In Federico Fellini’s 1983 film, And the Ship Sails On, all the pretty (and not so pretty, but rich) people of society are gathered on a luxury ocean liner to scatter the ashes of a famous opera singer; their memorial is interrupted by some refugees that the captain brings on the ship’s deck. The society doyennes believe that the refugees are terrorists, and demand that they be isolated. When another ship demands the refugees be returned, the captain agrees—but one of the refugees hurls a bomb at the other ship, causing it to open fire on the luxury liner. The liner sinks while the orchestra plays and the cinema projectionist watches film clips of the dead opera singer saying goodbye at the end of a concert.
This is a very brief summary of Fellini’s brilliant satire (among other things, it ignores the love-sick rhinoceros) but I wanted to include it for any of my blog readers who haven’t seen it. Despite the film being set in 1914, and concerning Austro-Hungarian aggression, I was reminded of Fellini’s film this past weekend when, at the BAMEed 2017 conference in Birmingham, I listened to Darren Chetty’s talk on education and Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic people. Chetty commented that Britain’s education rhetoric is often expressed in nautical terms—running a tight ship, for example—and he wondered if this was a hangover of Empire, when “Britannia Ruled the Waves”. I would go so far as to suggest that it is not just education that suffers from this hangover, but government rhetoric in general. By recalling an imperial past, Britain not only recalls its days as global superpower, but racializes the discourse. White people sail and run tight ships. Racialized others are refugees to be rescued, or impediments to the success of the mission. Or terrorists.
This can be seen throughout British children’s literature. In days when Britain thrived as a seafaring nation, primarily due to the slave trade, the hierarchy was obvious, with white sailors on deck and African slaves in the ship’s bowels. But even as slavery was abolished, children’s books continued to highlight the global inequality Britain had helped create through the presentation of racialized situations. Michael Scott’s Cruise of the Midge (Collins 1895), for example, has sailors rescuing two West Indians when their canoe gets in trouble. The illustrations, by WS Stacey, show an angry West Indian man, dressed in rags, preparing to smash an idol which was meant to bring him luck, while well-dressed sailors do nothing to alleviate his distress but stand around and look amused. Clearly, they would never be superstitious enough to believe in idols and “luck”, like West Indians, and so they would never end up in rags and rage on someone else’s ship.
During the 1920s, Britain’s empire was at its largest, but was also beginning to face the rumblings of independence movements throughout the colonies. British children’s literature during this period was filled with children (and water-rats and moles) “messing about in boats”. As Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons children’s father says, “Better drowned than duffers.” The white British child was now in charge of ruling the waves, as this cover from the children’s magazine Fairyland Tales from 1925 indicates, and they, like the sailors in The Cruise of the Midge, find it amusing to leave the racialized other—in this instance a caricatured toy version of a racialized other, further indicating their position on top of the racial hierarchy—in a precarious position. Britain continued to enjoy its position of privilege without regard to how the rest of the world was affected by its assumption of control.
It might be argued that this is not, in fact, a racial issue; that Britain’s (idea of) control over the seas extended to other European countries and often America as well. But it is important to look at how white Britons are placed in comparison with not-white others in children’s literature to understand the way that the trope of British control over the seas becomes naturalized and normalized. In 1953, for example, Alice Berry-Hart published To School in the Spanish Main (Puffin), a WWII story about British children sent to the Caribbean to sit out the war. Rather than being portrayed as war refugees, welcomed in by Black Caribbean foster families (as so many evacuee stories set in England show white British families doing), the children are portrayed as being on an extended holiday, even when they have to deal with German spy ships. The Caribbean islanders are portrayed as incidental to the action. Britain still owns the Caribbean, and even as technical refugees they rule the waves.
Now that Britain is no longer a naval—or any other kind of—superpower, however, the rhetoric has shifted. The language of ships, as Darren Chetty points out, is still used to demonstrate white British need for control. But in children’s books now, the control is over the land and borders. White people can isolate racialized others on islands, as in Kiran Millwood-Hargrave’s The Island at the End of Everything. The sea segregates “us” from “them”. Randa Abdel-Fattah’s The Lines We Cross (Scholastic 2017) is set in Australia, but demonstrates a similar rhetoric. White people (who first came to Australia by sea as British colonizers) “own” the land. The main white character, Michael Blainey, is the son of the founder of “Aussie Values” which tries to “Turn Back the Boats” (1) of refugees. “Australia has the right to protect its borders” (35), Michael comments, and, “There has to be a limit [to immigration] or we’ll be flooded” (71; there is no irony displayed in any of this rhetoric because “Aussies”–whites–are not immigrants and have a right to the land). Mina, a “boat person” refugee from Afghanistan, is not buying his attitude, and calls it racist: “Is it all immigration, or just Muslim immigration?” (170) she asks him. Michael argues that he’s not racist, and that “we don’t have a choice who we’re born to, or where” (219), but Mina counters, “You want me to make it easier for you to confront your privilege because God knows even antiracism has to be done to make the majority comfortable” (219).
Although Michael and Mina eventually work through their personal differences, The Lines We Cross never resolves the larger societal issues, and one of the later images in the book returns to a nautical image to describe Mina’s family’s position in Australia: “It’s like we never left the boat. Ten years on and we’re still on deck, being rocked and swayed, coming closer to the rocks and then pulling back, smashing against the waves” (345). Racism continues to pervade society, but we would do well to remember that, as with Fellini’s film, we are all in the same boat—and if we let racism sink it, it will sink us all.