Conference report: Social Dynamics in Atlantic Ports, XIVth-XXIst Centuries, Oostende, Belgium

The International Colloquium of the Governance of the Atlantic Ports held their annual conference on April 24th – 26th. Under the topic Social Dynamics in Atlantic Ports 14th to 21st century, the conference took place in Oostende by the Belgium North Sea coast. The presentations were mainly on social and economic history, and the glue that held it all together was that it was all revolving around ports, the life at sea and on shore, the special communities that port towns are, and how maritime occupations shape a society.

One of the topics of the conference was migration. Torsten Feys from Free University of Brussels presented a different view that could draw lines to present time migration: tourism as means of migration. For it is in no way a historical thing that migrants illegally cross borders and stay in countries without permission on a tourist visa. In 19th and early 20th century Oostende, migration was very high. Being a tourist spot as much as a transit place, many people passed through Oostende in this period, and the local police did what they could to make sure that people were indeed only tourists and not foreigners who settled and worked in Oostende. The best way to hide something is to show it. This seems to be the mantra for illegal migrants then as now. Feys emphasised how tourism and migration are often closely linked, and that this connection should not be underestimated.

On the more problematic side of things, Mary Fraser from the University of Glasgow spoke about the attempt to police sexual morality in English ports during the First World War, as prostitutes hung around the servicemen’s camps in Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow. However, the largest problem seemed to be in Folkestone, where the population of 34.000 people increased in 1915 by 40.000 Canadian soldiers. Before the war, Folkestone had had a reputation of a funloving and easygoing seaside resort, where people from most of the country travelled to for their relaxing holidays. The Canadian soldiers attracting more prostitutes was a problem for the town’s reputation. But an even greater issue was that of venereal deceases. Spreading fast and almost impossible to treat, it was a potential disaster looming. The number of soldiers being treated for VD was rising and the complications of the disease meant a serious risk that the Allied forces might lose the war, lacking healthy soldiers. The solution in Folkestone was the Women Police: female police officers, who approached the prostitutes. It was thought that women were more suited for this job as it did entail some quite intimate tasks. The prostitutes were evicted from Folkestone, and the relationship with Canada, who was quite unhappy with their soldiers falling ill in England, remained strong and friendly.

Then a bit of maritime archaeology had forund its way to the conference. David Fernández Abella from Universidade de Santiago de Compostela presented beautiful pictures and wonderful finds of pottery from the coast of Ribadero in Galicia, Northern Spain. Through analysis of the pottery, the aim of the survey and research was to shed light on the traffic in the area of Ribadero. An immense amount of pottery was found, and from a vast span of time. Furthermore, they were from all over Europe and only a very small part of them local. By showing the distribution of the finds in terms of chronology and origin, Ribadero suddenly got an international air.

Maritime history is a vast topic. Limiting it to social and economic areas of study helped a little, but the presentations were stretching from timber supply over illegitimate children in port towns to piloting, shipbuilding and privateering; even a presentation of the illiteracy of merchants in the late 16th century Portugal. Covering the Atlantic ports means a wonderful combination of nationalities presenting and attending the conference. Presentations in Spanish, French and Portuguese apart from English were accepted, though Power Points were required in English. Obviously, it was a very small part of the attendants who were comfortable in all languages, but rather than creating a problem it created an atmosphere of acceptance and tolerance, where everyone translated for each other.

With some inspiring presentations and a kind and supporting atmosphere, the conference showed what international collaboration can contribute to our own research and that language barriers can be overcome. The success will be repeated in Seville in October 2020.

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One Response to Conference report: Social Dynamics in Atlantic Ports, XIVth-XXIst Centuries, Oostende, Belgium

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    Mary Fraser May 6, 2019 at 1:05 pm #

    Thank you very much for this good summary. It was a very good occasion and the collaboration in different languages worked well. It was a pleasure to meet so many interesting people. Reminds me, I must brush up my French and Spanish!

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