Following the abolition of the British slave trade in 1807, a Royal Navy squadron was stationed off the West African coast to intercept and capture slaving vessels of other nations. My PhD is exploring the personal testimonies of the naval campaign to suppress the Atlantic slave trade in the nineteenth-century. This research is part of an AHRC-funded collaborative project between the National Maritime Museum and the Wilberforce Institute for the study of Slavery and Emancipation (WISE) at the University of Hull.
One of the many benefits of working in collaboration with the NMM is the access to its naval collections. The Caird Library holds a number of records of anti-slavery service, such as this watercolour by Captain Henry Need of HMS Linnet, depicting the capture of a slaver in the Rio Ponga in 1853.
‘Capture of a Slaver, the Brigantine Paulina, 30th April 1853′. Watercolour by Captain Henry Need of HMS Linnet, National Maritime Museum (ART/10)
Employment on the anti-slavery patrols was unpopular due to the West African climate and the high risk of disease and violence (West Africa was commonly known as the ‘white man’s grave’). Added to this was the emotional trauma of the nature of service. One area I am investigating is the extent to which naval personnel believed in the anti-slavery cause. Finding themselves on the frontline of Britain’s relations with Africa, their narratives are valuable as ways to investigate and understand attitudes and anxieties about the slave trade and slavery.
Sir George Ralph Collier was the first Commodore of the West Africa squadron, and a convinced abolitionist. In a report to the Admiralty in 1819, Collier wrote passionately of how the slave trade ‘is more horrible than those who have not had the misfortune to witness it can believe, indeed no description I could give would convey a true picture of its baseness and atrocity’.
Lieutenant Francis Meynell painted this scene of enslaved Africans on a captured slaver in 1846, and his letters home revealed how he was affected by his experiences. He described conditions on HM Sloop Albatros after taking on board the Africans: ‘We lost on the voyage 150 slaves three or four dying every day … It’s a very horrible business this slave trade.’
‘Slaves below deck’, c. 1846. Watercolour by Lt. Francis Meynell, National Maritime Museum (MEY/2)
These and other naval stories of suppression reveal profound emotions in those engaged in the service: of sympathy and humanity but also tensions regarding the ambiguities of freedom, and their own struggles for survival on the African coast.
I am a doctoral student sponsored by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, partly based here at the National Maritime Museum. The focus of my PhD is The Royal Mail Steam Packet Company, which was founded in 1839. From 1842 the Company’s ships regularly transported mail, people and goods between Britain and the Caribbean. The Company expanded its operations into Brazil and the River Plate during the 1850s. My research, which focuses on the second half of the nineteenth century, aims to relate the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company’s history to its broader imperial context.
The NMM holds most of the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company’s archive, and I have been working with these manuscripts. There are plenty of financial records available for those with an interest in business history (and a head for freight rates), but as I am concerned with the social aspects, I have been reading through managers’ and directors’ minutes, Company regulations and official correspondence. I will be juxtaposing this official Company perspective against a range of other sources within my thesis.
My studentship is one that is based on close university collaboration with the NMM (my other base is Royal Holloway, University of London.) This means that you get two supervisors and two desks instead of one. (Make of that what you will!) Working with the NMM is, of course, a great way to tap into maritime expertise and resources. As one of a number of students based at the museum, you also have an extra set of peers outside of your university department. Being part of two research communities is particularly useful for gaining wide-ranging advice and feedback on your work.
‘La Plata’, Royal Mail Steamer, 1852 (PAF6003)
Steamships carrying mail around and across empires might not sound too exciting at first, but there is plenty of drama caught up in the history of these ships. ‘La Plata’ (pictured) was purchased by the RMSPC to replace the ‘Amazon’ after that ship was lost in a disastrous fire. ‘La Plata’ too had a brush with fire and burnt for hours at Southampton in 1860. Other episodes in ‘La Plata’s story relate to yellow fever on her maiden voyage and a narrow escape from a tidal wave at St Thomas in 1867.
The answer to the blog posted by Harriet McKay on 19 May is:
Sid James, Chintz, Eddy Grant and the NMM Royal Brass Foundry, Woolwich are all related to the collaborative doctoral award project that I am undertaking, supervised by the NMM and Kingston University. My doctoral research topic is: Accommodating the Passenger: Interior Design for the Union-Castle Line, 1945 – 1977.
Popular 1960s comic actor Sid James featured in and narrated a 1966 Union-Castle promotional video 38a Bus to Cape Town about escaping from London to South Africa on board Transvaal Castle. (See the blog posted by Phil Rich, another NMM doctoral student on March 10, 2009) James was himself South African.
Chintz was a favourite stylistic device of Union-Castle line decorator Jean Monro. She produced an aesthetic reminiscent of the popular British and North American ‘English Country House style’ for some of the passenger accommodation on board Pendennis and Windsor Castles, whose first voyages were in 1959 and 1960 respectively.
Eddy Grant’s Anti-apartheid anthem ‘Gimme Hope Joanna’ contains the lyrics:
She’s got supporters in high-up places,
who turn their heads to the City Sun,
Joanna [South Africa] gives them the fancy money,
Oh! to tempt anyone who’d come.
This neatly describes South African immigration policy during the period and Union-Castle’s importance in ferrying immigrants to the republic.
Finally, the National Maritime Museum Brass Foundry, Woolwich Arsenal is where the principal photographic research material for the project is located.
An exploration of a key 20th-century British shipping company, my thesis, Accommodating the Passenger, examines the interior design of the Union-Castle liners in the period 1945-77. In addition to its core – a focused design historical study – this project argues the use of an interdisciplinary approach to design history. It discusses the crucial need to address the political economy of this UK-South African shipping route for an understanding of the design of the ships which sailed it. In contextualising its research in the political and social history of the period it also covers new ground; its overarching theme will be to investigate the impact of Apartheid upon design.
At the heart of the thesis lie ideas about representation and issues around design as cultural practice. Was there a Union-Castle aesthetic and what did it represent if there was? Did this vary according to place on board, or passenger class? Embedded within contemporary social and political culture, does the design of these ships represent their place of origin in the UK, their destination ports in South Africa or both? How might the liners have embodied concepts of national identity and if so, what does this say of British-South African relations in the post war period? Finally to what extent did the ties that Nelson Mandela has described as ‘a special relationship and its mutual benefits, which history has bound us in’ affect the look of the Union-Castle liners interiors? This project will argue that Union-Castle’s passenger accommodation was very much influenced by South African culture and politics of the post-war years.