I’ve been reading Women at Sea in the Age of Sail by Donal Baird, a fascinating account of seafaring women from Canada’s east coast in the 1800s. For reasons I didn’t understand at the time, I was drawn to the book at a Halifax book store in 2018.
Gender roles of the Victorian era barred women’s aspirations taking to the sea for the purpose of being part of a ship’s working crew. None the less, a number of women in the 1800s travelled along with their husbands for some semblance of family life rather than be left behind to raise children alone. They often gave birth at sea without the care of doctor or midwife, suffered the lack of female companionship, and endured stormy weather and shipwrecks.
In the mid 1800s, merchant sea captains were encouraged to bring their wives aboard with the hope that they’d not only create a home-like environ in the cabin, but also that their very presence would curtail the crews’ raucous tendencies. Eldest daughters were often hired on as “stewardess” to cook and keep house for her father. Some assisted by making entries to the captain’s log. Historians often praise their level of detail which exceeded the brevity of their male counterparts. During times of boredom, women watched their husbands or fathers at work and learned the ship’s operation by observing.
The story of Nova Scotia’s Bessie Hall especially interested me. She took to the sea at age 17 in 1856 and three years later under her father’s tutelage, was deemed a competent navigator. Bessie had an aptitude for charting courses and directing the ship. Under crewed on a voyage to New Orleans to Liverpool, Captain Hall was debilitated by small pox along with most of his crew. No other seamen aboard knew how to navigate a ship, and so they depended on Bessie. Few mariners could manage the complexity of currents in the Bay of Fundy, so a return to St. Johns was ruled out. Bessie navigated the stormy north Atlantic crossing and brought them safely to Liverpool. Insurance brokers wanted to recognize her heroism with a dinner and the awarding of a gold pocket watch. Recognition of her feat went uncelebrated, however, because she’d docked the vessel without following proper quarantine protocol. Alas, publicity of ship’s arrival was squelched along with her accomplishment.
I offer a tip of my hat to Donal Baird, who in 2001, recognized the underrepresentation of women in the historical record, and set about gathering research from museums, diaries, letters, and family anecdotes to tell these women’s stories. His work now fuels my imagination.