French Houseboats

French Houseboats480
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One Essay Response

  1. Johanna Markkula | 2016 Second Prize Winner says:

    Rachel Tanur’s photograph of houseboats on a river in France is a beautiful image of people living on the water. The quay in the photo, along which the boats are moored, forms a line of demarcation through which life afloat is separated from life on dry land: even when lived inside the cities that are the very centers of the global economy. The people I have met who live aboard houseboats or sailboats on the waterways of cities such as Paris, San Francisco, London and New York often choose this as an alternative lifestyle that allows them to detach themselves (quite literally) from landed society and its demands. Many work in start-ups or in the creative professions, and are attracted by the independence of life afloat combined with affordable central living. This autonomous lifestyle, however, also means lack of access to services often taken for granted ashore, such as garbage and sewage disposal, as well as fresh water supply.

    The combination of autonomy and freedom on the one hand, and the marginalization and exclusion on the other hand, is characteristic for many communities who live afloat. For example, the Sama Dilaut, or “sea nomads”, have traditionally lived on houseboats along the shores of Mindanao in southern Philippines, though today many live in stilt houses instead. They are the poorest and most marginalized of the region’s ethnic groups (Jumala 2011), and often lack access to the benefits of landed society. However, in the conflict ridden region of Mindanao, their boat dwelling lifestyle has also allowed them to leave from areas in times of conflict among landed groups, to move to more peaceful locations (Jumala 2011).

    The sea and ships have offered a space of freedom and autonomy for other marginalized groups too. Rediker’s (2004) account of pirate crews in the early 18th century showed how these crews absorbed society’s outcasts and deviants, such as criminals, cross-dressing women and runaway slaves, offering alternative and more democratic communities in which crewmembers were able to transcend the restrictive bounds that society imposed on them based on their race, class, gender or personal history. This has been true for merchant crews as well, many of which consisted of people who went to sea to escape obligations or punishments ashore.

    However, if ships have been spaces of freedom and escape from the bounds of society, they have also been spaces of coercion and imprisonment. Galley slaves, the transatlantic slave-trade, indentured labor, impressment and shanghaiing are examples of forced labor practices in maritime history that continue into modern times as seafarers may often be coerced to work without pay, or tricked into debt-servitude. Historically, ships have also been used as floating prisons to rid society of its undesired persons. According to Foucault, “ships of fools” roamed Europe’s rivers in medieval times, allowing cities to dispose of their “madmen”. He writes, “Locked in the ship from which he could not escape, the madman was handed over to the thousand-armed river, to the sea where all paths cross […] A prisoner in the midst of the ultimate freedom, on the most open road of all, chained solidly to the infinite crossroads. He is the Passenger par excellence, the prisoner of the passage” (2006:11).

    This dynamic contrast between the ideal of freedom, mobility, and desire to “see the world for free” on the one hand, and ships as prisons and marginalised spaces on the other hand, is constantly present also in the narratives of the seafarers with whom I do my dissertation research. And it is, I believe, at the very foundation of life lived on the water.

    Foucault, Michel. 2006. History of Madness. London: Routledge.
    Jumala, Francis, 2011. “From Moorage to Village: A Glimpse of the Changing Lives of the Sama Dilaut”, Philippine Quarterly of Culture and Society, 39(2): 87-131.
    Rediker, Marcus, 2004 Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age. Boston: Beacon Press.