By Charles Fawell
My paper, “Floating Neighborhoods: Living Together on the East-of-Suez Steamships of the French and British Empires, c. 1880 – 1930”, examined steamship travel between Western Europe and East Asia via the Suez Canal. The paper emerged partly out of dissatisfaction with the limits and boundaries of scholarship that discusses life at sea and travel during the Age of Steam. Maritime and economic historians have scrutinized the business operations, port politics, and technological processes of the Age of Steam, but in the process, have often neglected the “human resources” of the steamship. Social and labour historians have remedied this oversight somewhat, but they have tended to highlight one single category of worker (by profession, ethnicity, etc.), and to tether their studies to the terra firma of port-cities. Steamship décor and luxury tourism have also attracted great scholarly attention, but absent deep social contextualization, such work risks privileging the perspective of only the most elite travellers.
One implication emanating from the ensemble of existing scholarship, I feared, was that ship-space represents a non-place: a transitory in-between through which people passed, but in which they did not dwell or meaningfully interact with others – in short, a place of banality and social atomization, relevant only insofar as it produced economic growth, technological progress, or aesthetic achievements. To be clear, these kinds of implications do not only emerge from recent scholarship: many contemporaries of the “golden age” of Steam (roughly 1880-1930) also downplayed the richness of place and social relations on-board long-haul steamships. Turn-of-the-century globetrotters, for instance, portrayed steamships as having become comfortable to the point of inanity, while maritime magnates emphasized its rigid compartmentalization of class, race, and gender, suggesting a kind of segregated, model polis for a fin-de-siècle bourgeoisie in colonial settings.
In my paper, I outlined a research perspective that could re-interpret the fin-de-siècle steamship (a) as a site of social complexity in which home and community were, if not always everyday realities, at least animating goals for travelers, but also (b) as a site in which the inhabitants must be studied relationally. On-board structures of racial, class, and gender segregation were all too real, but I argued that there were nonetheless forces pushing back strongly against them. Indeed, tensions over boundary-breaking and contagion were integral elements of domesticities in motion. Wandering children and animals; meandering odors, noises, and regards; feuding between different classes of passengers; panics over disease: all exposed the fantasy of perfectly segregated lodgings, suggesting that at the apex of European colonialism, steamships were host to chaotic, interconnected processes of mobile home-making.
The ship-space, I argued, was characterized by a shared sensorium, itself the result of the multi-functional uses of ship-space. Passengers, workers, cargo and animals co-mingled in what were simultaneously vessels of migration, tourism, military force, and trade. In this setting, odors, sounds, and sights tended to bleed across boundaries of race and class. Indeed, despite the best efforts of traveling elites and ship officials, passengers and workers were constantly reminded they were all, quite literally, on the same boat. And with the whole ladder of colonial societies packed into steamships – from imperial prefects to coalers and stowaways – there was a never-ending process of negotiation over the dwelling practices and embodied behaviors of one’s neighbors. On a Marseille – Saigon voyage in the early 1900’s, for example, first-class passengers complained bitterly to their ship’s captain about the odors emanating from songbirds kept by Chinese “coolies” working on-board, and the sanitary danger posed by the pets. The captain ordered the birds to be evacuated during the coming layover in Singapore, only to watch helplessly as his sorely-needed “coolie” workers marched off en masse in protest, slipping away into the bustling port city and leaving his ship badly undermanned. As the fears of those passengers suggest, panics of diseases were the ultimate reminder that passengers were all more inter-connected, their destinies more lumped together, than they liked to believe. Indeed, it was when senses collided and overlapped that the steamship’s paradoxes became clear: a luxury hotel for some, a coal plant for others; an instrument of imperial power, and an emerging pleasure-space of the tourism industry; a symbol of remoteness and isolation, yet a cauldron of interactions across class and race.
The framework of “mobile and temporary domesticities” is crucial to the kind of analysis I proposed in this paper. Indeed, only by taking seriously the transitory dwelling practices that occurred on inter-oceanic ships can we begin to do justice to their social complexity. The place-making that occurred aboard these ships took on many forms: beyond the ubiquitous dances, concerts and charity galas, there were passenger-published newspapers, sea rituals, and religious ceremonies – not to mention scrapbooking, photography and journaling. Such practices should, I believe, attract our attention for a number of reasons, but perhaps above all because they mattered to the travelers themselves: from the globalized workforce who spent so much of their lives aboard these ships, to the colonial society who spent months every year going back and forth between metropole and colony; and of course, to the millions of inter-oceanic migrants who would carry minute memories of the ships that took them away from home. In the late-19th and early-20th centuries, such travelers were enacting “globalization” as we know it today. Without continuing to develop the concept and research methods of mobile and temporary domesticities, the human dimensions of that process of global integration can all too easily elude our grasp.
Charles Fawell is a doctoral candidate at the University of Chicago, currently conducting research in France, the U.K., and Vietnam with the support of the Georges Lurcy and Chateaubriand Fellowships. His dissertation, entitled “In-Between Empires: Travel, Space, and Sovereignty along the Maritime Routes of Imperial France and Great Britain” explores the social dynamics and spatial politics of large steamships navigating between Western Europe and East Asia, from roughly 1870 to the Interwar Period. This project pursues an ethnographically-informed micro-history of the typical colonial-era steamship, while situating it within the political geography of a route extending from Marseille to Yokohama.