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Serpent in Paradise
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Jella: From Lagos to Liverpool - A Woman at Sea in a Man's World

Co-edited by Dea Birkett
Amazonian: The Penguin Book of Women’s New Travel Writing

Jella: From Lagos to Liverpool - A Woman at Sea in a Man’s World

Jella: From Lagos to Liverpool - A Woman at Sea in a Man's World
Winner Somerset Maugham Award

‘funny, exuberant and touching’ Observer

From Rites of Passage, The Times, 18 March 1992 -

I have trespassed into a forbidden land – male territory. I acquired a male name, maledress and lived entirely in male company. For three months I had privileged access to a strange and alien masculine world. I was a member of crew on a British cargo vessel working the West African route.

I began one sticky afternoon, just before the rains broke on the West African coast, when I clambered up the MV Minos’ gangway in Apapa docks, Lagos, Nigeria adorned in my finest flowery sun-dress. I wanted to impress the Captain. The shore staff had warned me that a young woman joining the ship would not be welcomed.

I had been following the Victorian traveller Mary Kingsley through West Africa, and had wanted to return to Britain as she had – by sea. But this was a working vessel, carrying cocoa beans, salt and West African timber, not passengers. I had to sign on as a member of crew. Seaman Birkett was hastily added to the crew list. I regarded my title as a mere formality. After months battling my way through West Africa, I looked forward to a safe, easy passage home in the familiar surroundings of a British ship.

But the Minos was the most extraordinary country I ever visited. If I had found West Africa strange, on board all the normal divisions of the day and week we take for granted disappeared. We sailed in our own time zone, adjusting our clocks by half an hour each day for the next port of call. We were seldom in sync with any piece of land.

The Minos had a clear hierarchy. The divisions between the British officers and African crew had been established for decades. They ate in separate mess rooms, drank in separate bars, and retired to cabins on separate decks. But my own position was not so clear cut. . . .

Everyone had a strictly defined role which was embossed upon their cabin door – Purser, Master, Chief Officers, Boatswain, Cook. The Captain and his men needed to find a place for me.

‘Steersman. First watch,’ announced the Captain at my first breakfast in the officers’ mess. I did not even hold a car driving licence. And here I was being asked to steer a 21,000-ton cargo vessel.

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