BROWN, Martha Smith Brewer (Mrs. Edwin Peter):
At the age of twenty-five, Martha Smith Brewer Brown of Orient, Long Island, New York, sailed to the Pacific on the whaling ship Lucy Ann. This was probably at the urging of her husband, Edwin Peter Brown, as he had been obsessively in love from the first day he glimpsed her, in early 1841. Despite being away whaling most of the time, he had pursued her with letters and visits, and finally she consented to marry him, which she did on May 23, 1843. According to family legend, it was with the proviso that he signed the Pledge.
The ship departed from Orient on August 31, 1847. For two months Martha was too seasick to write in her journal, but once started she provided an eloquent glimpse into her daily life on board the whaleship: ‘it would be useless for me to attempt to remember what the Capt. has found to occupy the men on deck every day since we sailed: such a round of Coopering, Carpentering, Blacksmithing, Corking [caulking], Pitching and Taring, Spliceing … Evry one is occupied while I am snugly stowed away in the after part of the ship, siting by an open window nearly two [feet] square ― sometimes sewing, sometimes knitting, then reading, then attempting to sing …’
While everyone else was busy, Martha Brown was just a passive observer, forced to entertain herself as best she could. On the Lucy Ann there were men ― the cook and the steward ― who had been shipped to fulfil the ‘female’ roles of cleaning and food preparation, so that while Martha occasionally recorded ‘making’ pumpkin pies, what she was really doing was mixing the ingredients into the pan for the steward to take to the galley for the cook to bake. Her only real job was to provide company for her husband, something that he was often too preoccupied to appreciate.
As she ruefully noted, ‘He was rather blue the other day when he got fast to a large sperm whale and lost him. For my own part, I could not win a smile ― then I recollected I had come a whaleing.’ Martha must have been acutely aware that she was much more useful back in Orient, where she had left an eighteen-month-old daughter. ‘Oh for one sweet kiss from my Dear little Ella …’ she sighed. ‘At twilight, the hour for putting her to bed, I have no other amusement but walking the deck, looking at the water, occaisonaly droping a tear or two by way of relief to my anxious mind.’
A very pious woman, she devoted much time to perusing ‘improving’ books, praying with her husband, reading the Bible aloud to him, and writing prayerful entries in her diary. ‘O that I might feel the worth of souls and have grace and confidence given me to warn sinners to flee from the wrath to come,’ she penned on Sunday 28 November 1847 — ‘We have need of a mishinary on board. We number 31 in all, and not one, I believe makes any pretentions to religion.’ She wasn’t confident enough to talk to the crew, even though she heard ‘[s]ome of them say they would like to hear good reading’ — and was troubled, too, to find that her husband was flogging his men ― ‘So Mother, you see I have very little influence so far,’ she mourned.
It’s little wonder that she was delighted when the Lucy Ann reached Honolulu on 21 April 1848. Not only was she free to walk about on land again, but she could meet other pious women and go to church. Unfortunately, however, she was five months pregnant. Back on 18 October 1847, while admiring a spectacular ocean sunset, she had romantically noted, ‘If quince grove and moon light night are incentives to make love, surely moon light nights on ship board are doubly so.’ And expecting a child was to prove a huge problem, particularly as she was to be left on shore in the Hawaiian Islands to get on with it.
Her husband was an amiable man who jumped rope with his wife, played the accordion, disliked having to discipline his crew, and was kind enough to bring the ship aback and lower a boat to save a kitten that fell overboard. He was tight with money, however. Back in 1844 he had gone off on voyage without leaving her sufficient funds: as she wrote to him on November 1845, ‘rather pushed this winter for money … I do inferior to either of my sisters and with not half the independence for they own their own money.’
So Martha should not have been surprised that he left her with insufficient funds when he sailed for the northern whaling grounds of the Okhotsk Sea. But, where at home being poor was embarrassing, in Honolulu it was intolerable. She could have passed the time pleasantly, as she resentfully wrote, ‘were my expenses less, and my circumstances different.’ Because Edwin had given her so little to live on, she was forced to move out to the Nuuana Valley ― past the notorious stench of the town slaughter-yards ― to board in a wood-and-canvas house belonging to John Paty, a retired shipmaster. She would have loved to visit the missionaries and the other captains’ wives ― her whaling ‘sisters’ ― who were spending the whaling season in Honolulu but, as she wrote reproachfully to Edwin, ‘it is a grate effort for me to get down town. I have been down three times in the hard cart, once of a week day, and twice to church, and have been near sick each time.’
A week later, her emotions boiled over — ‘My Husband left me in one of the most unpleasent situation a Lady can be left in, without her husband, and among strangers, with the request that I would do my washing myself ― a thing wich no other American Lady does, not even the mision Ladies … You also requested that I would not buy any thing but what I positively needed … Oh, Oh, Oh, that I was rich, but that can never be. But I beg of you, my love, that you will never place me as I am agane, for I feel evry day almost that I reieve slights because I cannot dress in silks and nice cloths. Before Mrs. Gray [wife of the captain of the whaleship Jefferson] came I felt alone. Now I feel that in her I have a true friend, although she far exceeds me in dress and show.’
Sarah Gray of Liberty Hill, Connecticut, was a seasoned whaling wife whose husband had done so well that he could afford to be indulgent. As Martha enviously noted, when Captain Slumon Gray had sailed, he had told his wife ‘to try to take comfort and enjoy herself, and as far as money and credit would go, not to scrimp herself. She,’ Martha added with emphasis, ‘is not in circumstances.’ Mrs. Gray proved a true friend — unlike the missionaries. ‘Have receive very little attention from them but do not wish to complain,’ Martha wrote, going on to draw a rather surprising picture of the social lives of the mission people. ‘They know their own affairs best, and they know also that I do not attend balls and parties, neither do I wish to draw my amusement from such a source.’
Sarah Gray felt quite differently. On 10 August, Martha helped her sew ‘a very handsome evening dress,’ which Sarah was to wear ‘to the King’s levee. She is very dressy,’ Martha added; ‘goes out a good deal and seems to enjoy herself, while I stay mopeing at home.’ In one of her bursts of depression, she went on to wonder if her husband ‘did not love me well enough to buy me dresses and the [means] to appear as well as she does.’
Martha’s major worry was how she would cope with childbirth, which was now imminent ― ‘Must I be confined without my husband or one that I can call my friend,’ she agonized on 20 August. According to the custom of the time, not only did she need a woman friend to deliver the baby, but other friends to provide nursing care for the next fourteen days, as it was considered dangerous for the new mother to get out of bed and exert herself.
In the event, Sarah Gray provided all the support she needed. ‘The boy is one month old today …’ Martha wrote on 27 September: ‘Mrs. Grey was with me dureing my confinement and did for me and my child, as an own sister would have done. She staid with [me] nearly two weeks. I dressed him the day he was two weeks old … and I have a very good native woman who assists me about taking care of my child. Does my chamber work and my washing, for which I pay her 11 shilings per week … When oh when will you come, my love?’
The boy was two months old before Edwin arrived, and it was time to sail for home. Still mutinous at the treatment she had received, Martha wrote in the ship’s logbook, ‘Adieu to Whale-grounds and now for home and right glad am I. And now my Dear, alow me to inform you that this is the last time you are to leave, or visit these waters which to you have become familiar, according to your own assertions. Martha.’ (March 28, 1849 entry)
Of course he did not obey her. He went to sea again, though in a merchant ship, but to his fury she flatly refused to sail with him. This was completely against Edwin’s view of a ‘proper’ woman. In the back of the 1847 log of the Lucy Ann he had written, ‘There are many qualifycations in A woman's character which renders them objects of love & admiration,’ of which the first was ‘to make him happy by exerciseing A meek & quiet disposition.’ That Martha was not exercising a ‘meek & quiet disposition’ was infuriating. In July 1853 he visited a friend in San Francisco, and wrote to Martha, ‘I think he has got A real fine wife. She is modest & resurved & perfectly submissive to his will, in fact she has no will of her own, his will is hers, & tis her greatest pleasure to gratify him in all his desires.’
Martha remained obdurate. Hard-working and self-reliant, she took in boarders, making an income so successfully that when Edwin arrived home he put another level on the house. Thus, he was able to retire, being described in the 1880 census as a farmer.
Captain Brown died in 1892, just a few days after his 79th birthday. His instructions to his wife and family were unusual, because of what he wanted engraved on his tombstone:
Who four times sailed the world around
363 days one voyage was made
And not once was the anchor laid
Along with sketches of a fouled anchor, a lance and a harpoon.
His widow (for Martha outlived him by 19 years) paid not a mite of attention to this eccentricity. Instead, the gravestone carries the simple, dignified inscription, ‘Capt. Edwin P. Brown, born March 8, 1813, died Marcch 31, 1892.’ Martha had remained rebellious to the last.
The entire Brown archive is held at the Oysterponds Historical Society, Orient, Long Island, New York.