During the nineteenth century it became increasingly common for merchant service masters to take their wives to sea, particularly in the whaling industry, where voyages of 2-3 years were not uncommon.
Reflecting the sailor’s traditional dislike of women on board – seen as unlucky by the superstitious and disruptive by the more rational – these ships were derisively dubbed ‘Hen Frigates’ and although they have been the fashionable subject of academic interest in recent years, there is not much literature by the women themselves.
Among the first, and most accomplished, is Abby Jane Morrell’s account of a voyage between 1829 and 1831 that took her from New England to the South Pacific.
Her husband Benjamin was in the sealing trade but was a keen explorer, and his adventurous spirit led him – and his wife – into situations normally well outside the world of the Hen Frigate.
Curiously, Benjamin also wrote an account of this voyage, but since he was described by a contemporary as ‘the greatest liar in the Pacific’, his wife’s is a better record of what actually happened, even when dealing with dramatic incidents like the murderous attack by cannibal islanders.
Apart from the descriptions of exotic places, much of the interest in this book is the traditional, centuries-old world of the sailor as seen through the eyes of a thoughtful and well-educated woman.
As such it heads a long line of ‘improving’ books aimed at ameliorating the seaman’s lot.
More information >> Seafarers’ Voices 7: Captain’s Wife