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Saturday, May 6, 2023

Donna Maria Bennett, whaling wife


Back about 1986 -- yes, I know, aeons ago -- I became completely engrossed in finding women who had sailed under canvas on whaling vessels.

Yes, I know too, that whaling was not a great topic.  Whaling was okay back when the couple above were alive -- very okay, because very religious people believed wholeheartedly that their god had put everything (including whales, seals, and what-have-you) on earth for the use of man.  Not nice, but not questioned, and very convenient -- mainly because mankind has always been dependent on oil or fat for lamps and lubrication, and whale oil and seal fat were good for that.  And this was before mineral oil was discovered at Titusville, USA, in August 1859. Animal oil was all that was available.

And, let's face it.  Oil has always been a big moneymaker, and the cause of war, not just the war on whales and seals.

Getting the crude fat or oil and processing it into oil to sell has always been a filthy business.  So why did decent women get involved in it?  On sail-driven whaleships, it meant four or more years away from home.  How did they cope? What did they do? What were their living conditions like?  As many in my audiences have asked me, what did they use for toilet paper?

I will answer that in another blog, along with my reason for researching their stories.

But first, what I am doing right now -- which is taking the list of whaling wives I started back in 1986, and checking the database it became, adding more entries, and locating and fixing my mistakes.  That database of whaling wives is with a lot of museums, and used by a lot of family historians, so I would like to get it right. 

So that is my current task. But in the meantime I will tell you the stories of the people that have particularly intrigued me.  Just a few -- out of the more then 700 whaling wives I have found.

Today's story is that of Donna Maria Bennett, pictured above with her new husband.  She was just 18 years old in that photo.  Her husband, Captain James Ellis Bennett, was thirty-three. In his old age he told tales of his seafaring life, that I might feature in future blogs, but right now I am looking at his young wife, Donna Maria.  

BENNETT, Donna Maria Chase (Mrs. James Ellis):

 James Ellis Bennett was born in New Bedford in 1818, and after going to sea he rose rapidly in the ranks, becoming the second mate of the Elizabeth of Mattapoisett in May 1841, and master of the J.E. Donnell in 1849, after a voyage on that vessel as first officer. He married the beautiful Mary Allen of Fairhaven in November 1840, but she died of heart disease while he was at sea, so he was a widower when he met Donna Maria Chase. The courtship must have been a swift one — he arrived back in New Bedford May 28, 1851, and they were married by December. This time, James carried his wife with him when he sailed off on his next command. The WSL, December 9, 1851, has ‘Mrs. Bennett’ in the outgoing passenger list of the Massachusetts.

Donna was just eighteen (born in Carthage, New York, in 1833), so her outlook was fresh and lively, full of the joy of life at sea. Her charming diary is held at the NBWM, and begins December 4, 1851.  Very discursive, and often amended and corrected, it describes a young woman who kept herself busy and was determined to be contented at sea. The first months describe a remarkably happy voyage, with Chrismas celebrated, a visit by Neptune that became hilarious, and an energetic observation of April Fool’s Day.  The cook was a ‘famous player’ on the accordion, and practised in the evenings, while the men sang. The only person younger than Donna was the rebellious cabin boy, John, who kept on running to the forecastle — perhaps because James Bennett was trying to teach him navigation.

Donna described everything that was happening around her — the seamen, the other ships, the whales and the wildlife. She wore Bloomer dress (floppy trousers and a loose tunic, which she sewed herself) and to get into a boat she simply climbed down the side of the ship and jumped. A confident young woman, she visited ships that did not have a woman on board, and enjoyed meeting her husband’s brother shipmasters. She loved to write, and wrote a lot, occasionally finishing off an entry in schoolgirl French — Bon soir ma plume et mon papier. Indeed, her journal reads like a school essay, and was obviously intended for the entertainment of her family and friends at home.

In the Okhotsk Sea season that began in June 1852 and ended in September, Donna Bennett socialized with other wives — Mrs. Christopher Cook of the Hillman, Mrs. Alleyn of the Rodman, and a Mrs. Wilcox being mentioned often. They arrived at Honolulu in November, both James and Donna suffering with colds and sore throats. After a bad experience, including a conflagration at the wharves, they left on the twenty-second, in company with the Hillman, and headed for the California coast and Marguerita Bay.

Still, Donna kept herself busy and happy. ‘I have been sewing most of the day, I have heard of one lady who came to sea that could not find anything to do, consequently ripped up her dresses and [re]made them’ (December 16, 1852). In February 1853 they were back in Honolulu, where she had to dress up to visit the captain’s wife on a clipper ship. March 4, ‘I am now settled nicely on shore.’ She did not stay, however, but was on board March 29 when the Massachusetts left port, all the oil discharged, heading to the Okhotsk to get more. Captain Bennett did well there, but his men were falling ill with scurvy. While Donna never mentioned her pregnancy, she was unwell, and her diary becomes discontinuous. The last entry in Donna’s journal is dated October 20[?] in lat. 23.30 long 154.37 W. ‘I hope we shall have a fair wind now to speed us into the [Hawaiian] Islands,’ is the last sentence. The rest of the book is empty save for poetry written in 1899 in a different hand, and signed ‘E.V.B.’

 Donna gave birth to twin boys on October 27, 1853, 40 miles from Honolulu, while James struggled to get the Massachusetts to port. The babies were whimsically named James Seaborn Bennett and William Seaborn Bennett. What should have been a joyous occasion had a tragic outcome: The Friend,  November 1853, reported the death ‘in Honolulu Nov. 2nd, of puerperal fever, Donna Maria, wife of Capt. Jas. E. Bennett, of the whaleship Massachusetts, aged 20 years.’ 

James carried on whaling, as Mrs. Gerritt Judd, the wife of the American consul, had offered to care for the twins in Honolulu. When back in that port in October 1854 Captain Bennett handed over the command to a replacement skipper named Thompson, and took passage home on the South America. The WSL for April 24, 1855, reported that the South America arrived on the 23rd from Honolulu, with a passenger list that included Mrs. Walker (Capt’s wife), Capt. Joseph Holley (late of ship Polar Star of this port) and wife, Capt. J. E. Bennett and 2 children; Mrs. Gilmore and 2 children; Mrs. C.F. Hussey of Nantucket.’

The ‘E.V.B.’ who wrote the poems in the back of Donna’s diary was her older sister, Eliza Verplank Chase, born in 1828. Eliza became James’s third wife soon after he arrived home, in what was evidently a marriage of convenience. The pact she made with James was that he was to give up the sea, move to Iowa, and become a farmer. The twins were with them: William Seaborn died at the age of nineteen of pneumonia, but James Seaborn survived until 1927. Eliza and James had two sons and two daughters: the older daughter, born in 1863, was named Donna Maria, and (like her brothers) studied medicine.  Captain James Bennett died in 1898 in Waterloo, Black Hawk County, Iowa, and is buried there.   

For the photo and a lot of the information, I thank Kay Vincent, genealogist in New Zealand.

1 comment:

Linda Collison said...

Oh, the dangers of whaling and puerperal fever…. I love the boys’ middle names - Seaborn!