Henry Trotter in front of Yale stained glass windows

Port Culture

A Modern History of South African Sailors, Stevedores & Sugar-Girls

Singapore Harbor - 2003In 2003, after finishing my coursework in the History PhD program at Yale, I took a year off to conduct preliminary dissertation research. I sailed for two months on two cargo ships from Los Angeles to Cape Town (via east Asia, the Indian Ocean, Suez Canal, Mediterranean, Northern Europe, and the west coast of Africa). Using participant-observation techniques, I explored contemporary shipboard culture and surveyed the dockside scene at 14 ports. Conversations with the sailors (Germans, Tuvaluans, Russians, Britons, Filipinos, and South Africans), dockers, prostitutes, tugboat crews, shipping administrators, and dockside cabbies convinced me of the value of researching modern port culture.

Port Elizabeth Harbor 1901 - Bob Binnell Collection

The Study

For centuries, sailors were primary carriers of cultural, political, genetic, and material cargo. Their movements created a global network of ports where dockers, prostitutes, barkeepers, and smugglers thrived on sailors' presence. In twentieth century South Africa—where white supremacist governments segregated the races, restricted black rights, and demonized "foreign" ideas—ports were potential hotbeds of subversion as foreign sailors flouted racial restrictions, local seafarers sailed beyond state surveillance, stevedores organized massive strikes, and sugar-girls provided the "comforts of home" to passing seamen.

But after the 1960s, economic globalization and intensified apartheid repression eroded the foundations of port culture. The features that had characterized dockside relations for generations were altered through developments such as: the advent of cheap air transportation; the expansion of mass tourism; the turn of prostitutes and barkeepers away from sailors toward foreign businessmen and tourists; the triumph of insurance logic over maritime tradition in the shipping industry; the enhancement of the state's repressive capacity and its physical destruction of dockside communities; the containerization of cargo (reducing pilferage, increasing efficiency); and the relocation of cargo depots away from the old docks to distant landfill sites. The 1990s saw the completion of this transformation as developers turned the old harbors into bourgeois recreation areas.

This is a global tale, as relevant to San Francisco and Sydney as it is to South Africa. My research will focus on Cape Town, Durban, and Port Elizabeth, using participant-observation techniques (travel on cargo ships, trawlers, tugs, etc.), oral testimonies, and archival research to examine the social dynamics of South African port culture during two major periods: from the 1880s to the 1960s, and from the 1960s to the present. It will explore the social, economic, and political foundations of that culture, analyzing how it was transformed through local and global processes.

Port Elizabeth Stevedores, 1875 - Bob Binnell Collection