Thursday, 16 August 2018

Colonial Cruising

Colonial Cruising

Last week (August 4-11, 2018) my husband and I enjoyed a week-long cruise in the “inner passage’ in Alaska. This cruise focuses on the south-eastern part of Alaska, sailing between the islands off the coast and the shore. It was a long-awaited trip, my husband’s 40th wedding anniversary present to me.

I was already aware of the pollution that cruise ships can cause in oceans and seas, thanks to a presentation I once heard by a student in the Balsillie School of International Affairs in Waterloo, Ontario, where I used to work.  But I was on a Dutch ship that claimed to be environmentally conscious, so I thought perhaps I was not personally doing too much damage.

an Alaskan cruise ship
As the trip progressed, though, I did wonder how “colonial,” in the current parlance, it was for us to even take the cruise. The ship was Dutch-registered, and the senior staff, including the captain, seemed to all be Dutch.  The dining room servers, cabin stewards, maintenance and repair people, and security and safety crew seemed to be all Indonesian and Philippino (also mainly, but not entirely, male). The patrons were largely of European origin, Americans, Canadians, Australians, and New Zealanders especially. There was also a large contingent of patrons presumably of Chinese background, reflecting the changing distribution of wealth in the latest round of economic globalization.

Indonesia used to be a Dutch colony, until a war of independence in the late 1940s: the Dutch did not give up their colony without a cruel and brutal fight. I wondered how long this cruise line’s ships had been serviced by Indonesian migrants. Perhaps there had been several generations of cruise ship employees from specific locations in Indonesia.

Also, as migrant labor goes, perhaps working on a Dutch cruise ship is not as bad as a lot of other options.  Presumably, the workers’ living quarters had to adhere not only to Dutch but possibly also to Canadian and/or US standards.  The workers had the right to return home for three months every year. While we were on the ship there was an earthquake on the Indonesian island of Lambok, where one of the servers came from. While unhurt, all his family (wife, four children, siblings and parents) were reduced to living in tents: the ship gave him leave and helped him arrange his transport home.

The other aspect of colonialism that I encountered was the almost complete disregard of the Indigenous peoples and cultures in Alaska. We attended a presentation of her culture by a Tlingit woman, presented in the ship’s main entertainment hall to a fairly large audience. But beyond that, we weren’t given much information about Alaskan culture, society, politics or economics.

I went ashore at a small town called Ketchikan and discovered a professionally-curated museum featuring town artifacts and a display of late 19th and early 20th century photographs. An individual there told me that the museum received very few visitors from cruise ships, and those who arrived said that it was the cruise ship staff, not the ship’s publicity agents, who told them about it. The assistant at the museum was a half-Tlingit and half-Haida woman who said to me, regarding the cruise industry’s lack of interest in Indigenous culture. “Colonialism has many windows and doors: when one closes, another opens.”
Ketchikan, Alaska

The main thing that the ship promoted on shore was stores selling diamonds and tanzanite.  I couldn’t figure out why anyone would want to buy diamonds or tanzanite (a stone originating in Tanzania) in Alaska; perhaps there were tax advantages.

On shore, tourist companies also promoted visits to the (presumably renovated and kitschified) brothels that existed during the late 19th century Gold Rush in Alaska and the Yukon (a northern Canadian territory). Apparently there is a myth of merry women cavorting happily with the men seeking gold. The truth, I imagine, is that many of those women died of botched abortions, gang rapes and sexually transmitted diseases. This, of course, is not something the average tourist wishes to hear about. Nor is this precisely colonialism, jut your good old-fashioned sexism.

I am not saying people shouldn’t take Alaska cruises. If you do want to take one though, do it soon. One of the speakers we listened to told us 97% of the glaciers are receding because of climate change. If you wait a decade or two, they may no longer be there.

And if you do go, maybe try a little harder than I did—never having been on a cruise before—to forewarn yourself about local culture and conditions before you visit.

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