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Friday, May 26, 2023

Whaling wives from the Portuguese Azores


As the New Bedford whaling industry approached the twentieth century, a good number of men from the Azores left their former domain, the forecastle, to become officers and captains.  And at least two of these men carried their wives to sea.

One was Maria Jesu Gomes Corvelho, pictured with her husband, Antonio, and their little girl on the old Greyhound.

Antonio Corvelho was born on Flores, in the Azores, January 6, 1879. A talented whaleman, he rose to command two ships on four voyages: Pedro Varela 1910-1912, and the Greyhound on three voyages between 1913 and 1919, and on these last three his wife, Maria, accompanied him.

Their courtship might have been a curious one. Maria’s adventurous young brother, Joseph R. Gomes, stowed away on the Pedro Varela, and apparently that is how she and Captain Corvelho connected..  According to local legend, Joe coated his face with lamp black to do it, as so many crewmen were from the Cape Verde Islands that he thought it would help him get away with it. Discovering the lad after the schooner had sailed was just one hitch in the story of Antonio’s first command, as later on he was the unfortunate captain featured in the famous ‘bloodless mutiny’, where the crew threw all the whaling equipment overboard, forcing the voyage to be abandoned. 

There was a happy result, in that Antonio married Joe’s sister, and that Joe went on to become a whaling master himself. Antonio’s reputation remained intact, too. He was given the command of the Greyhound, and  took Maria to sea. She left the ship in 1915 to have a baby girl, Floripes, but otherwise kept on sailing with her husband, so was on board in 1919 during another mutiny, one that was not bloodless at all. When three whaleboats were down on the water and the captain was aloft, directing the chase with flags, two of the seamen shipkeepers attacked the cook with a hammer, and tried to throttle the steward. The steward escaped and locked himself in a cabin, but this did not deter the seamen, who started breaking the door down with the hammer. Antonio heard the noise, dropped to deck, and quelled the mutiny, singlehandedly. After beating the two men into submission, he put them in shackles and carried them to Barbados.

Added to that, the old ship itself was falling apart, rotted with shipworms. Captain Corvelho kept the Greyhound together by wrapping chains around the hull, dropping them down one side, and then drawing them up to the other side, and securing the two ends. And so they limped into port. With that Captain Antonio Corvelho retired from the sea, and died of influenza a few months later. He was just forty years old.  (Amaral, Pat, They Ploughed the Seas … Valkyrie Press, 1978)

 The second wife is the wonderfully named Philomena Clara Jorge Nunes Costa (Mrs. Manuel Estaus):

Philomena and Manuel Costa appear in the 1910 New Bedford census, both born in the Portuguese Azores, Manuel aged 60, and Philomena aged forty-eight. They had been married for 30 years, and had no children. They also appear in the 1900 census, with the same details, so were established residents of the city — when they were there. 

Manuel was an experienced whaling master, taking over his first command (of the Eleanor B. Conwell) in 1879, and sailing almost constantly until 1911, when he came home on the T. Towner. Amazingly, considering that that whaling under sail was at its last gasp, there was a stowaway on that voyage, too.  Captain Costa made him write in a margin of the logbook, which reads (translated from Portuguese) ‘I, Alfredo de Medeiros, I hid myself onboard the yacht T. Towner, without anyone’s license, and his master allowed me to continue until the first harbour with a consul.’ (With thanks to Alexandre Monteiro for the translation.)

Philomena, who travelled on at least one of her husband’s many whaling voyages, documented her experience in an unusual manner, with 44 stanzas of verse in which she combined descriptions of the routine of shipboard life and the hazards of the chase with the laments of the homesick for their friends and family:

 La estao os pobres pais

Os pobres pais a esperar

Para que elles a vao ver

So para os consolar...


There are their poor parents

Their poor parents waiting

For them to visit

And console them...’

 (New Bedford Whaling Museum, B90-9; verse quoted from notes accompanying an Azorean Whalemen Exhibition, set up at the museum March 31-May 29, 1989, by Mary T. Sylvia Vermette, visiting curator.) 

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