The theme for this year’s IMO World Maritime Day is “Empowering Women in the Maritime Community”. A fine sentiment that marks a long and arduous road for women not only in shipping but in all professions.
Exactly 100 years ago the ground-breaking Australian lawyer, Ada Evans, was finally allowed to practise, 16 years after she graduated from Melbourne University. Women were denied the vote, excluded from sport and as late as the 1960s they weren’t even allowed into hotel bars.
But breaking into the male dominated profession of seafaring is another matter. One only has to take a look at history for some of the women who made their mark on shipping. Piracy seemed to be the career choice for the more adventurous women in the early days.
In the 16th century, the famous Irish pirate, Anne Bonny plundered her way to notoriety in the Spanish Main. Anne Bonny was an illegitimate daughter brought up by her father who often dressed her as a boy to escape the attention of his furious wife. She had a fierce temper and after leaving home made her way to the West Indies where she married James Bonny, a small-time pirate and government informer. She quickly became tired of him and took up with Calico Jack Rackham, a notorious pirate and more suited to Anne’s high standards.
She built a reputation sailing and fighting alongside her lover until they were finally arrested. Anne was pregnant at the time and luckily avoided hanging, a fate which unfortunately eluded Calico Jack. After she was released from gaol she mysteriously disappeared. Legend has it that she lived to the ripe old age of 85 in South Carolina. “Colourful” is probably not an adequate description for a life lived to the full.
On the other side of the world, the most famous woman pirate of all, Ching Shih, was as feared as she was famous. The phrase “taking no prisoners” probably best describes Ching Shih’s ruthless exploits. At her peak she commanded over 300 ships and between 20,000 and 40,000 pirates. Ching Shih had a very strict and easy to follow code of conduct for her band of cutthroats. It ranged from beheading (for a range of indiscretions) right down to cutting off ears (for minor infringements). No doubt about misunderstanding the rules there. Her fleet was routinely attacked by the Chinese navy and the East India Company but never beaten. Ultimately the Chinese government decided that “if you can’t beat them, forgive them”. Ching Shih was finally given amnesty and settled down to the quiet life of a brothel owner.
If the 16th and 17th centuries it was hard for women to get ahead – little had changed by the 20th century. A young Victoria Drummond was fascinated by machinery and determined to become a marine engineer. She endured years of prejudice and misogyny to break into the seafaring profession as the first female chief engineer. In spite of being the god-daughter of Queen Victoria she was given no quarter in the career path she chose to follow. Her first postings at sea were with the Blue Star Line and British India as 10th engineer. She was under no illusion that this was as highest rank she would ever achieve on British ships. The Board of Trade failed her Chief Engineer’s examination a record 31 times, trying to dissuade her from her goal. It says a lot about Victoria’s determination as much as it does about the Board of Trade examiners.
She finally joined the Panamanian flagged Bonita where, with her uncanny skill with machinery, she squeezed an extra three knots out of the ship to avoid a German bombing attack. During this perilous episode she cleared the engine room and single-handedly manned the machinery while they avoided something like 25 bombs. The Bonita’s Chief Officer described her as ”the most courageous woman he ever saw”. Victoria was awarded the Lloyds Medal for Bravery for her actions during World War II. She was the first woman to become a member of the Institution of Marine Engineers and was finally awarded an MBE in recognition of her services to marine engineering. But women still struggled in this male dominated industry right up until the late 1970s.
Then in 1978 a young Elizabeth Datson came on the scene. Elizabeth became the first female cadet in the history of Australian shipping. Out of 200 candidates she won a cadetship with the Australian National Line. She didn’t realise it at the time but this may have been a world first. Women at sea were virtually unknown and unheard of in the 1970s. A modest person, Elizabeth wasn’t setting out to prove anything, she simply didn’t want a mundane shore-side job. Having a father who was a master mariner probably influenced her decision. She went about her studies and her career quietly, and according to her, she enjoyed every minute of it.
I have clear memories of the time Elizabeth joined ANL and began her career at sea – one woman amongst thousands of men in the heyday of Australian shipping. Even then I don’t think she realized the significance of her decision. I never had the privilege of sailing with Elizabeth but I, like many others, secretly admired her determination to enter this male dominated profession.
Twelve years later she had completed her master’s certificate and received her first command as master on the bulk carrier, Warden Point. Australia’s first woman sea captain-quite an achievement in itself. Speaking with her I got the impression that she never felt singled out or intimidated by her male shipmates. She said that in the early days she found more acceptance from British seafarers who were used to having women on board. Many British ships allowed wives to travel with their husbands but it’s doubtful any ever held a master’s certificate.
The progression from ship’s captain to marine pilot was the obvious career path for Elizabeth. She joined the Queensland pilot service and for 24 years she brought ships into all the Queensland ports from Cairns down to Gladstone. Australia’s first female marine pilot. An amazingly long career for any ex-captain but for Elizabeth Datson it was just another achievement that largely went unnoticed.
In a career spanning forty years Elizabeth Datson had become Australia’s first female cadet, the first Australian woman to hold a masters certificate, Australia’s first female ship’s master and Australia’s first female marine pilot. On January 7, 2007, Elizabeth piloted the Barrington into Gladstone harbour in Queensland. Nothing special about that except that the master of the Barrington was also a woman. That was a special moment.
In Europe today only two per cent of the seafaring workforce are women. Surprisingly, Norway, traditionally one of the world’s leading seafaring nations, has only just announced its first female ship’s master. Celebrity Cruises in the US has recently appointed a woman as their first cruise ship captain. So, for Elizabeth Datson to have achieved so much in her 40-year seagoing career with so little recognition is astounding. A ground-breaking career and one that opened doors for the women who followed her.
IMO’s theme this year is “Empowering Women in the Maritime Community”. Few women could have any more significance than Australia’s Elizabeth Datson. Quite likely the first woman in the world to achieve what she has done in the maritime community. So many firsts – probably the first woman to qualify as a ships master, the first woman to hold a command of a modern ship and probably the world’s first female marine pilot. An amazing career and a true pioneer for women in world of shipping.
Founder of Maritime Engineers, a multi-region maritime consultancy with clients in the oil and gas industry, navy, commercial shipping and marine insurance, Kent Stewart is our resident expert on commercial shipping and the offshore industries.