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Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Pioneering whaling wife

In this, my first Nautical Blog Hop post, I reveal the story of a young woman who blazed a trail for the hundreds of "sister sailors" who followed her ...


On November 4th, 1845, a whaleship sailed out of the port of Stonington, Connecticut, with a woman on board.  This was the whaleship Tiger, and the woman was 22-year-old Mary Brewster, wife of Captain William Brewster.  And Mary’s foster mother was so angry when she saild that she told her never to darken her door again. 

If Mary felt any doubts about her eccentric decision to sail on a whaler, she certainly did not admit it.  "In coming my own conscience tells me I was doing right," she wrote, "so what do I care about the opinion of the world?"  Her reasons were plain - in four years of marriage she had spent just five months with her much adored husband - and for her, those reasons were sufficient.  Much of her journal, in fact, is devoted to how much she loved and admired him. And indeed, when you look at his portrait, he was a very attractive young man.

She had plenty of chances to regret her decision to sail. Mary's territory on board the Tiger consisted of a narrow stateroom to share with her husband, a narrow stern cabin to sit and sew in, a cramped mess cabin where she shared meals with four rough and clumsy male strangers, and the after part of a cluttered deck, because ladies definitely never visited the forward part of the ship.  Add the smell of bilge and the wild tossing of a stormy passage about Cape Horn -- or being becalmed, which was almost worse -- and the picture is about complete, lacking only the hostile natives, uncharted reefs and pugilistic whales that awaited.
Little wonder, then, that up until that year of 1845, very few whaling skippers had asked their wives to sail. In fact, the whaling captains who met Mary during the mid-ocean visits that whalemen called "gams" were very impressed -- so impressed that when they got back home they ordered their wives to come along the next voyage.  William Tower, for instance, was "very much surprised to see a lady on board," according to Mary's journal -- and next voyage he carried along his Betsy.  One can imagine him saying, "If Mary Brewster can do it, so can Betsy Tower."

Meanwhile, though, there were very few wives on the water, and so it wasn't until October 7th, 1846, almost a full year after departing from home, that Mary Brewster met another whaling wife, Sarah Frisbie Gray - the wife of Captain Slumon Gray of the Stonington whaleship Newburyport. 

It was in Lahaina, Maui, in the Hawaiian Islands - which were called the Sandwich Islands, back then.  "Called on Mrs. Gray," wrote Mary.  "Whom I was very happy to meet.  She was a sister sailor," she said, and so a phrase was coined, one that the "sister sailors" themselves liked to use. 

The Tiger sailed away from Maui to whale in the Californian lagoons, but in March 1847 was back in Maui, and this time William Brewster left Mary on shore for a six-month marooning, while he took the Tiger to the North-West Coast without her assistance.  No reason was given for his decision, and Mary was both offended and angry.  She had sailed to be with her husband, not to wait about on a farflung Pacific island while he suffered all kinds of lonely privations chasing whales! 

 On August 24, however, her beloved William was back at Lahaina -- "Oh, the joy of such moments will never be forgotten," exclaimed Mary in her journal, and her heart was truly rejoicing. "Whilst absent he has enjoyed good health, all well on board and the ship full [of oil]. What could I wish for more..." 

It was quite a shock to return on board, however, because her little cabin where she sewed on deck had been "given to the mates," her rocking chair was in a sad state on deck, "looking as if it was no stranger to weather," and her table was in the main top! "What works, says I -- Never mind, is the answer, the ship is full--"

But it meant that for the homeward passage Mary was confined to the mess table below, where we see her dutifully sewing (a job she absolutely hated).

The Tiger returned home in April 1848, and fourteen weeks later was off again, still with Mary on board.  She was horribly seasick, especially when the ship was becalmed, rolling sickeningly on a heavy swell, but she never regretted her decision to sail with her adored William ... and because of her pioneering example, hundreds of her "sister sailors" took up the same strange existence, spending years on end at the mercy of the calms and gales and the nauseating waves.

Mary Brewster's journals are held at Mystic Seaport Museum.  They were also published, as "She Was a Sister Sailor," edited by Joan Druett (me).


Margaret Muir said...

A very enjoyable read, thank you. I look forward to more.

Linda Collison said...

Your books about whaling wives and "hen frigate" merchant ships inspired me so, when I first came across them. Thanks for keeping their collective and individual memories alive. Women's voices are too often lost in history, and they become unheard and invisible as the years past.

Joan Druett said...

Thank you, Linda and Margaret. I was inspired once by a lecturer who began his talk by saying, "The history of women is about queens and whores." Quite a challenge, don't you think? I'm glad that writers like Linda are picking up the baton.

Ann Victoria Roberts said...

Brave women - they certainly deserve to be better known. Might interest you to know that they had sisters in Whitby UK - also a whaling port, although whether wives sailed aboard the whalers, I wouldn't like to say. Certainly they travelled with their Master Mariner husbands on trading voyages to northern Europe. Thank you for a most interesting post!