especially feminism, supposedly outmoded, but we still consider ourselves feminists. Uwe [her husband] is the amused onlooker.”
As a creative person myself, who tries to do art as well as activism, I also particularly appreciate her batiks of conception and birth. You can see some on her website.
Jo Stanley is a feminist historian whose attitudes to health, information and dignity were totally changed by being part of the Women’s Liberation Movement. An expert on gender and the sea, she is working on a new book, Risk! Women on the Wartime Seas, Yale University Press. See her website and her blog.
[i] B. M. Willmott Dobbie, A Nest of Suffragettes in Somerset. Eagle House, Batheaston, (Batheaston, 1979).
Few people know that women seafarers sailed in wartime. The stereotype is of rugged Cap’n Birdseye types in sou’westers standing stalwart at the storm-lashed wheel. But women were there – in surprisingly large numbers, as I found when writing my forthcoming book (Risk! Women on the Wartime Seas, Yale University Press).
The first women seafarer to die in WW1 was Miss Nellie McPherson on March 15, 1915. She was a ship’s stewardess – the counterpart of today’s cabin crew on planes. [i]
At a time when few women travelled, these extraordinarily mobile women looked after women passengers, dusting and nurturing their way round the world. The war did not deter between 200-500 of them (about 10 per cent of the peacetime women’s maritime workforce). Many more would have sailed despite the danger. Indeed, they applied in slightly higher numbers than in peace time. But female crew were not required: the British Admiralty had restricted women passenger voyages, which meant that there was less demand for women workers to attend such passengers.
What happened? Nellie was one of six fatalities caused by a German submarine, U-23, which torpedoed the Fingal without warning. The small passenger steamer was sailing from Leith. Nellie, her 26 shipmates and the Fingal’s passengers were just six miles south of Coquet Island, now an important seabird colony off the Northumberland coast. Stewardesses on ships sometimes died because of their dedication to passengers. They lingered too long below decks making sure all ‘their ladies’ were safely dressed in lifejackets; they put their own safety last. There’s no record of whether this was true of Nellie too.
Who was Nellie McPherson? We know four facts.
1. Location. She was from 42 Balfour Street, Leith, the Edinburgh port. Most stewardesses, like her, lived in the ports from which they sailed, such as Liverpool and Southampton.
2. Age. She was 26, and thus only just eligible to sail. Shipping lines said women crew had to be at least 25 – otherwise they might be too flighty. However, women lied about their ages in order to get this highly desirable job, so Nellie could have been younger.
3. Marital status. She was single – as most women seafarers were. Not only would few husbands tolerate their wives being away globe-totting for most of the year. Shipping lines also have felt it improper to take women away from their home duties.
4. Family situation. She was the daughter of the widowed James McPherson. Her late mother, Christina McPherson, was dead. So Nellie may have been at sea as the family provider (many women were). Or she may have been able to work far from home because another family member was caring for him.
Was her death unusual? In some ways yes, because at that time Germany had only sixteen long-range submarines and only five were on duty at any one time. The Fingal was unlucky to encounter the U-23. And ships carrying women crew were few. Nellie’s ship was one of the seven that were wrecked while carrying women crew in 1915, part of the total of 26 in that war. If less than 500 women seafarers were sailing (as I believe) then to lose 53 – over ten per cent- is shocking, especially at a time when women so protected.
But in other ways, her death was not unusual. Overall, 17,308 merchant seafarers died on 4,837 merchant ships in WW1.[ii] It was a risky job. And 1915 was the worst year for seawomen’s death. Nellie was one of 26 seafaring women (between a tenth and a twentieth of the workforce) to die that year. The number was particularly high in 1915 because sixteen seawomen died when the famous Lusitania sank, two months later.
Her loss is commemorated, along with her shipmates and many other fatalities in the Mercantile Marine, at the Tower Hill Memorial, London.
[i] The Times, 18.3.1915: ‘Two Vessels Torpedoed: First woman victim of submarine war.’