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.
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!
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).