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Friday, January 13, 2012

Think the Colonial Sea was a Man's Domain??

We've all read history books and heard tales of male pirates, privateers, explorers, and navy men, but rarely have we heard stories of the large numbers of women who went to sea.  Why is that?  One reason is that from earliest times, superstitious sailors insisted that women on board brought nothing but bad luck.

Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood wrote in 1808 "I never knew a woman brought to sea in a ship that some mischief did not befall the vessel."

Another reason, however, is that women on board ships were virtual ghosts. They were not listed on muster roll, nor were their deaths recorded in ships' records, even though in most cases, they performed vital tasks aboard the ship.




Despite that, we now know that hundreds of women boarded ships with their husbands, choosing a difficult life at sea rather then bear living as widows ashore for years at a time.  And a difficult life it was! Especially if you were the wife of a regular seaman in the navy.  These women were not provided rations of food, but were forced to share their husband's daily allowance. They also had to share their husband's hammock located in the cramped quarters allotted to the rest of the crew.  There was no privacy whatsoever!! I wouldn't last a day!  In the morning when the boatswain's mate went around to wake up the sleeping crew, he would shout "show a leg"! and the women would push a limb outside of their blankets so he could see what gender they were and not tip over the hammock to wake a sleeping sailor!

However, if you were the wife of an officer (and especially the Captain), your life on board was far better. You were permitted to share your husband's tiny cabin and perhaps even have the service of a cabin boy who, much like a house servant, polished shoes, ran errands, and did a variety of tasks for you.  As the wife of an officer you were permitted to eat with the officers and enjoy a varied diet of fresh meats, delicacies and wines.  But life on board could be very lonely. While your husband was busy running the ship, you had to find something to pass the long hours. Many women brought sewing and crafts on board, as well as books and scrapbooks.

Here's an account of Susan Hathorn who joined her husband Jode as a new bride and sailed with him for nine months, She spent 75 days sewing, 35 days embroidering, 23 days laundering, 19 days mending, 18 days crocheting, 15 days knitting, 13 days leather working, 10 days housekeeping, 9 days quilting, 4 days scrap-booking, 3 days copying receipts for cooking and 2 days rug-braiding.  Susan was also a prolific reader. Some of her books included Lord Byron, Thomas Moore, and Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Some wives assisted in the running of the ship, from helping out during battle, to repairing sails, to cooking, and to doctoring.  Recalling the 1798 Battle of the Nile, a seaman wrote "The women behaved as well as the men. . .There are some of the women wounded and one woman belonging to Leith died of her wounds." Women assisted the surgeon and his mates in attending the wounded and even aided the gun crews as powder monkeys.

Nineteen year old Mary Ann Patten was on a honeymoon voyage when her husband became ill and was rendered both deaf and blind.  With the first mate in the brig for insubordination and the second mate unskilled in navigation, Mary, now pregnant with her first child, took over command of the ship, safely navigating it around dangerous Cape Horn and bringing them all safely to home port!

So the next time you think that the sea was only a man's domain, think again!

10 comments:

  1. WOW! I knew I was born in the wrong era! LOL! NO! I don't think I would have made it, then again us ladies do a lot of things we sometime think impossible. :) MaryLu when I read "The Reliance" one of my favorite parts was when Charlisse took over as Captain of Merrick's ship. I was cheering for her. Thanks for sharing this great tidbit of history.

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  2. You're so welcome, Teresa! I just love reading stories of women in history who defied the odds. And yes... I had SO MUCH fun writing that scene where Charlisse realizes she has to step up and be a pirate ship captain. Yikes!

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  3. A very thought provoking article, MaryLu! Women have had to pull their own weight, am more, for a long time. But we do overlook them as far as on board ships! Thanks!

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  4. LOVE this post, MaryLu! Susan and Mary Ann were certainly heroines in their own right! Love the list of all she got done on that voyage! I admire them so much for their willingness to go on their honeymoon voyages as it was so dangerous! Ah, what love will do...

    You also have a stellar post on action scenes that I just read. You are one busy author:)

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  5. I know.. can you imagine a honeymoon on board a ship with no running water, no toilet, no privacy.. and 200 men running around staring at you? No thanks. LOL

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  6. One of my favorite Jane Austen stories was 'Persuasion' which featured a Naval Officer's wife. She also relished accompanying her husband when he sailed.

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  7. Oh Boy, now you've tickled my creative. I have to research this :)
    Thanks for sharing, enjoyed the read

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  8. This was an eye-opener for me, MaryLu! How fascinating. But then women are often left off historical accounts for their bravery and involvement. And how brave to be pregnant and navigating a ship! I cannot imagine. Thank you for this intriguing post!

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  9. You're welcome, Ladies! Glad I tickled your creative juices. :-) And yes, I loved Jane Austen's Persuasion too! Well, I loved all her books, actually.

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  10. MaryLu, thanks for sharing about these wonderful women, we do know how to do what we have to do that is for sure.
    I loved Persuasion also and rewatched it not long ago on educational TV channel. I like reading about that era.
    ejoyed reading all the comments.
    Have a great weekend..
    Paula O

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