Floating Neighborhoods: Living Together on the East-of-Suez Steamships of the French and British Empires, c. 1880 – 1930

This paper was presented at Mobile and Temporary Domesticities, 1600-2017 held at the Geffrye Museum of the Home in London on the 10th October 2017. 

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.

A_trip_to_the_Orient;_the_story_of_a_Mediterranean_cruise_(1907)_(14784761382).jpg
Image from A Trip to the Orient; A Story of a Mediterranean Cruise, (1907) 

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. 

 

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Mobile and Temporary Domesticities, 1600-2017

Mobile and Temporary Domesticities, 1600-2017‘ was a workshop held at the Geffrye Museum of the Home in London on the 10th October 2017. In this post, the organisers reflect a little on the thinking behind the workshop, and on the need for an understanding of domestic life which makes space for mobile and temporary living arrangements. Posts written by those who presented on the day will be added to this blog each week. 

By Tessa Chynoweth and Laika Nevalainen 

We were staggered to find out when putting this post together that 60 per cent of adults in England have lived in the same house for more than 15 years, with one in ten saying they have not moved for over 31 years.  If staying put now appears characteristic of particular parts of the English population, it is not the case for everyone. Not including the many trips ‘home’ during her first years of university, Tessa has moved house 15 times in the past 10 years, and Laika has lived in three different countries during the past five and we are hardly unusual. Away from the Englishman (and woman) in their Castles, homelife is characterised by mobility and temporariness. On a global and historical scale, it is not continuity that has defined domestic life, but movement.

Dutch_Migrant_1954_MariaScholte=50000thToAustraliaPostWW2
50,000th Dutch migrant arrives in Australia, 1954. National Archives of Australia.

The time-limited home is well known to the renter generation, but would also have been familiar to people in the past. We know that servants, apprentices and lodgers resided in the households of others, and that other individuals were accommodated in hospitals, prisons or other institutions for different durations and under varying circumstances. The Geffrye Museum, our venue for the workshop, was built as an almshouse for pensioners   a physical reminder of the variety of residences designed for different stages of the life cycle. The chaos of war and natural and other disasters that have forced people from their homes in recent years has also drawn attention to the temporary ways through which shelter is found in crisis, and the political and social meanings implicated in this. The temporary accommodation provided (or not) for those fleeing home for the more personal but no less political reason of domestic abuse might also be included here. The meaning of temporal  as opposed to spiritual  should remind us that no home is permanent although practices of bequeathal and inheritance confirm that the ability for continuity is status-dependent. Mobility was also characteristic of domestic life in the past. Medieval households were constantly on the move, and sailors, soldiers, merchants, peddlars, and travelling artisans have long traversed land and sea. Train carriages, accommodation on board steamships and other forms of transportation might all be understood as temporary residences on the move.

And yet, for over two hundred years domestic life has been associated with the concept of ‘home’, which is generally imagined as one specific place, a stable site of security and belonging. There is much invested in this concept; it speaks to constructions of nationhood and ‘homeland’, to ancestral lines and ‘homesteads’, and to the remembered ‘home’ of childhoods past. Culturally and politically powerful, the idea of home is heavily enmeshed in constructions of class, race and gender, and works to establish particular parts of the population and practices of residence as the yardstick against which ideas of  ‘home’ and the successes of a life well-lived are measured. Conceptually fascinating, scholarly attempts to understand the idea of ‘home’ and the domestic practices that go along with it have rather overshadowed research into the practices of domestic life which do not fit within this framework.  The workshop was designed to explore the manner in which mobility and temporariness might unsettle these sedentary understandings. We referred to ‘domesticities’ partly because of the multiplicity implicit in the term, but also to avoid the conceptual baggage and blinkered focus which the word ‘home’ can drag along with it. Domesticity is, of course, a no less contested term, but in the focus on everyday practices, on lived experiences and on a range of behaviours and materials, appeared to be more forgiving to mobile and temporary domestic arrangements.

The aim of the workshop was to bring together researchers working in different disciplines to explore similarities and differences between time periods, geographical locations and circumstances. Questions included what kinds of domestic practices, material cultures, homemaking strategies and feelings about home are related to mobile or temporary circumstances? What theoretical and methodological challenges can we face when dealing with mobility or temporariness and how could these difficulties be overcome? How can people in temporary or mobile circumstances negotiate control over their own space and everyday life? Might mobility be something to aspire to? Who had something to gain from being sedentary? As you’ll see, the papers covered a huge period  from the 16th century to the present day  and although anchored in the experiences of English-speakers and Europeans, include examples of domestic experiences from across the world. The disparity in place and in time was partly the point mobile and temporary domestic arrangements cannot be limited by historical period, by geographic location, or by economic or social status  though this last criteria significantly alters the experience.

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Crew members of the sailing ship Favell in their living quarters, c. 1929-1930 (The Maritime Museum of Finland).

Although separated by a thousand or so miles, and two hundred years, the subjects of Laika and Tessa’s research are united by their inability or refusal to fit within the traditional definitions and practices of home. Laika’s research on Finnish bachelors identified the home as a central component of their identities, and yet the state of bachelorhood was associated with both temporariness and mobility (examples of phrases which exemplify the equating of bachelorhood with mobility include ‘bachelor trek’ and ‘suitcase life’). Similarly, Tessa’s research on servants’ experiences of the  households in which they lived and laboured in London was constantly battling against understandings of domestic life which could not accommodate the comings and goings of servants, and the ideas of home which erased them from view. Despite temporary residences and frequent mobility, the ideas and practices of domestic life were hugely significant to both Finnish bachelors and London servants. In contrast with many of the papers from the workshop, we found that this domesticity was not simply experienced as a kind of distant-longed-for-but-ultimately-unachievable hope for the future, and that we could not assume that individuals from either group necessarily aspired to stable (non-mobile and non-temporary) domestic arrangements.  Although the literature addressed to servants advocated a settled life in one family for ‘a rolling stone gathers no moss’, for example, they were frequently upping sticks to a new place, and the promise of a better life.

One important point which was raised in the majority of the papers on the day was the centrality of control to experiences of mobile and/or temporary conditions and situations. Gaining a feeling of control over a particular space proved again and again to mediate the consequences of mobility and temporariness. This could be accomplished in a variety of ways. Amanda Stevens described how doors that could be closed on railway carriages enabled passengers to control and optimize their personal space. Similarly, the closing of a curtain could overcome the uncomfortable proximity of social classes onboard the steamships examined by Charles Fawell  although the distancing of odours and sounds proved more difficult. A sense of control could also be created through material culture: whether in railway carriages, steam ships or in the YMCA huts occupied by soldiers during the First World War, contributors revealed the use of domestic items to create a sense of comfort and safety in uncertainty. Routines too, could function in this way; Valerie Burton’s and Catherine McCausland’s paper discussed how a partner’s life at sea served to segment homelife for those who stayed put, and the importance that routines played in mitigating the instability and uncertainties associated with that. The framing of temporary uncertainty within a larger narrative was also something that was central Janet Bowstead’s paper on contemporary domestic violence. Bowstead uses the concept of ‘journeyscapes’ to imagine how the fractured, repeated, and often tortuous journeys to escape an abusive partner might be re-formulated in government policy to allow women to regain a sense of control over these journeys. Together, the papers demonstrated the frequency of temporary and mobile domestic arrangements, revealed the heavy burden of a lack of a permanent ‘home’, and the variety of ways in which people employed a wide variety of domestic meanings and practices to adapt to temporariness and/or mobility.

We have asked our contributors to write a short reflection on their research in the context of the workshop, and will upload a new post to this site weekly. So far we have:

Charles Fawell, Floating Neighborhoods: Living Together on the East-of-Suez Steamships of the French and British Empires, c. 1880 – 1930.

 

 

Updated programme

Mobile and Temporary Domesticities, 1600-2017 

10th October 2017, Geffrye Museum of the Home

Programme:

10.00–10.20                Registration

10.20–10.30                Welcome

10.30–11.30                Panel 1

Kathryn White (University of Birmingham): “Tommy’s Home”: Temporary Domesticity of the YMCA’s Huts in the First World War

Amanda Stevens (Open University/National Railway Museum): Home on the Rails

Charles Fawell (University of Chicago): Neighborhoods Afloat: Living Together on the ‘East-of-Suez’ Steamships of the French and British Empires, c. 1880 – 1930

 11.30–11.45                Tea and coffee

11.45–12.30                Panel 2

Janet C. Bowstead (Royal Holloway, University of London): Changing journeys into journeyscapes: enhancing women’s control over their domestic violence mobility

Julie Le Hegarat (Indiana University Bloomington): Cenotaph -film

12.30 – 13.00               Special Session

Hannah Fleming (Curator, Geffrye Museum): Mobile and Temporary Domesticity at the Geffrye Museum of the Home

13.00–14.00                Lunch

14.00–14.45                Panel 3

Dina Gusejnova (University of Sheffield): The Many Lives of Tarpaulin: thinking about temporary homes on the radio

Valerie Burton & Catherine McCausland (Memorial University Newfoundland): “At Home” to the Sea: Embroidering and Historicizing the Un/Settled Newfoundland Family

14.45–15.00                Break

15.00–15.45                Panel 4

Michael Pearce (Independent Scholar): ‘For my Lord to goe to Londone of stuffe’ – Elite mobility and homemaking in the 1630s.

Ute Sonnleitner (ÖGB- Department of Education/ Styria): ‘Bohemia’ and ‘Home Sweet Home’ – Actors‘ and Actresses‘ mobilities 1850-1950

 

15.45–16.00                Tea and coffee

16.00–17.00                Keynote and discussion

Alastair Owens (Queen Mary University of London): Restless domesticity: poverty, mobility and material culture in Victorian London

The workshop is free of charge and open to everyone but places are limited and registration is required. Please register using Eventbrite here.

Programme and registration

Mobile and Temporary Domesticities, 1600-2017 

10th October 2017, Geffrye Museum of the Home

Provisional programme:

10.00–10.15                Registration

10.20–10.30                Introduction

10.30–11.30                Panel 1

Amanda Stevens (Open University/National Railway Museum): Home on the Rails

Dina Gusejnova (University of Sheffield): The Many Lives of Tarpaulin: thinking about temporary homes on the radio

Charles Fawell (University of Chicago): Neighborhoods Afloat: Living Together on the ‘East-of-Suez’ Steamships of the French and British Empires, c. 1880 – 1930

 11.30–11.45                Tea and coffee

11.45–12.30                Panel 2

Janet C. Bowstead (Royal Holloway, University of London): Changing journeys into journeyscapes: enhancing women’s control over their domestic violence mobility

Julie Le Hegarat (Indiana University Bloomington): Cenotaph

12.30–13.30                Lunch

13.30–14.30                Panel 3

Michael Pearce (Independent Scholar): ‘For my Lord to goe to Londone of stuffe’ – Elite mobility and homemaking in the 1630s.

TBC

14.30–14.45                Break

14.45–15.45                Panel 4

Ute Sonnleitner (ÖGB- Department of Education/ Styria): ‘Bohemia’ and ‘Home Sweet Home’ – Actors‘ and Actresses‘ mobilities 1850-1950

Kathryn White (University of Birmingham): “Tommy’s Home”: Temporary Domesticity of the YMCA’s Huts in the First World War

Valerie Burton & Catherine McCausland (Memorial University Newfoundland): “At Home” to the Sea: Embroidering and Historicizing the Un/Settled Newfoundland Family

15.45–16.00                Tea and coffee

16.00–17.00                Keynote and discussion

Alastair Owens (Queen Mary University of London): Restless domesticity: poverty, mobility and material culture in Victorian London

The workshop is free of charge and open to everyone but places are limited and registration is required. Please register using Eventbrite here.

DATE CHANGE: New date the 10th of October

Unfortunately we have had to change the date of the workshop and the new date is Tuesday the 10th of October 2017. The deadline for abstracts has accordingly been moved to the 6th of August 2017. We apologise for the confusion as well as any inconvenience caused and hope that all those interested will still be able to attend and contribute!

CFP: Temporary and Mobile Domesticities, 1600 to the present

NEW DATE: 10th of October 2017, The Geffrye Museum, London

Traditionally, home is imagined as a specific place, a site of stability, continuity, safety, and familiarity. Yet, homelife is also characterised by mobility and temporariness. Medieval households were constantly on the move. Sailors, soldiers, merchants, peddlars and travelling artisans have long traversed land and sea, and servants, apprentices, and lodgers typically inhabited the houses of others – at least for a significant part of the life cycle. The chaos and disruptions of war and natural disaster have also uprooted millions of people from their homes (and homelands) and forced them to spend indeterminate periods of time in temporary conditions. How does the time-limited nature of these residences affect home-making practices, and what can it tell us about the function and meaning of home and domesticity?

This one-day workshop explores the manner in which mobility and temporariness impact upon ideas and practices of home and domesticity. Central questions include: What kinds of domestic practices, material cultures, homemaking strategies and feelings about home are related to mobile or temporary circumstances? What theoretical and methodological challenges can we face when dealing with mobility or temporariness and how could these difficulties be overcome? How can people in temporary or mobile circumstances negotiate control over their own space and everyday life? When is mobility something to aspire to?

The aim is to bring together researchers working in different disciplines to explore similarities and differences between time periods, geographical locations and circumstances.  Furthermore, the objective is to discuss how we might relate temporary and mobile domesticities to larger questions about actor agency and shifts in economic, social, and political structures.

Submissions can take the form of 15-20 minute papers, but we also welcome submissions of less traditional formats – proposals for film, performances, and artworks would be particularly enthusiastically received. Topics may include, but are not limited to:

– Momentary homemaking

– The material culture of portability

– The sense of home/belonging or homelessness/alienation in relation to mobility

– Mobile and transportable housing and housing design

– Institutional and charitable responses to mobility

– How do social identities and stages in the life cycle affect ideas about temporary living?

– The extent and scale of mobile and temporary homes from the local to the global

– Remembering and reproducing home and homeland from a distance

– Escaping home through mobility

We encourage submissions both from academics as well as non-academics working with related themes.

Send 200-250 word abstracts  (preferably in .docx format) to mobiledomesticities@gmail.com by 6th of August 2017.

Workshop location: The Geffrye Museum of Home, 136 Kingsland Road,  London,  E2 8EA

 

Header picture: Finland’s National Board of Antiquities/Sakari Pälsi, 1923