The Amahs of the SS Marama: Using shipping records to recover the experiences of Chinese amahs

Over the past couple of years we have focused on collecting digitised primary sources related to Indian ayahs and Chinese amahs. We have found some amazing material ranging from postcards and paintings to dolls and diaries. We brought those rich archives together in our online exhibition Ayahs and Amahs: Transcolonial Journeys that opened in September 2022 and will close on 8 June 2023. It has been very rewarding to get feedback on the exhibition from people all over the world. We were also very excited to learn that the exhibition won the 2022 History Council of New South Wales Addi Road Award for Multicultural History.

Now that international borders are opening up, we are planning research trips to India, the UK, Singapore and Malaysia. My aim will be to find out of as much as I can about Chinese amahs that travelled to Britain as part of their job. There is a growing array of work on the travelling Indian ayahs.[1] Much less is known about the mobile lives of the Chinese amahs that came to Britain.

One group of amahs that I am keen to learn more about when I visit London next year are the amahs of the SS Marama – a group of eighteen Chinese amahs who travelled from Singapore to London in 1919. I became aware of these women through the Incoming and Outgoing Passenger Lists for the UK and Ireland. You can search these lists on Ancestry UK using the term ‘amah’.

In terms of arrivals, the year 1919, stands out. Twenty-five amahs came to Britain in that year, eighteen of those travelled on the SS Marama, or, more accurately the A.T (ambulance transport) Marama. In this blog I want to outline what shipping records can tell us about the experience of the amahs on the ship and where the gaps in the records lay.

The Marama was a passenger steam ship built by the New Zealand Union Steam Ship Company. It was repurposed to serve as a hospital ship treating and transporting troops in the context of the First World War (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. New Zealand Hospital Ship “Marama”, 1915, Wellington City Council Archives

In March 1919 the Marama was placed in ‘imperial charter’ and diverted from its usual New Zealand to England route. Instead, the ship made a side trip to the Straits Settlements for the purposes of transporting women and children based in British Malaya back to London. The ship took around 500 passengers. Some of the families travelled with an amah or two to assist them during the month-long voyage home.The transformation of the Marama from a passenger ship to a floating hospital was a source of great pride for the Union Steam Ship Company. The company printed a booklet to document the changes which is held by the Wellington City Archives. That brochure provides insight into the conditions on the ship. The ship was built with cabins ranging from first class to third as shown in figure 2. As a hospital transport, it became a one class ship. While a few cabins remained, most people were accommodated in wards with the women in children separated from the men. The wards can be seen in figures 3 and 4, a diagram of the main deck. 

Figure 2. First, Second and Third Class Passenger Accommodation of the original SS “Marama”, 1915, Wellington City Council Archives.

Figure 3. Main Deck, New Zealand Hospital Ship “Marama”, 1915, Wellington City Council Archives.

Figure 4. Close up on the portside of the Main Deck, New Zealand Hospital Ship “Marama”, 1915, Wellington City Council Archives.

The redesign of the Marama was a major innovation for dealing with injured troops in Europe, allowing for speedy treatment and a voyage home. However, it did not quite meet the expectations of the civilian passengers travelling home from Malaya whose complaints were detailed in the Singapore press.

The words ‘hell’ and ‘nightmare’ recur in the letters from the women on-board which we printed in full in Singapore’s newspapers. The complaints of the passengers were wide ranging and included the lack of privacy in the wards and the noise from crying babies; the fact that the lights stayed on all night; inadequate bathroom facilities, and the stench that resulted from so many children in nappies. Passengers also complained about heat and a lack of drinking water.

Such reports provide a sense of the material conditions which the eighteen amahs faced on their journey. But they do not reveal all that much in the way of specifics. I am not even sure where the women slept. In fact, the reporting barely mentions the amahs at all. They featured in one article only – a letter to the Editor written by a Mr W Frew in which the author reflected on the voyage of the ship blaming the shortage of water on the ‘army of amahs’ who (he claimed) used it so indiscriminately.

The Passenger Arrival lists provide more information about the amahs. They detail the ages of the women, the ports from which they disembarked, the colony in which they resided and the employers from whom they worked. From this material I know that the youngest amah was twenty-six and the oldest forty-eight. Most were aged between twenty-eight and thirty-five – similar in age to the women that they worked for. Seven of the amahs were responsible for two children. Three of them had three children in their charge. The majority of the amahs were residents of the Straits Settlements and had sailed from Singapore.

As is so often the case in archives related to colonial domestic servants, the Passenger Arrival lists do not contain women’s names. They are listed in possessive and objectifying terms as ‘amah’ or Brown’s amah, Landon amah etc. Hopefully, physical records held in the National Archives and the British Library might shed more light on who these women were and what became of them.

Claire Lowrie 2022.

[1] Arunima Datta has published the most recent work on this topic, including “Stranded: How Travelling Ayahs negotiated War and Abandonment in Europe,” Indian Journal of Gender Studies, 29:3 (2022); “Becoming Visible: Travel Documents and Travelling Ayahs in the British Empire,” South Asian Studies 38:2 (2022); “Responses to traveling Indian ayahs in nineteenth and early twentieth century Britain,” Journal of Historical Geography, 71 (2021).

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