There was not one woman on Captain Ahab’s whaling ship “Pequot” in Melville’s classic “Moby Dick” yet many women shipped on whalers and endured the hardships of years on board those “less than homey, blubber smelling ships”. By 1850, a sixth of whaling ships had the wives of their captains living aboard. In fact, over 440 American women took the seas in whaling ships. Whaling ships with wives aboard were sarcastically called “Hen Frigates. But for the captain’s wife, it was definitely better than sitting at home with their mothers-in-law!
As the northern Atlantic whaling grounds began to become depleted, whaling ships had to move further south and eventually around the Cape of Good Hope and into the bountiful waters of the Pacific. While this provided a new bounty of whales, the trips became much longer and the ships became considerably larger to hold more crew provisions, more specialized crews, with talents such as: barrel makers, carpenters, blacksmithing, etc., available on board because going back to home port was not an option in the Pacific. The whaling ship had to be self-sufficient. The longer the ship could stay out, the more whale oil they could take back to Bedford, Nantucket, Sag Harbor and Cold Spring Harbor, the more whale oil and profits could be returned to the ship investors. During the peak years before petroleum began to come into use, whale oil lit American homesteads.
These trips could take as long as three or more years and stressed many a whaling captain’s marriages. If the captain left his family at home, the wife was left worrying about the safety of her husband, as whaling was a very dangerous business. In addition, the loneliness at times could be overwhelming. Eventually, more and more wives decided to go “A Whaling” with their husbands. So down to the dock on shipping day came the captain’s wife in a horse-drawn carriage with her trunks filled with clothing and utensils needed to domesticate the captain’s quarters and keep any of their young children interested and educated on the long journey. So shipped out women like Polly Gardner of Quogue, Elizabeth White and Eliza Edwards from Sag Harbor, Sarah Rose of South Hampton, Mary Brewster of New Bedford Mass. and many more from Mid Atlantic and New England shipping ports.
Once aboard and settled in, captain's wives slowly transformed the lives of whalers at sea for not only her husband and their children for but often the crew as well. 19th century whalers tended not to be the most civilized of places. The crews were not the tidiest and came from almost every country you can imagine, the cursing was proficient, the decks were scummy, and the lack of personal hygiene, mostly due to the scarcity of fresh water, made the ship “Aromatic” to say the least. Added to this was the persistent smell of rotten whale blubber which could be quite an awakening to a woman going to sea with her husband the first time. But these women were strong pioneers and there are no records of persistent complaints by them. They just waded in and transformed their husband’s vessels as much as they could.
Generally, the captain had his own bedroom and a parlor where he took his meals and relaxed. Once a sea wife arrived things began to change and neatness and cleanliness increased. The ability to knit, sew and crochet added curtains, furniture throws and the like, to the hominess of their quarters. Sometimes the first mate might even take his wife though they lived under harsher living conditions in a tiny room below deck, but another woman added to the captain’s wife companionship. If children were aboard the captain’s wife would take responsibility for teaching basic English, math, some history and most importantly, the New and Old Testaments. Every ship carried a bible and the captain’s wife often made sure there were Sunday services for the crew when sea conditions allowed. She would also use the bible to instruct the more heathen, non-schooled members of the crew, with some English and touch of religion as well. This was only done when time allowed which was rarely on any vessel at sea, especially on whaling ships which needed to keep harpoons razor sharp, lines coiled correctly, and the whaling boats hanging on the davits, in tip-top shape.
The “Hen” of the vessel often served as a sort of medical officer. Her sewing skills came in right handy when a crewmember cut himself dealing with his gunny knife or harpoon. Sure, all the crewmen knew how to mend sails with waxed cord and could mend someone crudely, but the captain’s wife had a gentler ability with her smaller sewing needles and knew a lot more about the possibility of infection taking precautions to avoid it. A raging infection could easily end a sailor’s life in those days.
While the captain’s wife cooked the captain’s meals from his own stock of better meats and grains he brought aboard, it was not uncommon for the her to bake cookies, donuts and other sweets for the crew. On special occasions, she would work with the crew’s cook to enhance the crews’ basic meals of salt pork, fish and biscuits. That was the crews main fare when not visiting a foreign shore to stock up on water and obtain more tasteful courses. As the voyage resumed they were back to basics. A woman on board was apt to give special attention to holidays and made sure Christmas aboard was celebrated with some handmade decorations both in the captain’s quarters and crew’s quarters below.
The crew generally lived below decks in confined, humid, vermin infested quarters. Roaches scattered everywhere and rats were common. In the captain’s quarters, his wife spent a good deal of her time jousting with these pests. She would often lean upon her husband to demand better practices by the crew below decks. Uneaten food was no longer left about as much, and many rats fell victim to a sailor’s well-aimed throwing dirk. (A defensive knife most sailors carried.) Though the roaches and rats were rarely bested in the long run, who can blame the efforts made to control them?
Of course, there were other chores the wife would introduce that were perhaps a pain in the butt to most seamen. One of these was how to deal with laundry. In towns, cities and farms, folks did not change their clothing as often as we do today, but on a ship, it was worse. Left to themselves the crew rarely washed their clothing at sea. It wasn’t a big thing with them. They didn’t own a lot of clothing beyond what they needed. Who would even say anything? What would they say? “Hey Matey! You smell a trifle bit gamier than me?” Hardly! The captain, being a man of some means, generally was better dressed and when his garb began to get a trite saucy would have them “Cleaned”, most likely by the cook who would boil them. Once the captain had his wife present things would change, especially for her husband and children, if they were aboard. She would also boil the clothes but add soaps, which we would consider “Harsh” today. Fabric softener, non-existent. Did the soap have a nice “Irish Mist” smell? Hell no! It was made of lard and caustic lye, but it did kill the lice and gave everything a cleaner look. Don’t ask me how the captain’s wife did her “Delicates”! I didn’t even look it up! It would look weird if one of my grandsons’ looked into my laptop’s history.
Many of these women mastered the mathematical complexities of navigation and assisted the captain in this capacity. They also assisted or completely managed the whale ship’s books. They would list the miles covered, longitude and latitude, made accountings of supplies. They listed every whale caught, the number of barrels rendered, and where it was caught and sea conditions. They also listed injuries and deaths on board, often writing sad letters to the next of kin that would have to wait until the next port of call to be mailed.
Often the captain would order a small three-sided hut built on deck for his wife to have some privacy and shade when out on deck. Here she could read, sew or weave beautiful baskets in peace and it was a great place to retreat to when marital arguments took its toll. Speaking of privacy, I did research the bathroom accommodations for the captain’s wife and though I came up empty, it is easy to imagine that, given her station on board, she must have had a chamber pot that was emptied every morning by the most hated crewman aboard. I can guarantee the captain didn’t empty it!
Of course, having a wife aboard a whaling ship was not always as pleasurable as I make it out to be. Problems could and did arise. One of them was if the wife became pregnant, preferably by the captain. Many a child was born in the captain's quarters most often helped only by her husband. Most of these wives and newborns fared well but it was a chancy situation at best. There were wives and babies who were given up to the sea. Often the captain would make for Hawaii where there was a large American whaling community with other women and doctors. He would leave his wife there to give birth in a safer environment and return up to a year later to hopefully pick up his wife and new progeny.
While having the captain’s wife aboard did have some benefits for the crew, it did have one big negative. Whaling ships would visit various ports to take on fresh water and supplies; Valparaiso in South America was a popular one. Rather than have the crew leave the ship to go “A Funning” with the girls on shore, the captain would have the girls visit his ship while in port. To allow his men ashore risked desertion, so it was safer to bring the “Dessert” on board. Now I just can’t imagine that happening with the captain’s wife aboard. Sorry guys! You picked the wrong damn ship!
As the age of whaling died near the end of the 19th century the number of women on ships only increased to the point where today it is common to have women on crews and as captains and masters of their own ships. We can give some thanks to the “Frigate Hens” who were the first to break the “Oak Ceiling”.
NOTE: The Author and Illustrator take no responsibility for the “Look” of these whaling wives who were following the hair and clothing styles of their age.
C. 2020 By Mark C. Nuccio All rights reserved for
article and illustrations
You can reach the author at- mark @designedge.net