Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Hen Frigates: Wives of Merchant Captains Under Sail

Ever since making the acquaintance of Mrs Croft in Persuasion, I've been intrigued by the idea of a woman living in such a thoroughly male environment as a naval ship, at a time when the spheres of men and women were far more strictly defined than today. So I was drawn to this account by New Zealand historian Joan Druett of captains' wives on sailing ships in the 19th century. It covers a period a little later than Mrs Croft's, and these were commercial vessels rather than naval, but conditions must have been similar in many ways.

Hen Frigates gives us glimpses from the lives of many such women, gleaned from journal entries and letters, and occasionally from newspaper accounts. There's excitement, boredom, irritation, sorrow, laughter and joy. Storms at sea; tedious becalmings; even getting caught up in battle. It could be a lonely life as the only woman on board, but there's little sense of self-pity in these accounts.

One example to give a small taste of these tales: Emma Browne took herself off to England in 1876, hoping that James Cawse, with whom she'd corresponded for the previous two years, would marry her when she arrived. Fortunately for her he did! A few weeks later they sailed off together, and by the time she returned to England she had a baby daughter - delivered at sea by her husband. Having the husband deliver the baby, unless the ship happened to be in port at the right time, was quite a typical experience, it seems. Many children were then raised on board, although parents tended to prefer to send their girls back to relatives when they reached their teen years.

The accounts are fascinating, though I did feel there might have been almost an overabundance of women represented (and even these are a subset of the comprehensive list the author provides in her references). After a time I started to feel I knew some of them specially well, and enjoyed their stories all the more for that. I wondered if the tales might have been even more effective if just a few women had been concentrated on, giving us more of a narrative structure of those particular lives.

Although I certainly wouldn't want to miss out on such exciting tales as that of sixteen-year-old "Miss Arnold", the daughter of the ship Rainbow's captain. Her father died, the first mate was a drunkard, and the second mate was "a cad". She "repelled... his dastardly attempts" [from the newspaper account], and threw herself on the protection of the crew, who acted like true British gentleman. It's a wonderfully melodramatic tale, with the virtue of being true, it seems.

I'm left with huge admiration for these women who went against the norm, for their own various and varied reasons. The opening quote is from one of the book's main "characters", Mary Rowland:

"As Henry [her husband] 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".

She wrote that in 1873, 21 years after marrying Henry, and three years before he died. They had spent all those years together at sea, enduring difficulties but with the comfort of each other's company. I think Sophy Croft might have said something similar.

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