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Friday, February 6, 2009

A very Interesting Life

The Oxford Dictionary of Biography has a more-than-interesting life featured today.
This is of a favorite character of mine, Ann Jane Thornton. I wrote about her -- and the ballad she inspired -- in She Captains, my study of enterprising females in the history of seafaring.
I will unfold a circumstance that does to love belong
Concerning of a pretty maid who ventur'd we are told
Across the briny ocean as a female sailor bold.

In February 1835, 16-year-old Ann Jane Thornton was summoned by the Lord Mayor of London, who had read about her strange career at sea. He wondered if she had been mistreated, so also summoned her erstwhile boss, Captain McIntire of the Sarah.

He had met Ann in St. Andrews in North America, McIntire testified. She had been dressed as a sailor, and he had given her the job of cook and steward, for the fair wage of nine dollars a month under the impression that she was a lad. The crew, he said, had been suspicious about that, on account of she wouldn't sink her grog like a man. Then they glimpsed her rounded form as she washed herself in her berth.

Her sex was then discovered which the secret did unfold
And the captain gaz'd with wonder on the female sailor bold

Well, the ship was in the middle of the Atlantic, the sea was rugged, and McIntire needed every hand, so he told her to carry on as before. The crew was unhappy about that, because she couldn't work like a man, they reckoned, even when helped along with the occasional clout. Ann made no complaints, and McIntire had nothing to complain about, either. She would run up to furl the topgallant sail in any kind of weather, he said, and in his opinion would make a capital seaman -- if a man.

With pitch and tar her hands were hard, tho' once like velvet soft
She weighed the anchor, heav'd the lead and boldly went aloft
Just one and thirty months she braved the tempest we are told
And always did her duty, did the female sailor bold

The Lord Mayor was naturally intrigued. Why had she chosen this strange career? Ah, it was love - love was the problem. At the tender age of 13 she had become besotted with an American shipmaster, Alexander Burk, and when he sailed she dressed as a cabin boy and worked her passage to join him -- to find that he had died.

That her love had been dead some time they to her did unfold
Which very near broke the heart, of this female sailor bold

To get home to Ireland, Ann had shipped on a couple of vessels as cook, but it wasn't until she met McIntire that she found a craft that was heading in the right direction. But now she was stranded in London -- because she hadn't been paid. McIntire had weasled out of it, claiming that the law only required him to pay seamen, not sea-ladies. Profoundly touched, the Mayor gave her enough money to rejoin her father in Donegal, and that is the last we hear of her.

It was love caused all her troubles and hardships we are told
May she rest at home contented now, the female sailor bold.

Maybe the ODB will publish the interesting life of Elizabeth Stephens next. She was another to go to sea as a cook, and do a seaman's duties, too, only she didn't cross dress to do it. She went to court in December 1821 to file a suit against Captain Chandler, master of the Jane and Matilda, for monies dues for three voyage between England and Spain. He, like McIntire, got away with it because of her sex. Nothing in the law said that he had to pay a woman for doing a man's work.

Think about it. If getting one's rightful pay depended on being taken for a man, it was a good reason for cross-dressing -- and for being sure not to be found out.


caitlynisawesome said...

Great post Joan!

I'm a MA student at Wayne State University, and I'm writing my thesis on female sailors. Your work is a huge part of my research and I just want to thank you!

Joan Druett said...

That's great news. One writes books, and sends them out into the world like little boats, and never really knows what happens to them after that. Glad they are of use, and good luck with researching and describing those remarkable women.