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Books

Book shows how "sister sailors" toughed it out

'Hen Frigates: Wives of Merchant Captains Under Sail'
by Joan Druett

Simon & Schuster , $25

Review by Wendy Brandes

Web posted on: Thursday, September 10, 1998 4:32:25 PM EDT

(CNN) -- The logbook entry for March 25, 1865, aboard the whaling ship "James Maury" was terse: "Light winds from the Eastward and pleasant weather, made a cask and put the Capt. in with spirits."

Captain Sluman Gray had died after two days of illness. However, he was spared an ordinary sailor's burial at sea when his wife, Sarah, pickled his corpse to save it for a proper service on land.

A startling method of preservation, to be sure, but no more startling than Sarah's presence on the ship. The ideal Victorian woman -- meek, chaste and subject to swooning -- would seem ill-suited for life on a merchant ship, with its maggoty provisions, mutinous crews and high risk of disease and death. Yet, as maritime historian Joan Druett documents in this intriguing book, "sister sailors" toughed it out often enough for their ships to be nicknamed "hen frigates."

Of course, the women weren't real sailors, but domestic partners. Captains transporting cargo such as cotton or gunpowder could spend years traveling among the ports of Asia, Europe and America, making a family life impossible unless their wives came along (the average tar, berthed with his crewmates, didn't have the option). In 1873, Captain Henry Rowland's wife, Mary, wrote, "... unless I can go sometimes, we must be separated most all the time, with the exception of one month or six weeks out of the year, and that is unhappiness to us both."

Life in the captain's cabin could be luxurious, as it was for Alice Howland Delano, who luckily had a "famous appetite," given the amount of eating that was done aboard the "Columbia" in 1827. The ship, a swift-sailing "packet," carried well-off passengers as well as the more traditional packets of mail that gave such ships their name, so Alice joined the travelers for five meals a day, washed down with beer and whiskey punch.

More commonly, though, sailing wives bore witness to the constant dangers of life at sea. "A north-easter has a mournful sound on land," Mary Dow wrote in her journal in 1838, "but here under these black skies and still blacker waters it sounds Dismal, Dismal." In 1897, when the schooner "Nahum Chapin" wrecked off the coast of Long Island, people on the beach could only watch helplessly as the captain, his wife, child and crew drowned in the churning sea.

And no matter what the weather, ships were plagued by rats, giant cockroaches and other vermin. In 1856, a cargo of figs and raisins gave rise to "crawling worms about an inch long." Mary Rowland sighed, "Oh dear they like to hide in my mattress best of all places."

Other hazards included limited food supplies, the lack of modern medicine, shipboard accidents, and pirates. Captains, aware they might not survive the journey, taught their wives to navigate as a precaution. Elisha Sears' young wife, Bethia, returned the favor by teaching him to cross-stitch. In this case, it was Bethia who died during pregnancy, and Elisha mourned her in the pages of the journal she had kept: "O I would not could not believe it, I shook & spoke to her, asked her to say one more word ... oh God, have mercy."

Children were especially vulnerable. "He is a pet, and I hope he will be spared us," one mother wrote of her son. Numerous babies were born at sea. The lucky ones lived and grew up to swear like sailors, to the chagrin of their parents.

Despite the many hardships, "sister sailors" took a fierce pride in the romance and unusual freedom of their globe-trotting lives. Mary Snell gleefully adopted a sophisticated air after visiting New Orleans in 1839, complaining that she was "much disappointed in this place, it is not so bad as represented." Emma Pray was equally worldly-wise, noting that Japan's mountains brought back memories of "my trip in the Himalayas." On a more serious note, the self-assured 16-year-old daughter of a Captain Arnold took command of her father's crew after he died at sea, while Mary Ann Patten successfully guided the clipper "Neptune's Car" to San Francisco via Cape Horn when her husband fell ill. While he was still healthy, Joshua Patten had praised his wife's shipboard abilities, noting that she "would doubtless be of service if a man."

Druett's book contains a wealth of such anecdotes, drawn from among the 150 accounts of sea-faring wives and daughters. Unfortunately, the impact is diluted by poor organization. Chapters such as "The Honeymooners" and "Sex and the Seafaring Wife" leapfrog across decades, making it hard to keep track of the players -- especially since so many of the women are named "Mary."

Even so, the glimpses into long-forgotten lives are a fascinating reminder of how selective our collective memory can be. It took years for scholars to acknowledge the grit and courage of the women who braved the seas of grass in prairie schooners; Druett shows that such spunk extended to the briny deep as well.

Wendy Brandes supervises financial markets coverage for CNNfn. She lives in New York City.

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