Revelations of racial discrimination at sea, discovered in the plans of the Sunderland shipbuilding firm, Bartram & Sons

I’m pleased to report that work continues apace with the Sunderland Shipbuilding archives project. Colin and I are both currently working on the records of Bartram & Sons Ltd. The Bartrams shipyard was located at South Dock, Sunderand and was unusual in that it launched vessels directly into the North Sea rather than the River Wear.

Last month’s blog mentioned an interesting plan of a CAM ship, which Colin discovered, and he’s been finding more fascinating items this month. Of particular interest are a series of plans of the ships ‘India’ and ‘Timor’, which were launched by Bartram & Sons Ltd in 1950 (yard numbers 329 and 330). The vessels were built for the Companhia Nacionale de Navagacao of Lisbon, Portugal.

Photo of 'India' taken during sea trials (TWAM ref. 3396/6032E)

Bartrams seem to have been particularly proud of these vessels, which were the largest passenger vessels built in Sunderland for over half a century. However, an examination of one of the plans of the two ships hints at something much less praiseworthy. The plan concerned shows the ‘arrangement of emigrant spaces’ (TWAM ref. DS.BM/4/PL/1/329/18) and makes several references on the plan to spaces for ‘white emigrants … or cargo’.

Plan of emigrant spaces for the ships 'India' and 'Timor' (TWAM ref. DS.BM/4/PL/1/329/18)

Detailed view of part of plan of emigrant spaces (TWAM ref. DS.BM/4/PL/1/329/18)

There’s further evidence of racial segregation in the hull specification for the ‘India’ and ‘Timor’ (TWAM ref. DS.BM/4/6/329/2), which I recently catalogued. Two loose pages of typescript notes, tucked into the specification, document the visit of a Dr Ferreira and Mr Ruis on 2 March 1949. During the visit it was agreed that the crew’s accommodation was approved “subject to certain movement of rooms to enable Greasers, Seamen and Boys to be more segregated from the remainder, as they are Natives …’.

Loose notes of a meeting found in hull specification for the ‘India’ and ‘Timor’ (TWAM ref. DS.BM/4/6/329/2)

While such discrimination is perhaps reflective of the era it is certainly no easier to stomach for that. However, one of the key roles of an Archive is to provide a window into the past, to document a society’s past failings as well as its achievements. It’s the least we owe to those who, with little power to speak out, may have suffered in silence.

4 Responses to Revelations of racial discrimination at sea, discovered in the plans of the Sunderland shipbuilding firm, Bartram & Sons

  1. David Gladwin says:

    I think you are suffering from some confusion as any ‘old hand’ seaman will tell that it was normal to segregate “Greasers, Seamen and Boys” from the native crew on any shipping bound for the sub-continent. To start with Lascars had their own catering arrangements (you may like Indian/Bangladesh food, our crewmen of five different nationalities would not touch it), then they needed prayer space, laundry area etc. Surely even you must realize why ‘boys’ on a virtually all male crewed ship were segregated; nothing to do with race but for their safety. Have you ever seen ‘greasers’? They were relatively poorly paid and had crowded cabins but as was ever the way they liked their own company. As a ship’s master I would visit their quarters once a week but always nominally after their invitation. Clearly as is the way of ‘intellectuals’ you seek racial problems where there were none. Did you know that today some ships have Filipina crews who change over every six months to give two men one man’s wage? We had a Chinese crew who had nothing to do with us officers except through their interpreter Michael; they worked hard, were scrupulously clean, and again, by your standards, were segregated. Please do not try to bolt your civilian attitudes on a different world.

  2. Alan Hayward says:

    Thank you very much for taking the trouble to comment on my blog. It’s really interesting to get a different insight, particularly when someone is able to share from their practical experience.

    In defence of the blog, my colleague who worked with me on the Sunderland Shipbuilding project looked through thousands of ships plans and the one featured in the blog did stand out from all the others in specifically mentioning segregation. As a result I think that it was worth bringing to people’s attention. I also suspect that the plan does to a degree reflect attitudes of the era, particularly as it relates to the emigrants (rather than the crew members). Your points are well made, though, and if I have read too much into the issues of segregation then your comments will provide a very useful balance.

    Best wishes,

    Alan

  3. Dale benett Boyd says:

    Trying to find out when a ship called bungs se pang was built in sunderland

  4. Alan Hayward says:

    Hi Dale,

    A quick check on Miramar shows that the ‘Bunga Sepang’ was launched in 1974 by the Mitsubishi yard at Shimonoseki, Japan. After completion the vessel seems to have spent time at Greenwells Dry Dock Co Ltd, Sunderland according to this image on the North East Maritime website http://www.northeastmaritime.co.uk/viewtopic.php?f=149&t=3050.

    I hope this helps.

    Best wishes,

    Alan

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