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Friday, September 20, 2013

Viola Cook's nine winters in the Arctic

By the 1890s, overwintering in the Arctic had become routine.

Instead of leaving the Arctic in September, when the nights were getting long, the whaleships were anchored together in "winter berths" at Herschel Island in the Beaufort Sea, and everyone settled to surviving a long, long winter while they waited for spring and the migration of the bowhead whales.

Obviously, it was a weird existence.  What is most amazing about it, though, is that so many captains decided to take their wives, and that their wives agreed to go.

Or maybe they were given no choice -- which was certainly the case with Viola, wife of Captain John Atkins Cook.

When Viola spent her first winters in the Arctic, on the Navarch in 1893, the story put about her home town of Provincetown was that she had sailed for her health. When she left she weighed 93 pounds, and when she came back, on 23 November 1896, she weighed 130 -- which says a lot about the dire effects of lack of exercise.

Then, when Viola sailed again, and again, and again, the reporters liked to say that she went along "to please her husband, cheerfully abandoning the pleasures of home life to give companionship to her husband and to share and brave all dangers to which he might be exposed." 

The truth, however, was that John wouldn't take no for an answer.  He was a tough old customer with strong views about the duties owed to men by women.

He wasn't wonderful to his seamen, either, John being what they used to call "bucko," meaning the kind of captain who slapped his men about.  One day in the Arctic, after a multiple flogging, Viola's sense of wifely duty snapped. She mutinied.  She shut herself in her cabin and refused to emerge for nine whole months.  When they got home and the story got out, John told everyone that she'd had a nervous breakdown as a result of scurvy, and Eugene O'Neill wrote a play about it called "Oil."

And Viola mutinied some more.  When John told her to get ready for the next voyage, she flatly refused.  She declared her firm intention never to sail again.

So John resorted to stealth. He built a brig and named the vessel Viola, and Viola fell for the compliment and changed her mind.  She voyaged again (her tenth outing), and became very ill with beri-beri, a food deficiency disease.

So, when she got home, she reverted to her original decision, to never, ever, ever sail again, and stuck to it.

Which, as it happens, was lucky for John Cook.  He sent out the brig under the command of Captain Joseph Lewis, who sailed with his wife and five-year-old daughter.  The brig was never seen or heard from again.  It was 1917, and the usual theory is that it was sunk by a German submarine.

The story about Viola and the flogging comes from a book by Pat Amaral, called "They Ploughed the Seas," while other stories were published in The Boston Globe (e.g., Christmas Eve, 1905), which followed Viola's strange existence with great attention.

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