Recalling The Woman’s Experience on Whaleships In Honor of Women’s History Month
By Nomi Dayan, Executive Director of The Whaling Museum & Education Center, Cold Spring Harbor
“It is no place for a woman,” wrote Captain James Haviland on the Baltic in 1856, “on board of a whaleship.”
The long saga of hunting whales, one of Long Island’s most historically prominent industries, was unquestionably viewed as man’s world. Whalers were exclusively male, and their lives were fraught with dangers and hardships, cramped and filthy living conditions, rowdy company, monotonous life, and risky circumstances. No wonder Irish traveler John Ross Browne wrote in 1846, “There is no class of men in the world who are so unfairly dealt with, so oppressed, so degraded, as the seamen who man the vessels engaged in the American whale fishery.”
These conditions did not extend into the prescribed separate domestic sphere of “the fair sex.” The 19th century saw sharp gender roles for men and women, and Ladies were supposed to be pious, graceful, passive, pure, and focused on children and homemaking. The male-dominated industry relied on family members to manage life ashore during their long absences, which could extend three to four years. Women who remained home suddenly found themselves as lone masters of their households. They maintained their families as single parents, took care of elderly parents, paid the bills (or lived on credit), tended to any farming, and waited with wifely devotion. To help make money during their husbands’ absence, some women became entrepreneurs, running inns, becoming teachers, or serving as midwives. Women also formed deep relationships within their own female society, using a network of communal support to fill the void created by their temporary abandonment.
The life of a whaling wife was undoubtedly a lonely one, almost like that of a widow. She would ache for the day her husband would retire. But as time went on, some women found themselves incapable of enduring the separation anymore, and a number of captain’s wives broke boundaries by deciding to do what no woman had done before: join their husbands at sea. One can understand their impetus when looking at Azubah Cash of Nantucket. She had been with her husband for half a year out of 11-year marriage, spurring her to sail with him on his next voyage.
More often than not, these wives were not renegades and rebels. They simply preferred the discomforts of life at sea to years of separation at home, defying convention which placed the woman’s role in the home, and became trailblazers by necessity. In the early 19th century, whaling wives were rare, as such behavior was unladylike. But as the industry boomed in numbers – and voyages grew in length of years - an increasing number of women made the decision to endure long and difficult years at sea, either with or without their children, showing remarkable endurance and courage. By the 1850’s, one out of six whaleships carried the captain’s wife aboard. These vessels were nicknamed “hen frigates.”
A whaling wife on board would still spend her time waiting - not for her husband’s return, but instead for the ship to fill up with oil. She would not take part in the whaling process, other than casually spotting a whale; instead she would fill her days educating her children, reading, washing clothes, sewing, writing in her diary, and cross-stitching while confined in cramped quarters to pass the long hours. While a separate cook was hired to oversee meals for the crew, she may have prepared special treats. Some wives learned how to navigate, including Maria Cartwright Baldwin of Shelter Island, who learned to take the helm. Others made efforts to bring religion to the crew.
The crew were commonly pleased to have a woman aboard. Wives often served as nurses, a valuable role in a place where sickness and injury, some severe, were common. Women also had a calming effect on the seagoing male society; their presence made it more likely holidays would be observed, and if the captain punished a crew member, he might do so less harshly. Children could be also be a welcome distraction from the flat monotony of life at sea. However, there were instances where crew members did show frustration and resentment when family life inevitably disturbed what financially mattered – catching as many whales as possible in the shortest amount of time possible.
Once whaling wives were socially accepted, captains often celebrated their companionship and closeness. Captain Henry Gardiner of Quogue missed his wife Polly so much that he often doodled her name in the margins of the ship’s logbook, or daily record. She joined him on the next voyage, where she cross-stitched a sampler which is currently on view at the Whaling Museum in Cold Spring Harbor, which she dated, “Bound to the Pacific Ocean in the ship Dawn. March 16, 1828.”
Whaling wives’ diaries are powerful testaments to the hardships they endured, including illness, boredom, violent seasickness, powerful storms, dangerous whaling grounds, frightening mutinies, and death. Conditions at sea left much to be desired, with rampant fleas, roaches, and rodents. Sarah Eliza Jennings of Sag Harbor was aboard the Mary Gardiner which was chased by a Confederate raider, a frightening ordeal, and Elizabeth White of Cold Spring Harbor was aboard the Courser when it was rammed by a steamship and sunk off the coast of Chile in 1873. Several Long Island whaleships were caught in an early Arctic freeze in 1871, and wives and their children escaped onto the ice with the crew (all were rescued).
Whaling wives’ diaries also reflect the excitement of the rare chance to socialize with women who happened to be passing by on other whaleships, an experience called gamming. The opportunity was a chance to catch up on news and fill the tremendous void of social contact. Even with their husbands at sea, seagoing wives - known for their propriety - faced social isolation as the only woman on board. When seagoing wife Eliza William’s brother in law was asked what her success at sea could be attributed to, he replied “always minding her own business.”
When wives found themselves “in circumstance,” they were often conveniently deposited in Hawaii for several months while the crew continued on. Interestingly, a society of whaling wives grew there, forming a social network and domestic circle. They helped each other with births, circulated crochet patterns, and shared each other’s company.
Martha S. Brewer Brown (1821-1911) of Oysterponds spent time in Hawaii. After the agonizing choice to leave her two-year-old daughter with relatives, she sailed with her husband, Edwin Peter Brown, who was one of Long Island’s most successful whaling captains of all time: on one voyage, he filled his ship with 1,500 barrels of oil in 363 days, circling the globe without dropping anchor and setting a world record. Martha unhappy and resentful at being left in Hawaii to give birth. “My husband left me in one of the most unpleasant situation a Lady can be left in, without her husband, among strangers, with the request that I would do my [clothes] washing myself – a thing which no other American Lady does, not even the mission Ladies,” she wrote in her diary. She forbade her husband to leave her for whaling again, but he did.
Eliza Edwards of Sag Harbor was another brave soul to join her husband, Captain Eli H. Edwards, at sea in 1857. She too lived in Hawaii for a time, becoming close friends with other women there, while the crew continued on to the Okhotsk Sea. Her letters expound on Hawaiian life at the time and are in Mystic Seaport Museum’s collection.
Some mothers raised their children at sea for prolonged periods of time. Caroline Rose (the “Belle of Southampton”) sailed with her husband, Captain Jetur Rose, for 15 years. One cabin boy called the couple “the finest people he had ever met.” Caroline gave birth to her only child, Emma, in Honolulu in 1856, who was raised at sea. Emma logged thousands of miles before her 13th birthday. When a missionary came on board to try to educate Emma, claiming “no one on a whaler knew anything,” Emma stated, “I know the Ten Commandments and multiplication table, and that is enough for any little girl to know.”
Mothers certainly had to deal with the ordeal of children falling sick at sea. Elizabeth Jones of Setauket on the Tri-Mountain cared for five children who came down with measles at sea, all at the same time (all the children recovered).
Aside from whaling wives, other “sister sailors” joined their husbands at sea on coastal traders, such as Mary Satterly of Setauket, who spent her 24-year marriage at sea with her husband, Captain Henry Rowland, starting in 1852.
Compared to other regions, whaling wives from Long Island were relatively infrequent because the wife-travelling trend was not synced with the area’s earlier decrease of local whaling companies. But even when women were not physically present on whaleships, their presence remained ubiquitous in another way. To fill idle hours at sea, whalers carefully carved scrimshaw, painstakingly etching images on whale teeth and bones. One of the most widespread themes is a fancy, beautifully dressed woman. Some pieces depict sweethearts or female relatives; others were copied out of advertisements; others were dreamy, classy, high-society fantasies conjured by men who had not seen a woman in months (as well as not having bathed in months).
It is a treat today to be able to gaze at these women, who stare back at us from the surface of a tooth. Frozen in their cold medium of bone, they challenge us to rethink our own assumptions today: is there a ship would we rather be on?
On View at the Museum in March: