Hen Frigates: Passion and Peril, Nineteenth-Century Women at Sea

Hen Frigates: Passion and Peril, Nineteenth-Century Women at Sea

by Joan Druett


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A "hen frigate," traditionally, was any ship with the captain's wife on board. Hen frigates were miniature worlds — wildly colorful, romantic, and dangerous. Here are the dramatic, true stories of what the remarkable women on board these vessels encountered on their often amazing voyages: romantic moonlit nights on deck, debilitating seasickness, terrifying skirmishes with pirates, disease-bearing rats, and cockroaches as big as a man's slipper. And all of that while living with the constant fear of gales, hurricanes, typhoons, collisions, and fire at sea. Interweaving first-person accounts from letters and journals in and around the lyrical narrative of a sea journey, maritime historian Joan Druett brings life to these stories. We can almost feel for ourselves the fear, pain, anger, love, and heartbreak of these courageous women. Lavishly illustrated, this breathtaking book transports us to the golden age of sail.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780684854342
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 05/04/1999
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 863,453
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.44(h) x 0.40(d)

About the Author

Joan Druett, an award-winning writer of nautical nonfiction, is the author of numerous works, including Hen Frigates and In the Wake of Madness. She lives in New Zealand. Visit her website at www.joan.druett.gen.nz.

Read an Excerpt

Hen Frigates

By Joan Druett

Thorndike Press

Copyright © 1999 Joan Druett
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0783804180

Chapter One

The Honeymooners

As Henry says, we have only one life to live, and he cannot be at home, and it is very hard for us to be separated so much, and a very unpleasant way of spending our lives when one is thousands of miles away.
--Mary Rowland, January 1873

    On October 3, 1906, twenty-year-old Georgia Maria Gilkey of Searsport, Maine, was married in her graduation dress. There had been no time to make a wedding gown, for the bridegroom was a seaman. Captain Phineas Banning Blanchard had proposed to her during one of his fleeting trips home, and one week later they were married. Georgia felt no doubts about the headlong courtship. As she reminisced later, when Banning had taken her out sleighing the sled had capsized, dumping them both in the snow. And that, according to a local old wives' tale, was a sure sign they were to be wed. So Georgia married her captain in her graduation gown, carrying a bouquet of pink carnations. And, after a hasty buffet luncheon, the newlyweds took the train to Philadelphia, to embark on the great square-rigger Bangalore for a honeymoon voyage around Cape Horn.

    When the train arrived in Philadelphia the ship was ready, loaded with coal for San Francisco. Banning, a prudent and thrifty skipper, bought Georgia a sextant so she could help to navigate the 1,700-ton vessel, and then they took their departure, off on their wedding trip with twenty seamen, a carpenter, a cook, a steward, a cabin boy, two mates, and a bosun, Georgia being the only woman on board.

    It was by no means unusual for a bride to be eager to try life at sea. Many, like Georgia, were adventurous, delighted with the prospect of sailing off to exotic ports. Because the captain was expected to invest a substantial sum of his own money in the ship, most young shipmasters could not afford to buy a house on land, and returning home to live with relatives might not seem a pleasant option, after the excitement of the wedding. There were graver reasons, too. Both on land and at sea, good health was a precarious blessing, and letters took so long to get about that many ships arrived home before wives found out that they were widows, or husbands learned that wives had passed away. Visiting Melbourne, Australia, in December 1853, Fidelia Heard of the Oriental met a "Mr. Cutler of Boston" who had just learned that one of his children had died, but his correspondent had neglected to tell him which one.

    Georgia had yet another reason to sail, one which she shared with a great many other young women from the coasts of Maine. She knew exactly what lay ahead of her, for her father was a ship captain, and voyaging was a family business. "It seemed like old times being on board a vessel again," she reminisced. "I spent most of my youth at sea with my parents, brothers, and sister. Banning grew up at sea, too, and he was a captain before he was twenty."

    A much less seasoned bride was twenty-year-old Alice Howland of New Bedford, who married Captain Joseph C. Delano on December 21, 1826, and went to sea with him on the Black Ball packet Columbia in January 1827. In contrast to Georgia's hasty and almost impromptu ceremony, Alice's wedding must have been a glittering affair, for Alice was the daughter and granddaughter of shipowners. And, by the standards of the time, Captain Joseph Delano was quite a social catch, for this was at the peak of "packet fever."

    Compared to the humble, sturdy craft that carried common goods to wherever there might be a market, the packets (called thus because of the canvas or leather "packets" of mail they carried) were the "queens" of the fleets that crowded the major ports, sailing to stated destinations at stated times, carrying passengers and expensive cargoes as well as that all-important mail. The ships were designed for speed, as well as for the strength that was necessary for breasting rugged Atlantic seas, and their captains were strong, spirited, ambitious men, especially chosen for the challenge of sailing their ships to a timetable--quite a proposition in a sail-driven ship, at the mercy of the winds.

    Up until January 5, 1818, when the packet James Munroe left the port of New York exactly as advertised despite a lashing snowstorm, ships had been unfettered by schedules, sailing only when the weather was cooperative. Unless passengers bought their tickets at the last moment, when the ships were on the verge of departure, they were given only a vague idea of when they would be expected to take over their berths. It was a case of waiting around in some hotel until the ship's agent sent a message to say that the vessel was ready. The birth of "square-riggers on schedule" was heralded in 1816, when four New York merchants, led by the Quaker Jeremiah Thompson, pooled their resources and four of their ships, and founded the Black Ball Line, promising to the public that those ships would sail to a timetable.

    "LINE OF AMERICAN PACKETS BETWEEN NEW YORK AND LIVERPOOL," read a headline in the New York papers.

In order to furnish frequent and regular conveyance for GOODS and PASSENGERS, the subscribers have undertaken to establish a line of vessels between NEW YORK and LIVERPOOL, on a certain day of every month of the year. One shall sail from New York on the fifth and one from Liverpool on the first of every month. These ships have all been built in New York of the very best materials. They are remarkably fast sailers and their accommodations for passengers are uncommonly extensive and comfortable.

    And, what's more, speed was guaranteed. The James Munroe made the crossing to Liverpool in twenty-eight days, a time that was soon bettered by her sister ships. The packets sailed in fair weather or foul, with or without a full cargo, and every trip was an attempt to break a record. Between five and six weeks had been the usual time to cross the Atlantic. The packets now did the easterly trip in seventeen or eighteen days and made the difficult westerly passage in three weeks.

    Legends grew of ships carrying sail until the canvas ripped to flying ribbons, of waves foaming hungrily over the leeward rail as the steeply heeled ships raced ever onward, day after day and night after night. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote of a terrifying passage where the captain put up his cot in a locker on the quarterdeck, to make certain that the nervous first officer wouldn't order the crew to take in sail while he was asleep. The ships were manned by so-called packet rats--for the most part Liverpool Irishmen, who were magnificent seamen but among the wildest afloat. Any sign of weakness betrayed by the captain led to trouble--sometimes even murder--and so the commanders were a tough and virile breed of men, romantic enough to be beloved by the public. Traveling by packet became all the rage, and of all the packet companies the first--the Black Ball Line--was the most famous. The flamboyantly reckless captains of these ships were equally well-known, their names spoken in the same breath as the names of the legendary vessels they commanded. They were the social lions of the day, discussed in parlors and papers with the same feverish attention that film stars inspire now.

    According to the journal nineteen-year-old Alice Howland Delano kept on that wedding trip, however, she felt a trifle doubtful about the "social catch" she had married. "Last eve heard a dissertation on the qualities necessary for a married lady," she noted on the first Sunday of the passage, "but did not profit much thereby." Rereading Byron's "Prisoner of Chillon" suited her mood much better, she said. "Only five hours' sleep last night," she wrote, and worried that she was turning into an owl.

    Like Captain Banning Blanchard eighty years later, Captain Joseph Delano had put his wife to work. Alice's job did not involve lessons in navigation, however, having much more to do with the parlor than the sea. The packet ship commanders not only had to drive the ship like the very devil, but were expected to charm gentlemen, tycoons, dowagers, and debutantes in the after cabin as well--and so, for a man like Captain Joseph Delano, a personable, fashionable wife could prove very useful.

    Thus Alice found herself playing hostess to the cabin passengers, each of whom had paid about two hundred dollars for a berth in a stateroom (the shipboard name for a bedroom), inclusive of food and wine. There were hazards aplenty. On the first reasonable day she and Miss B.--"two of the most courageous ladies ever known"--led the way for a promenade on deck, "but alas although protected by our squires we fell." Miss B. and Mr. Lowe tumbled over the hen coop while Alice herself skidded under it, in what must have been a spectacular flying of skirts.

    Mr. Lowe, who had "delicate health--poor appetite--can only eat one chicken for dinner," needed a great deal of soothing attention, while all the time Alice fended off the amorous advances of a lovelorn German, Mr. Shettler. Poor man, he "wanted a wife so much," and yet there were two single ladies on board. "I have not been able to decide as yet whether he is a fool or insane," mused Alice.

    The accommodations, as can be expected from the cost of passage, were good. There were eight staterooms on either side of the main cabin, each with two berths, one above the other. Oddly, there was no ladder leading to the upper bunk, where it seems that Alice slept, for she wrote that she was "in nightly expectation of breaking my neck or one of my precious legs." Otherwise, each stateroom was supplied with a chest with two drawers and two shelves--which also served as a washstand, for it held a pitcher and washbasin--along with a looking glass and that "unmentionable" item, a commode.

    The main cabin was furnished with "a table thirty feet long with seats on either side," all firmly screwed to the floor. Overhead was a skylight, from which hung an ornate glass lantern, a barometer, and two "casters"--or racks "well furnished" with decanters, bottles, and glasses. A sofa was set at the sternward end of the cabin, right under the companionway stairs, "so that one has to be very cautious how they hold their head." Otherwise, the passengers could sit in the roundhouse on the afterdeck--"but I do not know why it is called so, it is square."

    The major part of the day was spent at the table, eating and drinking being the most time-consuming occupation on board. As Alice noted, it was fortunate that she had a "famous appetite," for the menu was remarkably lavish. Breakfast was at nine, and consisted of tea, coffee, bread, broiled fish, and meat. Then at noon the table was set for "tiffin," a buffet of cold beef, ship's biscuit, oysters, and cheese, all of which was washed down with copious drafts of porter. According to Alice this drink, a dark-brown bitter beer, was "a fine thing on board ship," and certainly large amounts of it were drunk by both sexes.

    At four in the afternoon, when the passengers surely had not had enough time to get hungry again, the table was laid for dinner. This came in a succession of four courses. Soup arrived first, then roast meat and boiled fowl, followed by puddings, tarts, fritters, and finally apples, nuts, and raisins, all accompanied with appropriate wines. This repast could scarcely have been digested before a "tea" of fresh bread, butter, cheese, cold meat, and cake was served at half past six. "Now, I suppose all reasonable people will think we have eat & drank enough for one day," wrote Alice.

But no, at ten we call for our punch, biscuit, cheese and often meat. I think we are much like the old woman and what do you think
She lived upon nothing but victuals and drink
Victuals and drink were the chief of her diet
And yet the old woman could never be quiet.

    Times were merry enough when the whiskey punch went round, for Miss B. might sing a few songs, and Mr. L. might favor them all with a tune on the flute. But passengers were a difficult lot to entertain, on the whole. "I know not a more idle set," wrote Alice. "Half the time is passed in lolling on the sofa, reading a little, looking on the chart, playing cards, &c. All of it amounts to a figure nine with a tail cut off," she decided--which of course added up to a big fat zero.

    It is a pity that Cornelia Marshall Peabody, the bride of another packet ship captain, did not sail until 1855, well after Alice's time (Alice Howland Delano died in childbirth in 1834), for she and Alice would have had a great deal in common, even though they were markedly different in both temperament and character. "Connie" Marshall married Captain Enoch Wood Peabody of the packet ship Neptune on April 26, 1855, and sailed from New York the first week of May. Within days one of the passengers dropped dead, "poor man, died in the second cabin, left a wife and children." Then, just two days from Liverpool, the ship was overtaken by a tempest.

    "Weather continues very bad. Enoch is hard at work. Scarcely had a chance to speak to me during the entire day," wrote Connie nervously on May 18. "How anxious the Captain looks, is uttered in low sad tones by the passengers." That night she sat alone and wakeful in the stateroom, listening to the roar of the sea, and heard a sudden cry of, "Breakers ahead! Hard down the helm!" from the deck.

    "That fearful sound, never shall I forget it," she agitated; "and amidst the noise I heard my poor husband's voice in such tones as never before." The crisis was so immediate that Connie shifted to the present tense. "He enters the Cabin, how pale his cheek, my heart seems almost bursting. Oh, that he would but speak to me. His look is almost wild," she penned, in a style that surely reflects the kind of purple prose she must have read.

    Connie had put on her wrapper (a loose dressing gown) to get ready for bed. "Why, Connie, have you taken off your dress?" he asked. "Put on all your warmest clothing." Connie complied and then lay down. "I never closed my eyes," she wrote, "but listened to the steady tread of my almost exhausted husband. How I wished for power to relieve his care." Luckily, whatever help she could have given him was unnecessary, for "about two he came to bring me the glad news that we were safe in fifty fathoms of water." The Neptune docked thirty-six hours later, and Connie was able to write on a much more practical and everyday note that the "passengers look so strange in their goashore clothes."

    What with sudden death and dire storm, Connie had not been able to devote much space to her fellow travelers, apart from recording their very understandable reverence of her husband--that all-powerful lord of the quarterdeck who could hopefully bring the ship through the worst the weather could throw at them. They must have been an amiable lot, however, for she was so obviously unprepared for the veritable menagerie of cabin passengers on the return voyage to New York. One arrived in the grip of delirium tremens, another had smallpox, and--worst of all--there was a German woman and her lover traveling together openly, without even pretending to be married!

    Matters did not improve. The wine was served as freely as it had been on the Columbia thirty years earlier, but was still not enough for one lady passenger, who hung around the table until everyone else had gone, then poured the dregs from all the wineglasses into her own, which she drained. "The steward forthwith snatched up the bottle, fearing perhaps it might go the same way," wrote Connie, sighing another time that "I am sorry we have so disagreeable a set of people in the cabin." It proved a long passage of thirty-five days, and Connie was heartily relieved when they finally dropped anchor in New York. Back in Brooklyn with her family, she went straight to the public baths, to wash every last trace of the voyage away.

    Another seafaring bride from Brooklyn was Emma Browne, who in the early 1870s was courted by two young Englishmen. These men were brothers. Thomas Cawse was captain of the tea clipper John R. Worcester, while brother James was only first mate, but Emma chose James, corresponding with him after he left despite the somewhat casual tone of his replies. "Having nothing much to do to employ my time" would herald the start of a letter that consisted mostly of seamanlike reports of the voyage, along with an apology for not writing before he sailed, "but was very busy to the last."

    Emma, however, could read between the lines, discerning a devotion that is not apparent to the modern reader, for she kept up the correspondence for two years. It was not possible to marry him, for it was unusual for first mates to be allowed to take their wives on voyage, and he did not have a home on land. But as soon as she heard the news that James had got his first command, of the same John R. Worcester that his brother had commanded, Emma booked passage on a packet and traveled alone and unchaperoned to Liverpool to meet him.

    This was a remarkable exploit for a woman of her time, particularly when there was no guarantee that James would be delighted to see her. Emma Browne, however, was a resourceful young lady. Much later, when her youngest daughter asked her what she would have done if she had found that James was not agreeable to marriage, Emma replied, "I had my return passage right here in my purse." As it happened, the round-trip fare was not necessary. James met her in Liverpool on June 20, 1876, and they were married on the twenty-third. Then, on August 12, she boarded the ship. "I came along in a little row boat with quite a number of men, bundles, and parcels of every discription, to get on board the John R. Worcester, which lay out a little way in the Mersey river, at eight o'clock in the evening, and climbed up the side of the ship by a rope ladder, like any man," she wrote with palpable pride. And so Emma sailed for Sydney and the Orient, on a honeymoon voyage that spanned more than three years.

    Emma arrived back in England in October 1879, with a seven-week-old daughter named Maud in her arms. The baby had been delivered by her husband on September 8, two days from St. Helena, an island he undoubtedly would have preferred to have reached before the happy event. As it happened, all went "pretty well, thank God. James," Emma decided the day after the birth, "is perfectly mag. He is exceedingly kind, no one could act nicer, or more gently. He is a good old man."

    It was no problem at all to agree to sail again. the John R. Worcester was a fine, comfortable vessel, and anyway there was no home for Emma in England. She was still sailing in 1891, when James was swept overboard in a storm. He fought his way back onto the ship, but with a lungful of water that gradually killed him of some pulmonary disease at the age of forty-four, though Emma nursed him devotedly. When the ship arrived in port she moved her family of five children back to America, to be with her brothers. But in the meantime she had spent fifteen happy years in the constant company of her husband.

    A particularly poignant honeymoon voyage was that of Bethia Sears of Cape Cod, who wrote the journal she kept on board the clipper Wild Ranger especially for her sisters. When she commenced it, on October 4, 1855, Bethia was nineteen years old, a bride of just four weeks, devoted to her twenty-two-year-old husband, Captain Elisha Sears. "This book which now lies before me with its pure and unspotted pages," she wrote, "I have designed for keeping a kind of journal solely for the benefit and perusal of you my dear sisters at home, who extracted a promise from me at parting that I would daily record something until my return to my native land, should that time ever arrive--God grant that it may."

    She was very happy, walking the deck with Elisha, reading in the afternoons, taking off her shoes and stockings to paddle on deck when it rained, and playing the accordion. "It is true I am leading a lazy life," she confessed. Learning how to navigate was quite a challenge, and she did "wish I had someone to sit and sew with me," but she soon learned how to box the compass, and taught her husband how to cross-stitch. "Wife gets along better than I expected her to," wrote Elisha in Bethia's journal on November 4. "She has not vomited (excuse me) but four times since leaving port & we have had considerable heavy weather. She seems happy and contented and thinks she has taken the wisest plan and followed me to sea." As for himself, he was having a slow passage, and "if it was not for Wifey I should be sick."

    They arrived in San Francisco--"a very hard-looking country"--on February 15, 1856, and sailed again on the twenty-seventh, "bound for Calcutta." There was some little excitement, for Elisha was detained on shore, and the pilot took the clipper out into the stream without the captain on board. "Judge of my situation," wrote Bethia; she was alone on board, "with only the mate and a parcel of drunken sailors." Unsurprisingly, she "was frightened to death"--but then, still worse, the "Pilot appeared, wild and rattle-headed, and sat in the forward cabin all the evening drinking and telling stories."

    Meantime, his ship's affairs attended to, Elisha was penning a letter "to dear sister Eunice. I have not seen Wife for 5 long hours," he related. "I heard a few moments ago from her, she was anxious for me to come off, as she was lonesome. We have not been away from each other so long since I left Boston." The spell ashore had been an enjoyable one. They had "been to one Ball, twice to the theater, and to one or two late dinners. She can carry her part-well anywhere," he declared with fond pride. "She says she is going to sea with me as long as I go--What do you think of that? She is without any exception the best female sailor I ever saw, could not do better."

    In April, however, Bethia started throwing up everything she ate the moment she left the table. The reason for her constant sickness is veiled in Victorian reticence, but certain entries in her journal, along with more candid mentions in letters home, make it evident that she was pregnant. Arriving in Calcutta in June, she found that a Cape Cod acquaintance, Captain Edgar Lincoln, had just sailed, along with his wife. "She will be confined on her way home," she wrote to her parents on the eleventh, but, "it was said she went off with very good courage--You need fear nothing for me."

    Going on shore to board while the ship discharged her cargo and loaded another provided some relief, so that she could go shopping for "a baby dress," but by the end of July, they were on their way back down the river, and the morning sickness returned with a vengeance. "I feel miserably," Bethia wrote on September 16. "I do not take anything as I know not what to try. Am very particular about my diet. Feel down-spirited and sad at times. Beautiful weather and fair wind but little of it and a terrible sea. Sails slatting awfully ...."

    The ellipsis is hers, and ends the last entry in Bethia's journal, as if she had a premonition of what was to come. "My poor Wifey is dead and gone," agonized Elisha ten days later--

She asked me a few days before she left me to note in her journal how she and the ship were getting along. I told her to let it remain and when she got well to note in it herself, not thinking but what she would do so in a day or two, as soon as we got into fine weather. But alas! My poor little darling Wifey has left me alone ... Poor Wifey is dead

    When last she used pen (Sept 16th) she felt quite unwell, sat on deck with me watching the ship in company, and reading. She had my old Pea Coat on, which made us all laugh when she came up, and for the next four days she kept about the same--lost no flesh or strength ... but [on the 24th] she seemed very restless--much pain in her chest, and towards morning was quite out of her mind. I drew a blister on her stomach and used hot baths at her feet. In the morning of 25th no better but worse. At 8 she asked me to read the Lords Prayer. I did so and never shall I forget how pleasant and fairly she pronounced the "Amen." She then kissed me and smiled ...

    At 9 1/2, she looked glaringly at me and said, how dark it looks. Oh, imagine my feelings. I caught her in my arms ... she laid her head on my shoulder like a child going to sleep and Died. Oh yes, she died. I would not believe it, no, not when they took her away from me cold and stiff in death. Oh, if a mother could have been with her to close her eyes, or a sister to have wept with me--What a comfort it would have been--but no, I was all alone. She died in her husband's arms as happy and as easy as a babe going to sleep. O I would not could not believe it, I shook & spoke to her, asked her to say one more word ... but no, she was in heaven. Oh why did she die--why has she been taken from me--oh God, have mercy.

    The mates of the Wild Ranger took turns sitting with Elisha as he sat mourning at the side of the corpse. "I have had a coffin made tight and shall take her home to her parents, from whom she was given to me one short year before," he recorded later, but in the meantime the coffin was left open, and next morning the whole ship's company passed slowly through the cabin, "with dean shaven faces and best clothes, to take their last look of their shipmate & friend."

    As they came through "one by one to look at Wifey, they (all that could speak English) would add some word of consolation for my poor breaking heart." The better educated ones produced such awkward platitudes as, "We hope and trust she is in a better world," while others, more touchingly, mumbled, "Capt, me very sorry for you." And so the sad day passed, with the first mate reading long passages from the Bible and leading prayers. "No work on board ship today," wrote Elisha in slow, heavy script. "The Ship Wild Ranger and her Ship's Company are in Mourning."

    None of the honeymooning brides or their proud husbands could guess what tragedies or joys lay ahead, though good health was such a precarious blessing that the worst was often anticipated. Though Mary Swift Jones did not know it, there was a coffin stowed in the hold when her new husband escorted her on board the China trade bark Mary & Louisa. His motive was morbid but practical, for Mary was terminally ill with tuberculosis. As it happened, she survived the voyage (though she had to spend much of her time boarding on shore with missionaries in Yokohama, Japan), but died a few days after anchoring in New York, in 1861. Mary Swift Jones never saw her home village of Setauket again, but in the meantime she and Benjamin had spent thirty months together that would have been denied to them both if she had stopped at home in Long Island.

    Another Mary--twenty-year-old Mary Tarbox Rairden of Woolwich, Maine--was much luckier. Mary Tarbox married Captain Bradstreet Rairden on Christmas Eve, 1850, and set sail with him on the 347-ton bark Henry Warren of Bath, in January 1851. It was a stormy start: "Throught [throughout] this day a gale of wind from North West attended with frequent snow squalls, under close reef'd Topsails, Foresail & reef'd Main Sail, Ship is iced much," Mary wrote on the thirty-first, but added, "Never mind, she's reeling off the leagues."

    With such a robust attitude, it is little wonder that a couple of days later she was able to report, "Braddie says his Mary is a exelent little sailor." Mary escaped all but a small bout of seasickness, reporting within days that she was "quite harty and able to tweak Father Neptune's self by the Beard." Even an unexpected bath did not discourage her. "I am a cold water subject, I am," she mused on February 14. "Was on deck all the former part of the day with Braddie & best of it was Braddie and his Mary got a salt water ducking."

    The Henry Warren dropped anchor in their destination--Havana, Cuba--that same day, just twenty-four days after leaving Bath, Maine, which, when compared to Bethia's 134-day passage from Boston to San Francisco, illustrates one of the advantages of the coasting trade. "Braddie's Mary" enjoyed the novel sights of Havana, riding out to the public gardens in a "volante," eating ice cream and drinking "lemon-ade," socializing with other Americans in port, and generally taking a view of "all that was to be seen there." There was a catch, however. Being new to the freighting trade, Mary had not realized that her husband would be so busy in port, where he had to deal with the tradespeople, the consignee, the agent, the customs officers, the shipping master, and all the other port officials.

    And that was just the start of all his business. In addition to all the time-consuming chitchat that this involved, Captain Rairden had to collect money for freight, pay expenses, keep accounts, and send detailed statements of all transactions to the owners back in Maine. Mary, seemingly, felt a little provoked at all this, for on March 26, when the bark was at Matanzas loading sugar for Sweden, she wrote meaningfully, "Braddie is seated beside his Mary, singing as merrily as possible, has business on shore but the wind is blowing so hard & such a bad sea cannot think of Braddie's going in a little boat. No, no, Braddie must not think of it, he must remain with his Mary & read to her."

    Thirty-one-year-old Bradstreet did not appear to be at all irritated by this possessive and naive devotion, indulgently carrying "his Mary" onward to Sweden, Russia, and Denmark, and from thence to Cadiz, where he procured a cargo of salt for home. Finally, on Friday, September 26, 1851, Mary wrote, "My first Sea Voyage safely endid." Just two months later, on November 27, she was off on a second expedition, with Braddie "very busily engaged Joynering ... in our own little Cabbin, think my Braddie very neat indeed."

    Obviously, her honeymoon voyage had been most successful, an experiment well worth repeating. And, furthermore, it led to a seafaring tradition, for Braddie and Mary had a son, Bradstreet Junior, who eventually moved to Java in the South China Sea, and set up business there, supplying the ships and becoming the United States consul in Batavia.

    A much later seafaring wife, Emma Pray of the China trade ship Governor Goodwin, arrived at the Javanese port of Anjer-Lor in July 1888 to discover that the ship chandlers were Scott and Rairden, "the only English-speaking men in Anjer." When he met Emma walking in the streets of Anjer, Mr. Rairden courteously invited her to "go down to his house, and see his wife, and said we were to stop for tiffin with him. I didn't know that he had a wife," Emma commented, but went along anyway, to "a very pretty little house, and found Mrs. Rairden to be a young Englishwoman. She was quite pretty, quiet, and pleasing in her manner." Her maiden name was Frances Elizabeth Collins.

    Frances had come to Java on the bark John A. Gaunt with her sister, her brother-in-law being the captain. Over the five weeks that the ship had lain in Anjer, Frances "met Mr. Rairden, became engaged to him, and two days before the vessel was to sail, they were married on board ship, by a minister whom they sent for, from Singapore. Her sister went on to Calcutta, and she staid here," Emma continued, obviously highly diverted by this most unusual honeymoon. The couple had been married fourteen months, and seemed "to be quite contented, and they both seem to think a great deal of each other"--which is not unexpected, when one remembers "Braddie and his Mary." Like father, like son, Emma would have thought, if she had known the whole of the story.

    Braddie Jr. and Frances "had a little baby two months old, which she hardly knew what to do with. She was not used to children, and had to get most of the information from the native women," Emma related. Frances Elizabeth Collins Rairden must have learned well, for she lived to raise five children to maturity, no small feat in a place where "Java fever" carried off so many men on the visiting ships.

    On August 13, 1853, another bride, Fidelia Heard, was almost too busy getting her quarters "systematized" at the start of her honeymoon voyage on the Boston bark Oriental to notice their departure. First, she "arranged all our books and movable articles so that they would not shake about by the motion of the ship," and then, "the Steward fastened our trunks to the floor by nailing a bit of wood on each side of them to the floor, quite a new sort of arrangement to me." It was a novel kind of setup for her husband, Captain John Jay Heard, as well. "The Capt. says it seems quite as strange to him to have me on board, as it is to me to be here. He having always been alone, it looks rather queer to see ladies' clothing hanging in the State Room."

    Like Captain Joseph Delano more than two decades before, Captain John Jay Heard soon put his wife to work--but not with hostess-duties, as there were no passengers on board save two very young men who were headed for the Orient. Instead, like Captain Banning Blanchard, Captain Heard set to teaching his bride how to find the daily position of the ship. "I took my first lesson in navigation this afternoon, commenced learning to box the compass," Fidelia wrote on August 18, 1853, five days after departure. Next day, she "went up on deck to look about, more sails were being set, & some of the men had to go up aloft to assist. I looked with astonishment at the dexterity with which they climb," she marveled, "going out to the farther end of the yard, & reaching over until it seemed as if the ship's motion would fetch them headlong, then coming down by a single rope, letting it slip through their hands." Then, on the twentieth, Fidelia "looked through the quadrant for the first time & have been studying to find the difference of latitude and longitude. Hope to be able ere long to do it myself alone," she concluded with well-founded optimism, for on the twenty-ninth she was able to write with pride, "The Capt. paid me a great compliment today by copying my ship's reckoning into his book."

    Half a century later, on her honeymoon on the Bangalore, Georgia Blanchard "started right off working the sights each day and marking on my chart. Usually we took them by the sun," she wrote.

Banning would be on deck looking at the sun through his sextant while I was in the cabin looking at the chronometer. When he would shout TIME I would put down on paper what it said on the chronometer. Then I would take my turn on deck and we would work out the position of the ship and place it on the chart. When the sun was not out during the day we would take the sights by the stars at night.

Then, twenty days out, when Banning was delirious with a bout of malaria, Georgia's new skill proved very useful indeed.

    It was the rare bride who was not taught how to "work time" to calculate the ship's position. Some were much more adept than others, but most became capable of writing, as did Hannah Stimpson Winn, the bride of Captain Joseph Winn of the ship St. Paul, in 1837:

When the Spaniards discovered the Island of Luzon, on which Manila is, they came round Cape Horn, and by steering from [east'.sup.d] to [west'.sup.d] they lost nearly a day. We on the contrary came round Cape Good Hope steering [east'.sup.d] and [gain.sup.d] twelve hours, as every degree of Longitude East makes ship's time four minutes faster & every degree of Longitude West makes it four minutes slower. It is thus we find our way to and from all parts of the world.

    Which meant that it was the Spaniards' fault that in Manila "their Sunday is our Monday," however! "In consequence of the Spaniards' westward steering, when they discovered Manila, they lost nearly a day," Hannah Winn wrote, "which makes their time here one day behind ours, therefore their Sunday is our Monday." If Ferdinand Magellan (who was Portuguese) had had the sense to approach the Philippines from the other direction, Sunday would have kept its proper place, and Hannah would not have been forced to "reverence the Manila Sabbath" instead of her own--or so she reckoned. It was not just the female sex that was prone to amusing errors, however. A very seasoned wife, Emma Pray, noted on the ship Governor Goodwin, three days after departure from New York in April 1888, that their passenger, Mr. Goodwin, had come on deck vigorously shaking his watch, "and said he didn't know what had got into it, as it had lost about twenty minutes each day for the last four days."

    Fidelia Heard knew much better than that, writing on her third Sunday out of Boston, "Being over 30 [degrees] east of Boston, there is consequently more than two hours difference in time, as just about the time our Boston friends were going to morning service, we were through ours, & were sitting down to dinner." This was quite a feat of intelligence, for Fidelia was a very inexperienced seafarer, finding it a challenge to walk in a "slandicular" fashion, and having more than a little trouble with sea terminology, too. "I often make most ludicrous mistakes," she confided in September, for she had just given her husband cause for some hilarity by talking breathlessly of what she had seen "while I was sitting in the yard!" Of course she meant while sitting on deck, but he was very amused, for a "yard" at sea is a spar high up on the mast, to which a sail is attached. Fidelia reported enjoying a chuckle of her own, however, when she overheard her husband call some common old ropes the "sheets!"

    Fidelia wasn't the only wife to become puzzled by salty phrases. When Hannah Winn noted in January 1838, "Men employed fishing the main mast," she wondered in her journal, "What can that be?" and answered herself, "It is what I should call mending it." By contrast, Mrs. Follansbee, who sailed with her new husband Alonzo on the four-hundred-ton ship Logan in 1837, was quite lofty about her grasp of sea language. "By this time I had learned all the nautical phrases," she wrote on July 10, two months after departure from New York; "though I did not choose to use them, test I get in the habit, and use them on shore, which would be very mortifying for a captain's wife."

    A much less pretentious bride was Sarah Tucker, who married Captain Charles Low in May 1852, when she was nineteen. Two weeks later they set sail from New York on the extreme clipper N. B. Palmer, at the start of a remarkably eventful honeymoon voyage, throughout the whole of which Sarah behaved with astounding stoicism. Storms did not faze her, nor the mutiny that Low had to put down off the cast coast of South America, in which his first mate was shot in the leg. In January 1853 the ship sailed headlong onto a reef in the South China Sea. The ship was floated off, but leaked badly, and Captain Low steered for Batavia, ninety miles away. Just as they limped into harbor, Sarah serenely gave birth to a boy. This last-minute delivery was to turn into a habit, for at the end of her second voyage, as the N. B. Palmer was passing Sandy Hook on her way into New York, Sarah gave birth to a second son.

    An even less romantic honeymoon was that of Henrietta Elliott, who married her cousin, Captain Joshua Slocum, on February 22, 1886. Slocum was a widower with two sons, and was still mourning his first wife, Virginia, who had died at sea less than two years before. Nonetheless he took Henrietta and the two boys on a honeymoon voyage, on the Aquidneck of New York. The ship was wrecked on the coast of Brazil, in December 1887. The resourceful Slocum built a canoe-like craft that he christened Liberdade, and ferried his family home on that. And it is not surprising that Henrietta stayed home once she got there, refusing ever to try the briny again.

    Another woman who learned her lesson was Elizabeth Daskett, who married Captain Otis Clark, master of the three-masted schooner Eva L. Ferris, in Philadelphia in December 1901. The schooner was loaded with coal and dynamite for Boston, and Otis Clark wanted her to take the train and meet him there, but no, Elizabeth insisted on her honeymoon voyage. She had never been to sea before, and wanted to find out what life on board ship was like.

    And so she sailed, and enjoyed her voyage, too, until New Year's Eve, when a gale stormed onto them from the icy northwest. Captain Clark was not unduly worried at first, calculating that he could wait the storm out until it abated. Instead, the gale increased, so that vicious seas thrashed across the ice-sheathed decks. Then, in the dead of the tumultuous night, a particularly violent wave wrenched out the bowsprit stays, opening the bow to the sea.

    Tons of water foamed into the forward part of the ship, and the decks bowed with the sudden release of pressure, bouncing out the mizzen boom, which crashed down through the lifeboat, so that their only chance of escape was in splinters. Below decks, it was a nightmare of smashing glass and crashing furniture. "It's bad, isn't it," said Elizabeth to her husband when he came down to carry her up to deck. "It's bad, all right," he agreed.

    Captain, crew, and captain's bride huddled on the poop, the only part that was not constantly swept by the hungry seas. Because of the thick ice, it was impossible to take refuge in the rigging. All they could do was wait for rescue--and while they waited, Elizabeth sang. She sang everything and anything that came to mind, hymns and folk-songs, shanties and vaudeville, just to keep their spirits up, while all the time the sinking schooner drifted and another dreadful night loomed. Then, just before dark descended, the Lizzie M. Stanley materialized out of the murk. The rescue could not have been timed more closely. Moments after Elizabeth, Otis, and the shivering crew were dragged on board the Lizzie M. Stanley, the Eva L. Ferris slipped beneath the icy surf.

    According to the somewhat chauvinistic stories told at the time, Elizabeth Clark then did something unusual, for a female. She turned to her husband, and allowed that he had been right. She should have gone to Boston by rail, she said. Then she most sincerely assured Otis she would go by train hence-forth--and that is exactly what happened. Unlike Mary Rairden, Sarah Low, Emma Cawse, and many hundreds of other brides who continued their voyaging on all kinds of craft, from humble coasters to the grandest of downeasters and clippers, Elizabeth Clark never, ever returned to the sea.


Excerpted from Hen Frigates by Joan Druett Copyright © 1999 by Joan Druett. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

CHAPTER ONE. The Honeymooners
CHAPTER THREE. Sex and the Seafaring Wife
CHAPTER FOUR. Children at Sea
CHAPTER FIVE. Small Ladies
CHAPTER SIX. Ship Kitchens
CHAPTER SEVEN. Occupational Therapy
CHAPTER EIGHT. Medical Matters
CHAPTER NINE. Hazards of the Sea
CHAPTER TEN. Dropping Anchor
CHAPTER ELEVEN. On Shore in a Foreign Land

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