Sad, salty stories

2008-11-19 00:00

Henry Trotter is a clean-shaven, fresh-faced, teetotalling Baptist from Yale University. So what’s he been doing hanging out with sailors and prostitutes in bars around Durban and Cape Town?

He’s been doing research, that’s what. And, in the process, he’s been learning about what he believes is one of the most fascinating “cultural intersections” in the world.

What started off as a PhD project for Trotter has turned into a book about dock-side prostitutes, the foreign sailors they mingle with and the cultural exchanges that come about as a result of their liaisons. The book, published by Jacana, and the PhD came about because of Trotter’s lifelong fascination with life at sea — and his passion for African and South African history.

In 2001, while working in Cape Town on his masters degree, he lived with a “salty old sea dog” from District Six. Edward Jones had spent most of his life at sea and told Trotter fascinating stories.

“The fact that he had travelled to so many other places had made a huge difference to his life,” said Trotter. “It made me think how important sailors are to people’s sense of identity.”

Jones’s wife, Charlotte, grew up in the Waterkant Street area, where her aunt had run a “sugar house” or brothel for foreign sailors. Their stories were so unique that Trotter decided to write his PhD dissertation on South Africa’s port culture. “I decided the title of my dissertation would be: Port Culture: A Modern History of South African Sailors, Stevedors and Sugar Girls,” said Trotter.

So he started his research and the first thing he did was to sail on a cargo ship from Los Angeles to Cape Town. “I spent two months at sea and went to 14 ports to get an idea of the lives of sailors on these ships.”

The next aspect of his research was to hang out at seamen’s nightclubs, interviewing prostitutes, who he prefers to call “sugar girls”, sailors, club owners, taxi drivers, bouncers and barmaids. He started in Durban and then moved on to Cape Town. It was while he was doing this research that Jacana Publishers heard about it and asked him to write a book about the world of sugar girls and sailors.

Trotter’s interest in the subject started when he was a boy and his father, a United States navy sailor, would go off to exotic places such as Diego Garcia, Guam, Fiji and Samoa. With an interest in the wider world, it is unsurprising that Trotter spent a year and a half as an exchange student in Zimbabwe in 1994, and then two-and-a-half more years backpacking through 17 African countries. He spent the past six months of his African travels in Cape Town.

On the first day he arrived in Cape Town, Trotter went to a steakhouse at the Waterfront. “There I met a beautiful young waitress, who has now become my wife.” The pair moved to Mitchell’s Plain and it was here that Trotter’s idea for his PhD started forming.

Trotter described his research as one of the most rewarding periods of his life. “At first I was nervous. I was effectively getting involved in an underworld. I had no idea how the people would react to me snooping around their business.”

In Durban, he first conducted extensive interviews with sailors at a seafarer’s mission. Then he started going every night to the only club for fishing-trawler men, which, in the book, he has called The Riviera (not its real name). In Cape Town, he visited three clubs: “There used to be eight clubs in Cape Town for the sailors, but now there are only three because of the dwindling trade.”

Trotter found that, in time, each woman slowly shared her life story with him. “They came to see me as a confidante, somebody who would listen to them and not judge them.”

Hearing their anecdotes, Trotter realised that the women are major traffickers in culture, ideas, language, goods and currencies. “Many of them, through their interactions with the seamen, learn the seamen’s tongues. They develop emotional relationships with them, have their babies and become entangled in vast webs of connection. These South African mermaids are the ultimate cosmopolitans, the unsung sirens of globalisation,” said Trotter.

“For instance, one woman, who I have called Renata, could speak, read and write Chinese, even though she was a local, homeless crack addict. She was one of the best solicitors at the club because of her cultural capacities with the Chinese sailors. She would get on to the karaoke microphone and sing in Chinese, to the amazement of the sailors.”

In Durban, Trotter found that there is a far more rapid turnaround of sailors in the club. “The pace is quicker. Most of the women are Zulu.”

In his research, Trotter learnt that despite their profession, many of the sugar girls had big hearts. “One of these was Tara the matriarch. She was a 50-year-old former prostitute. She opened up her house to other local sugar girls and their children. For a standard lodging fee, she provides food and a nanny service for the prostitutes.”

Interestingly, the women Trotter interviewed never really believed that he wasn’t interested in “sampling their merchandise. I sometimes took my wife to the clubs so that the women could see who I was being loyal to.”

One of the many things Trotter learnt about the women was that they were capable of building real relationships of trust and emotional depth — and some of them did just this with regular male visitors. During his research, Trotter made some good friends. “My wife and I have been to the Mowbray Maternity Hospital on a number of occasions to visit women who were having babies. I visited one girl, who died of Aids, on her death bed. It was tragic.

“I will tell you why they bothered to see me as a friend,” he continued. “I was unpolluted by the stigma of prostitution. All the women had crossed the line and knew it. But these girls actually really wanted the standard dreams to come true for them. They wanted a guy who did not judge them. I would just keep quiet and listen to them. I became a confidante, a confessor, a priest without the hell and damnation.

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