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Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The whaling wife who was marooned

Today's Nautical Blog-Hop seafaring whaling wife is ....


Martha first met her future husband, Edwin Peter Brown, when she was about 16 years old.  According to family legend, he was visiting Brooklyn, and looked out the window to see a girl crossing the street to the pump, carrying a pail to collect water.  "By Jolly, she's my wife, if I can get her," he said, and chased her relentlessly after that.  She did her best to spurn him, but finally consented to be courted after he consented to sign a temperance form and give up the demon booze for life, and they were married on May 23, 1843, when Martha was 21 years old. Then he went off on voyage, while she stayed with his family and hers.  In 1844, Edwin was home long enough to buy a two-story house, in Orient, Long Island, and father a daughter, who was born the following year. Then he went back to sea.
In 1847, Martha's life changed ... for the worse. She sailed with her husband on the Lucy Ann of Greenport, Long Island, leaving home on August 21, 1847 — because Edwin had told her to do it. Going on voyage wasn’t her idea at all. 

Almost every entry of her journal makes it apparent that she would have much rather been home with her little girl, Ella, whom she had been forced to leave behind.  Conditions on board might have been even grimmer than on the usual whaler, too, for Captain Brown's standards of health and hygiene were low.  My evidence for this is based on the fact Captain Brown prided himself on a voyage he had made in 1843, when he was in command of the bark Washington of Greenport.  Because he was so newly married, he had sworn to get home within the year.  And he did accomplish this remarkable feat, circling the world in 363 days without ever dropping the anchor.


Which means that the crew of thirty-odd men (one of whom painted the picture of the ship above) existed almost entirely on the salt provisions and fresh water that had been put on board in Greenport.  Some livestock would have been carried, but they would have been used up pretty fast.  Brown sent boats on shore in the Azores near the beginning of the voyage for fruit and vegetables, and ten months later he sent a boat on shore at Pernambuco to "smuggle 100 oranges on board."  Otherwise he took on no fresh provisions at all, and certainly never any fresh water.  It was a remarkable feat, worthy of some kind of pride.  It is even more amazing that his crew survived the ordeal.  It's a medical miracle that they didn't all die of that horrible diet-deficiency disease of the sea, scurvy.

So, Martha was risking more than shipwreck when Edwin decreed she should sail.  Nevertheless, she made the best of it, for she certainly loved her husband.  Being with her Edwin made it all reasonably worthwhile — but then, in April 1848, he left her on shore at Honolulu, to spend the summer there while he went off a-whaling in the Arctic.  She was marooned.

Edwin Brown did have what he thought was a very good reason, for Martha was pregnant.  Martha, on the other hand, did not think that this was a good reason at all.  Instead, she felt angry, extremely lonely, and very frightened about how she would cope. "This is not my home and I do not know of one here that I can call my friend," she accused Edwin in the journal she kept up while on shore. 

Worse still, Edwin was tight with his money, and didn't leave her with enough to get along in any degree of comfort.  Martha was forced to board some distance out of town, past the city slaughter-yards up Nuuanu Valley.  As Martha complained in her journal, it made it difficult for her to get together with her "sister sailor," Sarah Gray, whom she first met early in July, and found "a very agreeable companion."

Martha Brown and Sarah Gray had been left in very different circumstances.  "Capt. Gray told his wife when he left her to try to take comfort and enjoy herself, and as far as money and credit would go, not to scrimp herself," wrote Martha. 

Sarah took Slumon at his word.  Within ten days of arriving in Honolulu she had bought herself five new dresses — two of them costing five dollars, fifty cents each! — and that was just the start of a buying spree as she outfitted herself in handsome silks for balls, parties, and the King's levee. "She knows that her husband would wish it, so why should she hesitate?" wrote Martha, who was frankly envious. 

However, when the time for the baby's birth arrived, Sarah Gray gave up her fun for two whole weeks, delivering the infant and "doing" for Martha "as an own sister would have done." 

Naturally, both women "felt very bad," when the Jefferson sailed from Honolulu for home, Captain Slumon Gray having returned from the northern whaling ground in October. "The least I can say of her is I love her like a Sister," wrote Martha, and it was a friendship that endured after the women got home. 

In October 1848, after Sarah Gray had sailed away from Honolulu, Martha had to wait another month for her husband to come and collect her.  Captain Edwin Peter Brown was in no hurry at all, getting back so much later than the rest of the whaling fleet that Martha entertained grave fears of his safety. 

Altogether, it had been a pretty horrible experience. Little wonder, then, that on the homeward passage she wrote in a space she found in the ship's logbook, "Adieu to Whalegrounds and now for home and right glad am I.  And now my Dear," she added, "alow me to inform you that this is the last time you are to leave, or visit these waters which to you have become familliar according to your own assertions.  Martha."

Predictably, Captain Edwin Brown paid not a mite of attention.  He disobeyed her at least once, taking command of the New York California ship Amelia in 1852.  Martha did not go with him.  From correspondence, it seems as if she was so furious when he left that she threatened not to write any letters.  However, she could not have gone even if she wanted to.  She was far too busy. 

First, she seems to have been eternally pregnant.  The little boy, Willie, who had been delivered by Sarah Gray in Honolulu, died of croup in 1851, but in the meantime Martha had borne two more babies, and in the following years increased the number of living children to nine - ten pregnancies in all. 

You might remember a passing mention of a two-story house that Edwin had built in Orient in 1844.  It was a large residence - which was lucky.  Remember, too, that Edwin was tight with his money, though it has been estimated that he made over a hundred thousand from his nine voyages a-whaling.  Martha was told to run the house as a boarding house, which she managed so successfully despite her large brood, that in 1856 he added a handsome third story to the house, so that Martha could take in even more guests.  And then — guess what! — he retired from the sea.

I like to think, however, that Martha had a kind of revenge.  Edwin Brown died in 1896, leaving written instructions concerning his grave.
"To my wife & Children," he wrote:

"I wish the following epitaph put on my tombstone.  Also the anchor, harpoon & lance." 

"Anchored beneath is Captain E.P. Brown
Who four times sailed the world around
363 days one voyage was made
And not once was the Anchor laid."

Obviously, this referred back to his voyage on the Washington of Greenport, when he somehow beat the demon scurvy to circle the world within a year, without ever dropping the anchor.  And did Martha follow these instructions?  No, she did not.  As you can see, there is not even the usual fouled anchor on his stone, and certainly no poetry.


Martha's journal has been published. You can read it as She Went a-Whaling, edited by Anne MacKay, and produced by the Oysterponds Historical Society. I have also written about her in Hen Frigates.


Margaret Muir said...

Intriguing story. And interesting about the tombstone. However, I would question if the one is the picture is over 100 years old. It looks too pristine - perhaps this was not the original. Just a thought.

Joan Druett said...

Believe me, it was a pristine cemetery! A small community where they looked after their ancestors. And the tombstone is solid, polished granite -- only just across the road from the two [three] storied house, as it happens!

JT Chiarella said...

What is the address of the two/three story house? What is the name and location of the cemetery? Thanks, JT Chiarella

Joan Druett said...

Hi, and thanks for your query. You can get full details by contacting the Oysterponds Historical Society:

The house is on Main Road (now Route 25A), just north of the Congregational Church, and on the same side of the road. The cemetery, across the road, though a bit south of the church, and up a short track, used to be called Central Cemetery, but names have changed since then. The Society will be able to tell you more.