Inequality at Sea: The Day of the Seafarers

  If there was a word of the week for the last few weeks it would be equality, if it were a phrase it would be Black Lives Matter. As we enter what is being termed the new normal, we need to be asserting our desires that equality should be a part of this new normal and demonstrations of late are displaying that. While we rally behind the BLM banner, we should be aiming high and searching for equality in every aspect of this hopefully ‘brave new world.’

As a blogger at TEDx, it is sometimes hard to know what to write about. Sometimes it is overwhelming the sheer volume of potential topics the world and current affairs throws at us. Should we focus on a general theme such as BLM or equality, or should we aim for a smaller, more niche problem or issue? For example, inequality is everywhere and to look at it as a whole can be mind boggling. But, if we were to fix on inequality in one area, that is more poignant to us individually, say inequality in music, then we can easily overcome this more niche issue and slowly overcome the whole.  

When swamped, my brain can often be a scramble of half cut ideas to write about. If this is the case, and I’ll let you into the process a little, we can easily resort to the UN International days page, to narrow our ideas. Oftentimes, our deadline falls exactly on an international day of something, of which there are many.

When I saw my deadline fell on the ‘Day of the Seafarers’, I was excited. As a Brit, we are taught of our ‘proud naval History.’ This in itself needs changing, but that is a debate for another day. Imaging that I would be writing about pirates, I was surprised to learn that the day is actually dedicated to ‘equality at sea’ and female sailors. Wracking my brain I tried to name some, and disappointedly realised I could name but one, and so my journey began, to find some badass women of the sea.

The Modern Era

Dame Ellen MacArthur

The first and only badass lady of the sea I could think of, to my shame. Dame Ellen MacArthur shot to fame in 2005 when she broke the world record for fastest solo navigation of the globe, 27,354 nautical miles (50,660km) in 71 days, 14, hours and 18 mins and 33 seconds. The record has since been broken (2008). However, it will remain a massive achievement in a male dominated world, and she remains a role model and a beacon for equality to this day. This quote from her is also badass.  

“Courage is not having the energy to go on, it’s going on when you do not have the energy.”

Laura Dekker

Circumnavigating the globe is one thing most of us could barely imagine, let alone alone. So wanting to do it at the age of thirteen, is something else! In 2009, 13 year old Laura announced her intention to do so. However, the courts and social services stepped in, deeming it too dangerous, but she was determined. Finally, after lengthy court proceedings she was allowed to set off in 2011 at the age of 15. 

Over the course of the trip, media coverage was limited and sceptical. However, the closer she came to completing the journey the more coverage and acclaim she received. She sailed to glory on the 21st of January 2012, cementing her place in the Guinness Book of Records in 518 days (they subsequently changed the rules to prevent minors from entering sailing records). All this before most of us can even drive. Badass. 

Fun Fact: She was actually born on a boat and spent her first five years at sea. Learn more in this documentary about her Maidentrip (2013).

Dame Naomi James and Krystyna Chojnowska-Liskiewicz

For the sake of space and time, I am paring these two together. They both achieved big firsts within a few months of each other. Krystyna Chojnowska-Liskiewicz, known as the ‘First Lady of the Oceans’ was the first woman to solo circumnavigate the globe, achieving the feat in 401 days on the 21st April 1978.

Dame Naomi James, followed a few months later on the 8 June completing the journey in 272 days. The difference here is that Dame James is the first woman to circumnavigate the globe via the clipper route, eastabout and south of the three great capes.

To put the inequality in context here, the first male circumnavigation of this type was achieved 80 years previously by Joshua Slocum, who took three years and finished the journey in 1898. 

I know what you are thinking…

That this is a very white list. If we are honest, the barriers for entry into sailing are high. So high that the majority of the world cannot enter, let alone people of colour. There are however a few role models and beacons out there. They may not have made it into the world of sailing, they have however made waves, in their own way, onto the nautical map. 

Raye Montague

At the age of 7, Raye Montague saw a touring German U-boat and asked how she could understand how it worked. The attendant’s response was ‘Be an engineer, but you don’t have to worry about that.’ The implication being that a young black girl in the south could never be an engineer. However she was not deterred. After being rejected from Arkansas University Engineering programme for being black, she enrolled in a Business degree. 

After Graduating she took computer programming classes at night while working as a Navy clerk. One day, with all the programmers off sick, she seized her opportunity and jumped onto the controls.

From here she did not look back, and even though there were more obstacles in her path she easily overcame each and every one of them. By the end of her career she was advising the Joint Chiefs of Staff, teaching at the Naval Academy, had designed a programme that modelled ships- (in 19 hours instead of the normal 2 years!!), many of which are still in use today. 

Recognition for her achievements was slow in arriving but in 2012 and 2017 she finally received the recognition she deserved. If you are looking for a role model for what can be achieved through hard work and determination then Raye Montague is it. 

Michelle Howard and ‘William Brown’

‘William Brown’ highlights the inequality of people of colour on this list. It shows that I am somewhat clutching at straws. However, she is a somewhat fun ‘first.’ And you never know when this question might pop up in a pub quiz.

She made national news in 1815 when she was discharged from the Royal Navy for being a ‘Black woman.’ This makes her the first known female to be in the British Royal Navy. Even if everyone thought she was a man for almost a year.

Michelle Howard, on the other hand, has quite few firsts under her belt, so take a deep breath before continuing. She was the first African American Woman to command a US Navy Ship, the first to achieve 2 and 3 star rank, the first to be selected Admiral from the US Naval Academy of 1982- making her the first female to be selected to Flag from the US Naval Academy.

She eventually became the second highest ranked officer in the navy (Vice Chief of Naval operations), making her the highest rank female in the US Armed forces history and the highest ranked African American and female in Naval history….

And breath. Pretty badass. 

What about Pirates?

The child in me must take thus opportunity to mention pirates, so I shall indulge myself. There are many examples of white female pirates in Western history. They largely achieved recognition for entering a male dominated world, but had largely underwhelming careers. 

The first name on any female pirate list is usually Anne Bonny, who famously told her husband and Captain ‘If you had fought like a man, they wouldn’t be hanging you like a dog’ on his way to the gallows. However, they all mainly lived in the shadows of their captains. 

There are obviously exceptions. But in the search for the exceptional, we have to stray away from the West to the East and Middle East. Here, female pirates not only matched the achievements of male pirates, but even surpassed almost every pirate I can think of. So step aside Blackbeard, these women are more badass than you.

Queen Teuta of Illyria

Yes, she was admittedly European but she was the original. Her pirates were such a scourge to Roman trade that she bought the whole force of a fledgling Roman Empire to bare down on her and her people. She is largely recognised as the first ever female pirate Queen.

Sayyida Al Hurra

The last woman to hold the title of al Hurra (Queen, roughly). She is less known because she operated at the same time as Barbarossa, with whom she was allied. They divided the Mediterranean between them. He controlled the East, while she terrorised the West. She was on a lifelong revenge mission against Spain, who had driven her family from their ancestral home in Granada. At the height of her power she married the King of Morocco. However this was sadly the pinnacle of her career, before she drifted into ignominy and the forgotten annuals of history.

Ching Shih

Saving the best till last. Ching Shih’s achievements almost outdid every pirate on the planet. She also did one thing that not many were able to: retire peacefully. Originally she was captured by members of the Red Flag Fleet that terrorised the South China Sea. However, she married their leader and assumed control of the 300 ships and the 20-40,000 crew members. 

Under her leadership the fleet grew to a gargantuan 1800 vessels and 80,000 strong crew. Western seafaring nations feared her and her fleet. Cunningly she managed to gain amnesty for her entire fleet. Outwitting officials without technically taking the knee required (it was seen as shameful surrender for pirates to take a knee to officials), she the retired with all her loot. Making her one of, if not the most successful pirate in history. 

To the gallows 

By that I mean the end, not literally to the gallows. The achievements of all the above should not be sniffed at. However it is sadly a list that should be longer. The inequality and lack of diversity in the sailing and Naval world is only made starker by its brevity. They should however act as beacons of hope and role models. They show that the glass ceiling can be shattered through hard work and determination.

If we have learnt anything over the past few weeks, it is that we need to educate ourselves.  Education reforms are needed to include all that was previously ‘whited/maled’ out. We have learnt that we cannot rely solely on the hard work and determination of a few. Instead we require the drive and desire of many to enforce the changes we want to see in the world. 

The Day of the Seafarer is about gender equality at sea, and it is but one example of inequality. The BLM protests act as the perfect rallying point for positive change. We who desire this change, need to educate ourselves in every aspect of inequality and diversity. We need to un-indoctrinate ourselves on our nation’s pasts and that in itself is an overwhelming amount of learning. So let this list act as a re-learning of the history of our seas, as writing it did for me. A drop in the ocean of my personal re-education programme, but a step away from being lost at sea.     


Featured Image: ‘Sunset sailing on Lac Leman’ credited Will.Staffy

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