Who's Henry Trotter?

About the Author

Henry TrotterI'm Henry Trotter, a PhD student of African History at Yale University and a researcher at the University of Cape Town. I currently live in beautiful Cape Town, South Africa, with my wife, Marjorie Bingham and our daughter Sonoya.

Since 2005, I've been researching my dissertation titled "Port Culture: A Modern History of South African Sailors, Stevedores & Sugar Girls." While doing this, I realized that there was almost no scholarly literature about dockside prostitution for scholars to draw on. So I started writing journal articles about my research - and then decided to turn my stories, analysis, and experiences into a full-fledged book.

But I've been interested in maritime history and culture for a long time. Here's an excerpt from Sugar Girls & Seamen which explains how my background shaped my decision to write this book:

Before I was born, my dad was an officer in the US Navy. He roamed the world on aircraft carriers fighting against the Commies. When he finally strode ashore, I was born on a military base within spitting distance of the Atlantic. Then we moved to Jakarta, Indonesia, where Dad worked for the US Embassy. Two years later, we returned to the States, settling near a navy base in the Los Angeles area. The Pacific became my ocean.

When we moved to LA, Dad lined the living-room walls with plaques from the places he had visited as a seaman. They bore names such as Guam, Diego Garcia, Hong Kong, Hawaii, Subic Bay, Okinawa and Yokohama. Knowing that he had ventured to these exotic destinations made me feel connected to them as well. His seafaring adventures engendered in me a maritime sensibility.

Years later, I spent a year as an exchange student at the University of Zimbabwe, then backpacked around Africa for another three years, visiting seventeen countries in all. Towards the end of my travels, I spent six months in Cape Town, where, on my very first day in the Mother City, I met my future wife. Marjorie was working at a steakhouse in the Waterfront. I took a job there and - before it became Planet Hollywood and got bombed (seriously) - we worked together as "waitrons." From there, we built the foundation of a lifelong relationship. Like so many sailors who had come before me, I had found my bride at the water's edge.

I returned to Cape Town a couple of times after that for academic research. For two years I lived with an older couple, Charlotte and Jones, in Bonteheuwel, a coloured township on the Cape Flats. These sexagenarians epitomised dockside culture. Charlotte grew up near the docks in the Waterkant Street area with a dozen brothers and sisters. Some of the men in her family worked on the docks as stevedores, while her aunty next door entertained foreign sailors with a couple of other women. Charlotte grew up hearing the strange shanties of seamen who staggered around the neighbourhood. She also heard the strange noises emanating from her auntie's suikerhuisie (sugar house, ie. brothel) next door.

Charlotte & Edward JonesMeanwhile, Jones, her husband-to-be, was a primary school dropout who taught himself how to read while selling the Cape Argus newspaper in District Six. In the evenings, he ran with a gang of petty warehouse thieves and street-lamp crooners called the Bun Boys. When he reached his teens, he worked on the docks with Charlotte's brother Joewa. Much to their boss' delight, they became proficient in stowing cargo - and much to their own, they became just as sharp at stealing it. Like longshoremen around the world, they always skimmed a bit of the passing trade. Eventually, Jones got an engine-room job with Safmarine, South Africa's national carrier, and he travelled the world. Over the past four decades he's been hired and fired from a myriad of South African shipping concerns. "Hard worker," his bosses would say. "But old school - always drinking." In response to such complaints, Jones would wave a dismissive hand and say, "Sometimes you've got to take the load off your mind."

When I lived with them, Charlotte and Jones told me fascinating stories about Cape Town's port culture. Through Charlotte I learnt how females participated in the maritime scene, largely as willing women or waiting wives. Through Jones, I gleaned the joys and tribulations of the seaman's life. Their stories inspired me to look deeper into South Africa's dockside world.

But I needed to experience it for myself. So in 2003 I voyaged for two months on two cargo ships from California to Cape Town. I sailed from America to Japan, Taiwan, China, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Egypt, France, England, Germany, Spain and South Africa, visiting fourteen ports along the way. At sea and ashore, I chatted with the German, Tuvaluan, Russian, British, Filipino and South African sailors who handled the vessels. I also observed how they interacted with each other, getting a taste of contemporary dockside culture.

Trotter voyage map 2003

By this point, I was already enrolled in the History Ph.D. programme at Yale University. When it came time to choose my dissertation topic, I decided to write about South African port culture, especially about the lives of sailors, stevedores and sugar girls. While engaged in that research I became deeply involved in the dockside scene, so when I was asked (by Jacana Media) if I would write a book for general readers about dockside prostitution in South Africa, I couldn't say no.


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