American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

WOMEN AT SEA. Women’s sea narratives exist in far fewer numbers than narratives written by men. Nevertheless, it has always been possible to find women at sea. Most often they have traveled aboard ship as passengers, servants, or slaves. The overwhelming majority of these women left no record of their experiences at sea, but there are glimpses of them in naval and customs records, in men’s logbooks and journals, and especially in the memorials of other female seafarers.

Women before 1700 would have been unable to set down their own experiences at sea. William Bradford did not acknowledge the women and children aboard the Mayflower in Of Plimoth Plantation (1856). However, Jonathan Dickinson’s narrative of the shipwreck of the Reformation on the coast of Florida, God’s Protecting Providence (1699), recounted the sufferings of his wife, infant son, and female slaves, although he seldom referred to them by name.

Janet Schaw, a Scottish gentlewoman, recorded her real sympathy for the penniless indentured servants living in crowded and unsanitary conditions belowdecks as she traveled in relative comfort on the Jamaica Packet on the eve of the American Revolution. The spoiled rations they were given scarcely diverted starvation, and their few possessions were ruined in a violent storm. The cries of the afflicted women spilled onto the pages of her private diary, published much later as Journal of a Woman of Quality (1934).

English women forged the path for Americans to follow. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s travel narratives, the missionary activities of the Messrs. Judson in Burma, even cross-dressing accounts of female marine Hannah Snell and Royal Navy shipwright Mary Lacy were published in America after 1790. These and other European publications influenced the development of American women’s travel narratives, missionary accounts, and sea stories.

Shipwreck* narratives written by women began to be published in America after 1800. In an extreme example, Ann Saunders aboard the drifting Mary Francis drank the blood of her dead fiance and butchered corpses for distribution to the living while praying earnestly for rescue (Narrative of the Shipwreck and Sufferings of Miss Ann Saunders... [1827]). As in other shipwreck narratives by men and women published during the Second Great Awakening, Saunders presented her rescue from the gruesome ordeal as an example of divine providence and a religious exhortation to unredeemed sinners.

The majority of women’s shipwreck narratives printed in America before 1830, however, concern European women shipwrecked or taken by pirates* off the coast of North Africa. Although these are almost certainly spurious, verified accounts of Englishwomen captives in North Africa go back to the seventeenth century. Two publications, History of the Captivity and Sufferings of Maria Martin (c.1806) and Authentic Narrative of the Shipwreck and Sufferings of Mrs. Eliza Bradley (1820), went into at least ten editions each before the Civil War. They employ some of the conventional literary techniques of the Indian captivity narrative and the Gothic novel. The books parallel genuine accounts published during this period by American seamen captured by Barbary pirates or shipwrecked on the inhospitable Sahara coast and enslaved by wandering tribesmen.

By convention, a woman went to sea because of a man, and she almost always forsook the sea when united with her true love. The Female Marine (1815) tells of the adventures of one Lucy Baker or Lucy Brewer* on the Constitution during the War of 1812, who went to sea disguised as a man to escape life in a brothel after being abandoned by her lover. Like the real-life heroine, Deborah Sampson, who served in Washington’s army and published an embellished account of it, this fictional heroine was an active patriot. Her naval career in the fighting top contrasted with the passive roles usually relegated to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century women.

Military and civil records show that a few women did masquerade as seamen, only admitting the deception when forced to by circumstance. Susannah Stark’s recent study of Female Tars (1997) points to real economic advantages for the successfully disguised female sailor as well as for the unofficial contingent of wives and mistresses who sometimes accompanied British and French naval vessels into battle during the Napoleonic Wars. Documentable American examples are extremely rare. As a literary device, masquerading as a man and going to sea certainly offered adventurous women a chance to escape restrictive social conventions and embrace a life of relative freedom. Lucy Brewer, disguised as “George” of the Constitution, patronized the brothel from which she had lately escaped. “George” also championed a defenseless girl by offering to fight a duel with her assailant, although later Lucy is supposed to have married the girl’s brother.

Journal keeping and letter writing were common among middle-class women and men in the nineteenth century. As travel and relocation increasingly separated loved ones, diaries or journals became long, chronological letters to be read by distant family and friends as a way of sharing experiences. Mary Brewster cited separation as a compelling incentive at the beginning of her long journal aboard the whaler Tiger. The pleasure that she and her husband would take in rereading it later on seemed even sweeter (“She Was a Sister Sailor” [1992]). For religious women, journeys as recorded in their journals were infused with spiritual significance. In a century of unprecedented change, some women and men believed that they personally witnessed unique events that it was their duty to describe for posterity.

Women travelers included female missionaries and teachers as well as ladies accompanying male relatives to assignments overseas. During the nineteenth century, captain’s wives joined their husbands on board vessels with increasing frequency. Some, particularly the wives of whaling captains, visited little-known Pacific islands and, in cities like Hong Kong, Calcutta, Cape Town, Honolulu, and Singapore, created permanent English-speaking communities for congenial female society. Captain’s wives sometimes encountered old acquaintances on shore and happy was the reunion that brought with it recent news from home.

In 1829 Abby Jane Morrell,* at twenty already a seasoned mariner’s wife, was determined to accompany her husband, Captain Benjamin Morrell* of the schooner Antarctic* to the Pacific. Her Narrative of a Voyage...

(1833) followed her husband’s Narrative of Four Voyages (1832), attracting better sales; their 1829-1831 expedition aboard the Antarctic is unique for being recorded in print by both a captain and his wife. Although she followed the well-established masculine form, Abby Jane’s perspective is distinctly feminine. Reflections on female missionaries in India and the Pacific show her fervent admiration of English and American women active in God’s service. Unfortunately, both her book and her husband’s were ghostwritten, so the amount of credit that either deserves may never be clear.

Thirty years later, the wife of an American official in China, Mrs. H. Dwight Williams, declared that travel by sailing ship was usually uninteresting. Returning to America, however she was outraged to be taken prisoner when the Jacob Bell was captured and burned by the Confederate commerce raider Florida. This unexpected denouement, told in the last chapter of A Year in China (1864), exhibited the perfidy of the Confederate navy to sympathetic Northern readers. Mrs. Williams berated Captain Maffit and his crew for plundering her possessions but solicited his advice on marine insurance.

Manuscript diaries, letters, and journals reflect the true nature of shipboard routine. Long periods of monotony were occasionally punctuated by violent storms, sickness, injury, or sudden death. Women passengers, including the captain’s wife, were kept by class divisions and social custom aft of the mainmast and discouraged from talking to common sailors. A visit from the captain’s wife would have intruded on the sailors’ privacy and undermined discipline by shortening the social distance between forecastle and cabin. For female passengers on long sea voyages and especially for the captain’s family, virtual isolation could be the result.

Since the 1930s, several manuscripts from the days of sail preserved in public and private collections have been edited and published by family members, historical societies, and popular presses. Social historians in the 1960s found that women’s experiences at sea provided windows on both women’s history and sea history. Not only did they illustrate how individual women interpreted, negotiated, and sometimes circumvented society’s rules, but they added subtleties of gender to the interplay of class and power in a vessel’s masculine hierarchy. More manuscripts have been published since 1990 than ever before, as readers discover an interest in the mundane topics that nineteenth-century women authors who wrote about the sea avoided as commonplace and even vulgar.

Women diarists include the lively Ruth Bradford, en route to China on the Julia S. Tyler, who disdained seasickness and laughed at being tossed out of her bunk during storms but was laid low by the common shipboard malaise of boredom (Maskee! [1938]). Many captains’ wives had much to do. Some of them cleaned their own quarters, did their own laundry, and cared for their children, and almost all of them sewed. Dorothea Balano particularly hated doing laundry and cursed the task in her journal on board the schooner R. W Hopkins (The Log of the Skipper’s Wife* [1978]). She also treated marital sex with disarming candor in her diary and wrote bitterly of the pregnancy she aborted at her husband’s insistence. Reading, journal keeping, and letter writing regularly occupied women at sea. To Mary Chip- man Lawrence of the whaler Addison, even old letters from home were welcome reading (The Captain’s Best Mate [1966]).

Eliza Williams became pregnant twice during a single long voyage of the whaler Florida. The captain of a vessel served as physician to the crew and midwife when necessary; Thomas Williams safely delivered both babies (One Whaling Family [1964]). In contrast, Martha Smith Brewer Brown, wife of the master of the whaler Lucy Ann, longed for her husband when she delivered their son in Honolulu. He was whaling in the Arctic,* and Martha was befriended during her confinement by another whaling wife, Mrs. Slumon Gray (She Went A-Whaling [1993]).

Grown-up children who went to sea were among the last to write memoirs of the great days of sail. Children did not suffer the same restrictions as adult women, often having the run of the vessel and becoming favorites of the crew. The authors recalled childhood amusements and embarrassments, the thrill of storms, the fun of exploring, the kindness of the sailors. In these nostalgic reminiscences, Mother was always beautiful and gentle, Father always tall and capable. For Lucy Brown Reynolds in Drops of Spray from Southern Seas (1896), the loss of her mother after a lingering illness on board the Cadet seemed to symbolize both the loss of childhood innocence and the inevitable demise of seafaring. For Alice Rowe Snow of the bark Russell (Log of a Sea Captain’s Daughter [1944]), the parent who died was her father, Captain Joshua Rowe. A few men wrote about childhood experiences at sea, but in this form of sea literature with its roots in the Colonial Revival, women set the example.

During the nineteenth century, women’s literature presented life at sea positively or as morally instructive. Ultimately, these books reinforced social expectations about class divisions and women’s roles. Even in recently published diaries women usually like to be at sea in spite of danger, discomfort, and occasional marital discord. Unpublished manuscripts, though, are often more ambiguous or even negative: some women hated the sea. When Harriet Bliven abruptly left the whaler Nautilus for home, her husband, continuing her journal, was inconsolable. Joan Druett’s 3 monographs, Petticoat Whalers (1991), Hen Frigates (1998), and She Captains: Heroines and Hellions of the Sea (2000), compiled from many published and unpublished sources listed in her bibliographies, present a balanced composite of the best, the worst, and the routine in family life at sea during the age of sail.

Of all the captains’ wives who took command of a vessel, Mary Patten’s story, told in Hen Frigates, is perhaps best known. In 1856 the slight young woman took command of the Neptune’s Car after her husband succumbed to brain fever. She navigated safely around Cape Horn* in gales that made other vessels turn back, while also tending to her husband, and remained in her clothes for over fifty days straight. In San Francisco she received adulation from the press and public, becoming a reluctant example for woman’s rights activists. Joshua Patten soon died, however. Mary Patten developed tuberculosis and died within a few years of her husband.

As woman’s rights became more of a reality after World War I, women’s prospects began to change. Electa Johnson, the wife of Irving Johnson,* became his partner and coauthor during global sailing adventures aboard their schooner Yankee* (Westward Bound in the Schooner Yankee [1936]). Tania Aebi became the first American woman and the youngest individual to sail alone around the world. Her memoir, Maiden Voyage (1989), is a woman’s coming-of-age story. While men, especially her father, form a large part of her narrative on land, Aebi confronted the sea independently, wrestling with it until the sea became a mentor teaching competence and understanding.

Women slowly began to enter modern maritime industries after the social upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s. Pragmatically, some wanted wages higher than those offered for traditional women’s occupations. They also responded to the personal challenge, the elation of adventure, the sense of freedom on the water, the camaraderie of shipmates, the love of a spirited vessel, the communion of self with the sea—the same qualities attractive to men.

Some of these pioneers have written books. Nancy Taylor Robson (Woman in the Wheelhouse [1985]) served as a deckhand and later a licensed mate aboard tugboats until grounded by pregnancy. Leslie Leyland Fields continued shore fishing off Kodiak, Alaska, even after the birth of her child altered her relationship to the work. The Entangling Net (1997) weaves her story with those of other women fishermen on the Alaska coast. Linda Greenlaw spent eighteen years as a commercial fisherman, the first fifteen on swordfishing boats; she tells her story in The Hungry Ocean (1999). Deborah Doane Dempsey, the first woman to receive a seagoing master’s license, commanded the Lyra, a government-chartered transport, during the Persian Gulf conflict. Later she received a presidential commendation for preventing that same ship from grounding off the Carolina coast (The Captain’s a Woman [1998]).

Men still play a role in women’s life and work at sea, although an ambiguous one. Some women face a tough time gaining acceptance from male shipmates who resent female intrusion. They reluctantly put up with insults in order to fit in. Others encounter subtle resistance from traditional authorities. Marriage and children skew the balance of work and home. Dempsey’s husband, also a seagoing master, proved to be her lasting mentor and supporter. Robson’s husband and most frequent captain encouraged her advancement from deckhand to mate, and Fields married into a fishing family, but motherhood fundamentally altered their priorities, dividing their loyalties between home and the sea in a way that nineteenth-century captain’s wives would understand.

Families who serve the sea have always striven for a balance between work and home, with society frequently determining where the balance point should be in terms of gendered responsibilities. During the last twenty years, studies of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century women at sea have been published right along with contemporary women’s sea narratives. Women’s sea literature has always reflected time and place, social values and concerns, no less so than during this era of debate on the nature of gender and the status of women. [See also CIRCUMNAVIGATIONS AND BLUE-WATER PASSAGES; CRUISING LITERATURE; JOURNALS AND LOGBOOKS; SEA-DELIVERANCE NARRATIVES; WHALING NARRATIVES]

FURTHER READING: Creighton, Margaret S., and Lisa Norling, eds. Iron Men, Wooden Women: Gender and Seafaring in the Atlantic World, 1700-1920. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1996; Druett, Joan. Hen Frigates. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998; Druett, Joan. Petticoat Whalers. New York: HarperCollins, 1991; Druett, Joan. She Captains: Heroines and Hellions of the Sea. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000; Robinson, Jane. Wayward Women. New York: Oxford UP, 1990; Stark, Suzanne J. Female Tars. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute P, 1996.

Karen Alexander