Monday, March 27, 2006

Mariner's tales

I spent a couple of hours yesterday dallying at the website Mariners and Ships in Australian Waters. This site includes transcripts of crew and passenger lists of ships arriving in Sydney in the latter half of the 19th century. With more than 700 ships a year arriving - from all over the world, including other Australian colonies - it was a busy, bustling port.

The historian in me loves these old records - and so does the novelist! The historian wants to pull the records into a database, so they can be sorted, analysed in an effective way. How often did individual ships make the journey to Sydney? Were crews relatively stable, the same men with the same masters?

The writer in me is constantly inspired - in this case, especially by the glimpses of women. Mrs James, wife of the Oliver Cromwell's captain, Donald James, made two voyages from the UK to Sydney on her husband's ship. James captained the ship for a number of years - are these two journeys that Mrs James made indicative of the early years of a marriage? Did she accompany her husband until she was pregnant with their first child, and afterwards stay at home, only seeing him in the short spaces between long voyages?

A captain's wife is one thing; but I'm also fascinated by mentions of women in the crew lists. They're not common, but they're not as rare as one might expect. Take, for example, Emma Lindsay. She was a crew member of the Salsette, which voyaged from Suez to Sydney three times in 1860. She was 33 years old, and listed as a stewardess - the only female crew member. The Salsette was a steamship of 965 tons, with a large crew - about 60 named crew on each trip, plus 100 or more merely listed as 'Asian'. In 1860, the Salsette docked at Sydney in January, July and October - and Emma is listed as crew each time. Passenger numbers ranged from 16 in January, to 31 in July, to '106 Asians' in October. In Aug 1861, the steamer arrived again, this time from Point de Galle, rather than Suez, and this time Emma is not listed; but there is a new stewardess, J.A. Corbett, aged 23.

What must it have been like, being the only woman in such a masculine environment? How did a youngish woman become a stewardess, and why? I did wonder if it was a euphemism for 'Captain's mistress', but given the way it's listed, in amongst the other crew, I doubt it. I also doubt the position translated to 'ship's whore'; if this was acceptable practice, then I'd expect more than one woman on the occasional ship.

Steam ships were a more luxurious way for passengers to travel, and presumably having a stewardess to assist the female passengers would have made the journey more tolerable for the ladies. In that circumstance, I'd guess that there would need to be at least some degree of propriety around the position in order for it to be acceptable.

I confess I'm fascinated by Emma and others; and yes, I can see a story line or 3! However, I can also see the need for more research - as always!

Update: I spent an hour in the uni library at lunchtime, reading microfilmed old newspapers, and I noticed on several adverts for ships travelling to London from Melbourne that 'a stewardess is on board for attendance on ladies'.

1 comment:

Lyn Cash said...

I worked up a family history for a friend, and for me one of the most interesting aspects was a male relative of hers who sailed from Europe with a wife and 2 small children - and a fellow passenger sailed with his spinster sister. Upon landing, the first man's wife had been buried at sea, and the second man's sister was the first man's second wife. Made me wonder if the men hadn't struck a bargain since Man #1 obviously needed a mother for his children and Man #2 could then be free to move about unencombered with a sibling to look after.

Interesting blog. I love history.