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From ship to shore

29 Oct 2019

From ship to shore Image

By Meg Hill

When seafarers arrive at the Mission to Seafarers from the port they enter the side gate and “negotiate the narrow path along the edge of the small garden”.

The garden is “tended by Margaret, who reflects that seafarers like to see trees and flowers and feel grass underfoot after weeks onboard the ship with nothing to touch but metal and nothing to see but water.”

The experience was recounted in a seminar by Professor Uma Kothari, whose fellowship at the University of Melbourne has so far focused primarily on the Mission within the scope of a changing relationship between ships, seafarers and shores.

Before the courtyard, Professor Kothari described the experience of arriving on land: “They’ve spent four months at sea when the ship steers into port. They’re on a nine-month contract.”

“It’s been two weeks since they left their last port of call and some of them are desperate to go ashore.”

Professor Kothari specialises in migration and postcolonial studies at the University of Manchester. For the past two years she has been a Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow at the University of Melbourne.

“One Sunday not long after I’d arrived in Melbourne I went for a walk around Docklands and for a potter along the river and I came across the Mission to Seafarers building,” she said.

“It was seemingly out of place, but actually perfectly in place as it’s the skyscrapers around it that seem incongruous.”

Professor Kothari said she became enthralled by the history of the Mission, its connections to people, places and objects. She returned the next week and regularly since.

The Mission is “a place that cannot be solely defined physically by its borders and boundaries as its permeable, fluid and facilitates connections.”

“A long, internalised history gives the place its uniqueness – not necessarily a single unique identity but multiple shifting ones.”

Not long before Professor Kothari stumbled across the Mission, the staff had discovered almost 100 years of records concealed in boxes under its stage – annual reports from the 1890s, scrapbooks, diaries, log books, newsletters, artefacts and photographs.

She has been carrying out research at the Mission by consulting the archives and interviewing staff and seafarers.

She recently curated a photographic exhibition that brought together historical and contemporary photographs to depict continuities and changes in maritime life.

Professor Kothari made a point to highlight that the aim of the Mission since it was founded had been to care for all seafarers and their families regardless of nationality or background.

Today, the Victorian Mission has a wall where seafarers can pin their countries’ currency and a passport size photo of themselves.

“They want to leave a marker, a sign, a trace that they were there,” Professor Kothari said.

“Once a young seafarer spotted his uncle’s photograph on the wall and felt happy that his relative had also spent time at the Mission and in Melbourne.”

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