African liveability History  & memory

The sailors, the sugar girls and the storyteller

Henry Trotter on the bow of the P&O Nedlloyd's City of Cape Town anchored in Table Bay

Henry Trotter, academic, author and port culture expert, chats to City Views’ Ambre Nicolson about why Cape Town’s maritime culture matters … and how he once spent 150 nights researching portside prostitution in Cape Town’s dockside bars.

You were born in the United States, you now live in Cape Town and in between you sailed the seven seas. Tell us your story.

My dad was in the navy and I was born on a naval base on the Atlantic. We moved around a lot, spending a couple of years in Jakarta, Indonesia, then finally settling near Los Angeles, where the Pacific became my ocean. In our house, my dad had plaques from the ports he’d visited, which made me feel connected to all these places with their exotic-sounding names like Okinawa, Hawaii, Guam.

In 1994 I studied for a year at the University of Zimbabwe, and from there I decided to backpack around Africa. I ended up travelling for three years, visiting 17 countries on the continent. Towards the end of the trip, I came to Cape Town for six months. The first day here I walked into a restaurant at the Waterfront, looking for a job, and I saw a beautiful woman who was working there. We started dating pretty soon after that, but six months later my visa expired and I left to travel in West Africa, never knowing if I’d ever see my Cape Town meisie again. In 1999 I went to Yale in the African Studies Program, where I got a Rotary scholarship to South Africa. When I came back, Marjorie and I started dating again and we married in 2005.

When you returned to Cape Town you lived with a couple in Bonteheuwel. How did that happen?

I was writing my thesis on the effect of forced removals on coloured people’s memory and identity, and it made sense that I get to know a community like the one in Bonteheuwel, many of whom had once lived in District Six. It was at this point that I got to know a different side of Cape Town, as a city linked to seafaring. The couple I lived with, Jones and Charlotte, told me stories about Cape Town’s dockside world. Jones was a sailor, Charlotte’s aunt was the madam of a brothel in the Waterkant area frequented by sailors. Their stories fascinated me and led to me studying South African port culture since WWII.

You once sailed from Los Angeles to Cape Town. What was it like to be a sailor yourself?

Henry's voyage from Long Beach to Cape Town.

In 2003, to understand the lives of cargo ship sailors, I sailed on a container ship going from Los Angeles to San Francisco, across the Pacific to Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore, through the Straits of Sumatra to Sri Lanka, then through the Gulf of Aden, the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean Sea, rounding to Iberian Peninsula to Le Havre, France. From there I crossed the English Channel on a ferry and boarded an English vessel sailing from London to Cape Town. I spent two months at sea and visited 14 ports – it was an adventure!

How did you come to write a book about portside prostitution in South Africa?

In 2005, I started to research port culture more intensively. I had put off researching prostitution because frankly I found it terrifying, but eventually I plucked up the courage to start interviewing people. I went to The Mission to Seafarers, a recreational centre for sailors, in Durban and Cape Town and I went with the sailors to dockside bars. That first night I remember sitting in the bar with my heart pounding, wondering what I had gotten myself into. I ended up spending 150 nights in the city’s bars, but it took a lot to convince the women that I was there doing research. They certainly didn’t think themselves worthy of academic study … they found that idea ridiculous. This research became the basis of my book, Sugar Girls & Seamen. I called the prostitutes “sugar girls” after the suikerhuisies (brothels) in former District Six. As I explain on my website, these women work at one of the busiest cultural intersections in the world and, through their interactions with foreign seamen, they share their cultures, ideas, languages, styles, goods, currencies, genes and diseases. Many learn the seamen’s tongues, develop relationships with them, have their babies and become entangled in vast webs of connection. In many ways, these South African mermaids are the unsung sirens of globalisation.

How has port culture changed in the last 40 years?

Traditionally, ports were the sites where cultures met and mingled, but in the 1970s this changed. There are many reasons, but the most important was the containerisation of cargo. Instead of goods being packed and unpacked by human hands, huge containers that needed cranes and much longer piers became the norm. Containerisation greatly sped up the process, and hundreds of tons of cargo could be loaded onto ships within a matter of hours. This also means that sailors now spend much less time in port.

Why is Cape Town’s maritime legacy important?

The idea that water can be both a medium and a barrier fascinates me. Part of my research involves making a distinction between sea- and land-based culture and heritage. For instance, due to the constant presence of maritime transients in Cape Town’s history, dockside residents have tended to be relatively open to overseas cultures and the potential of social, physical and financial exchange with them. An organic working-class cosmopolitanism long characterised this city, which was part of a global dockland archipelago, connected to multiple ports in the Atlantic and Indian Ocean basins. This stands in contrast to the history of South Africa’s upcountry “landlubbers” who have shown a more conservative approach to cultural exchange, focusing more on territorial control and group boundary maintenance. Due to their varying geographical and ecological circumstances, docksiders have traditionally seen the world through their maritime networks whereas landlubbers have seen it through their possession of land. This is a rough division, of course, but viewing South African history through this lens – rather than, say, race, religion or language – offers new possibilities in understanding this beautiful city and this wonderful country.

City Views June 2013Read more about Henry’s book at or buy the book on

Discover more about Cape Town’s maritime history at the Iziko Maritime Museum. For more info call 021 405 2880.

This article first appeared in the June 2013 issue of City Views: Cape Town’s water stories. Read it online.

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