History, I often think, is like a tap on the shoulder. This story of what it was like to be a captain's wife or daughter at sea is eloquent evidence of this, for the writing involved a whole series of nudges from the past. The research for Hen Frigates was an ever-evolving process, which included the discovery of a long-hidden nineteenth-century gravestone, a wedding portrait that returned home, and diaries hidden in an attic.
Like many a good yarn, this one begins with a discovery made on a tropical isle. The year was 1984. My husband, Ron, and I were cycling around the island of Rarotonga, one of the Cook Islands scattered across Polynesia in the South Pacific. Rarotonga is not a large island, as can be judged by the fact that it takes just two hours to ride completely around it, but it is definitely beautiful. In the middle is a tall, green-clothed mountain, and plantations of oranges, pawpaw, and avocado trees sweep down the slopes to the narrow, potholed road that rims the island beside the sea. On the other side of the road there is a strand of coral rubble where straggly mallows and great Wellingtonia trees grow, surrounded by thick weeds. And, beyond the trees, white sand rakes down to the turquoise lagoon, the reef, and the sparkling blue sea.
We arrived at a certain place on the beach that is known as Ngatangiia at noon. It was very hot, and we expected it to be deserted, but to our surprise a young man was working away in the littoral rubble, hacking away at the weeds. It seemed such a pointless task that we became curious. Why was he working so hard to clear land that would never produce a crop? When we asked around, however, we found he did have a good reason. An ancestor ghost had come to him in a dream, and had commanded him to do this, because this bit of land was a graveyard.
This explanation was rather hard to credit, for Rarotongans do not neglect graves. As it turned out, the explanation was valid, however: this was a graveyard for outsiders. A long time ago, a sailing ship had called with a dead seaman on board, and the captain had asked the queen of the island -- the pa-ariki -- for permission to bury the boy on land, a burial at sea not being considered desirable back then. The ariki thought deeply about it, for the rule was that only native Rarotongans could be buried on the island, but then she relented, and had this piece of ground set aside, as a burying place for foreigners. And so it came about that more ships called, and more outsiders were buried there, and so the graveyard had been maintained. Then the sailing ships had stopped coming, and the ground had been left neglected -- until this young man had his dream.
Naturally, when the job was finished, we were anxious to investigate. We found nothing in the piles of stones and weeds, however, save for a few indecipherable chunks broken from ancient gravestones. Again, it was very hot. Over to one side, a huge tree was lying where it had been felled by a recent hurricane, its dying branches dabbling in the lagoon, its tangled roots reared up against the milky blue sky. Losing interest in searching the rubble, I wandered over to rest in the shade of the roots -- and, in the hole where the roots had grown, I found a grave, exposed to the light of day for the first time in 140 years.
The stone was upright, and as tall as a man. It read:
the Memory of
beloved wife of
Captn. A. D. Sherman
departed this life
January 5, 1850
Aged 24 Years
A woman on a whaleship! It seemed incredible. Instantly fascinated, I thought I would look up a book to learn more about this young woman who had made such a strange and fatal decision to go to sea. There was no book, however. I had to write it myself. It was a quest that led me to Australia, Britain, Hong Kong, and the Hawaiian Islands -- and to the museums, libraries, and historical societies of Massachusetts, Maine, Virginia, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New York.
The search for Mary-Ann Sherman was by no means easy. Illegitimate by birth, dying on a far-off isle, she had left no official records. However, to my astonishment, I found that she was only one of a great host of wives who had accompanied their husbands on the long, arduous, dangerous voyages, women who called themselves "sister sailors." And so my book became a general account of their remarkable experiences, easily written because the whaling wives had virtually told their own story in the journals and letters they had left behind.
Meanwhile, a small historical society in East Setauket, Long Island, had been presented with a portrait. I remember well the day I first saw the painting, for I found the subject instantly intriguing, so much so that it seemed almost logical to find that she was another Mary. Her name was Mary Swift Jones, a dark-haired, pale-faced young woman who had married a scion of a local ship-owning family. In her portrait she is dressed plainly in black, her appearance relieved only by a few touches of white lace at her throat and wrists, and the small bunch of flowers in her hand. Tranquil, formal, and elegant, she seemed a most unlikely person to have lived at sea on a sailing ship, and on shore in Oriental ports. However, that is exactly what happened. In 1858 Mary boarded the China-trade bark Mary & Louisa with her husband, the captain, and over the next three years the port of Kanagawa (now Yokohama) became almost as familiar to her as the village at home. And while she was away she wrote letters -- letters that have survived.
Here again was inspiration. Would it be possible to research and write a general account of captains' wives on merchant vessels, by allowing them to tell their own stories through their journals, reminiscences, and letters? They had traveled on all kinds of craft, ranging from the schooners and brigs that plied the coasts, to clippers, downeasters, and windjammers in the blue-water trades, so that the book would have to be as far-reaching as many of their voyages. It would have to begin with those who sailed on voyages that were much more prosaic than Mary Swift Jones's, though, for that is where women's seafaring started.
In early settlements, an extensive coastal trade grew out of necessity. Wherever roads were primitive and communication difficult, men, women, and older children loaded the produce of their orchards and farms into small sloops and schooners, and sailed off to market. When their own crops had been disposed of, they bought cargoes on speculation, or carried goods for a fee. There were thousands of these humble craft, far outnumbering the glamorous oceangoing packets, clippers, windjammers, and downeasters, like the bark that Mary Swift Jones sailed upon, that most modern people picture when they think of the Age of Sail. In effect, the little coasters were floating trucks, for they freighted necessary but prosaic cargoes such as stone, salt, coal, clay, sugar, manufactured goods, cotton, and barrel staves from producer to consumer, as well as the harvests of both sea and land. Every waterside hamlet had its pier, complete with a shed where cargoes could be stored, and most had a small shipyard as well.
And it was only logical that the wives and daughters of the men who sailed this multitude of water-borne drays should sail along with them, cooking and cleaning, dealing in butter, eggs, preserves, rendered lard, and salted meat, just as they would at home or on the farm. However, I had no luck at all in finding anything that had been written by the women who sailed along on these short journeys, not even a daybook, or financial account of goods sold and deals made, even though I knew they had done it. I could only assume that this kind of voyaging was such an everyday matter, and the accounts so brief and matter-of-fact, that no one had bothered to keep records.
And that was when history tapped me on the shoulder again. My husband, Ron, a maritime artist, was offered a long-term residency by the William Steeple Davis Trust in Orient, and so we came to Long Island to live.
William Steeple Davis, only son of a couple named Charles and Carrie Davis, and only grandson of Captain William Smith Hubbard and the village midwife, Jane Hubbard, was a noted maritime artist and pioneer photographer who bequeathed the Hubbard-Davis cottage to a trust for the use of artists, a legacy that included a stock of family papers. With this were four diaries kept by Carrie Hubbard Davis, the artist's mother. As a maritime historian, I did not expect to be more than personally interested when I started to peruse those journals. In fact, I began to read them out of idle curiosity, because I was living in the writer's house, and continued only because of the fascinating glimpse they afforded me into the life of a young woman in a rural Long Island hamlet in the period between 1870 and 1884.
And then, one day, while I was idly perusing the third of Carrie's diaries, it came as an almost unbelievable shock to read the entry for a Friday in March, in the year 1878. There, in her small neat script, Carrie had penned the matter-of-fact message, "I started with Charlie and pa on a Trip in the vessel."
The vessel! Here, for the first time in more than a decade of researching nineteenth-century seafaring women, firsthand documentation of a woman's coasting lay before me. As an experience, it was perfectly magical.
It was like a marvelous and most unexpected gift. Not only had this intriguing young woman lived in the same house as I did, but she was a sister sailor, too. Carrie's voyages might have been short, unexciting ones, but she had a lot in common with the women who sailed on bigger ships, to much more far-off seas. Like Mary Swift Jones, she knew the slap of spray on her face, and the problems of getting around on a tossing deck. Carrie knew the problems of freights and markets, too, and had friends in another port, even if it was just Norwich, Connecticut, on the far side of Long Island Sound. The schooner she sailed upon, the Jacob S. Ellis, was only rated at twelve tons, more than thirty times smaller than the bark Mary & Louisa, but it was just as much part of the family business -- more so, in fact, for the family share in the schooner had been purchased by Carrie's mother, Jane Culver Hubbard, the village midwife and layer-out of the dead. The East End of Long Island was one of the few places in the world at that time where women could not only own property, but could bequeath it to their daughters.
Now, at last, I had to hand the whole experience of the captains' wives and daughters who went to sea, whatever the range or trade of the ships on which they sailed. Somehow, it was no surprise to find that the same society that owned Mary Swift Jones's legacy of seafaring had catalogued several lengthy, poetically written journals and many letters penned by yet another Mary -- Mary Satterly, also of Setauket, who married Captain Henry Rowland in the fall of 1852 and accompanied him to sea for the whole of her twenty-four-year marriage.
Like Carrie Davis, Mary Rowland sailed in the coasting trade, sailing first in the schooner Stephen H. Townsend. Unlike Carrie, however, she moved on into much bigger ships, as her husband's voyages took him much farther afield in search of cargoes and profit. "Remarks On board Brig Thomas W. Rowland, H. L. Rowland Master," begins the first diary in the collection, which recounts Mary Rowland's fourth voyage to sea. The date of that first entry was October 16, 1855, and the brig was leaving New York for Buenos Aires, "with a full Cargo of Merchandise and Lumber." With Mary and her husband were their two-year-old daughter, Mary Emma, and an infant, Henrietta. "So ends this day and all is well," wrote Mary. "Baby is three weeks old and grows finely at sea," she serenely noted two days later.
Voyaging under these circumstances seems a most remarkable challenge, but Mary was not alone, being only one of a great multitude of women who took up the same strange existence in the blue-water trade, surviving storms, visiting exotic ports, giving birth at sea, raising children on shipboard, and socializing with other wives at scarce intervals. Yet these were ordinary, conservative, middle-class women, certainly not rebels or adventurers. Many came from coastal communities with a tradition of seafaring, which could have made the choice of sailing easier. It is striking how often the women were related to each other by birth or marriage, too. Nevertheless, seafaring was an extraordinary proposition for a nineteenth-century lady -- and "lady" was the word of preference when the captains' wives were describing themselves or their friends. Even their costume was against them. For most of the century it took ten yards to make a skirt, and every decent woman wore a corset, while crinolines, hoops, and bustles came in and out of fashion, and vast amounts of time were devoted to the trimming of a bonnet.
And, just like the whaling wives, these seafarers on deepwater merchant ships liked "to scratch a few lines" when time hung heavily on their hands, so that a fund of journals, diaries, letters, and memoirs speak for the voyagers, in a testimony to endurance and courage. While the great majority of these documents have been lost, hundreds have survived, telling tales so personal and immediate that we can almost feel for ourselves the wide spectrum of emotions -- fear, pain, anger, love, and heartbreak -- experienced by the writers. And so their stories can be fully told, described in the words that they chose.
Copyright © 1998 by Joan Druett