Seafaring Women: Adventures of Pirate Queens, Female Stowaways, and Sailors' Wives

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The fall of 1856 was one of the worst seasons that sailors off the coast of Cape Horn had ever seen. The clipper ship Neptune's Car, a trading vessel from New York, had battled huge waves and gale-force winds for weeks. Desperate to save his men and cargo from the violent storm, Captain Joshua Patten spent eight sleepless days and nights on deck. On the ninth day at the helm, he collapsed with a raging fever, and his crew panicked. As freezing rain and wind howled through the rigging and death seemed imminent, ...
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Seafaring Women: Adventures of Pirate Queens, Female Stowaways, and Sailors' Wives

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Overview

The fall of 1856 was one of the worst seasons that sailors off the coast of Cape Horn had ever seen. The clipper ship Neptune's Car, a trading vessel from New York, had battled huge waves and gale-force winds for weeks. Desperate to save his men and cargo from the violent storm, Captain Joshua Patten spent eight sleepless days and nights on deck. On the ninth day at the helm, he collapsed with a raging fever, and his crew panicked. As freezing rain and wind howled through the rigging and death seemed imminent, just one person on board stepped forward to take control of the ship: Captain Patten's nineteen-year-old wife, Mary, then five months' pregnant with their first child. When the ship safely reached its destination of San Francisco that November, Mary Patten was hailed as a national heroine.

What was a young woman doing on board a clipper ship in 1856? And how could she have been skilled enough to navigate a 216-foot vessel through a storm? Maritime history is rich with tales of male adventurers, sailors, captains, and pirates. In fact, we think of the high seas as an all-male world. But what about women? Were wives and daughters left ashore, relegated to a landlubber's existence?

To answer these questions, celebrated maritime scholar David Cordingly has written an inspired, illuminating, and highly readable book that reveals the vibrant history of women and the sea. Drawing on years of research into the journals, ship's logs, and diaries of extraordinary women like Mary Patten, Cordingly has resurrected the incredible stories of a forgotten population. He re-creates a time when captain's wives shared Christmas dinners in Tahitian harbors, and when one Hannah Snell served aboard a British naval ship for four years without revealing her identity as a woman.

The book's structure takes the form of a voyage. Beginning with the ships at anchor, Cordingly looks at the lives of sailors' women in port, including the women of ill repute who prowled the docks. He details the terror of the press gangs that rounded up men to fill the ships, taking them from their wives and children, and then follows the ships to sea. On board, Cordingly explores the lives of captain's wives, female sailors, and stowaways. He then turns to the mythical women of the sea, including mermaids, sirens, patron saints, and the female figureheads that graced so many bows. On the journey home, there is a look at the female lighthouse keepers who guarded the coasts, and then once back in port we see how the women left behind fared in the absence of their sailors.

A thrilling voyage of a book through one of the most unknown and fascinating landscapes of adventure lore, Women Sailors and Sailors' Women brings to life a remarkable piece of history.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Renowned maritime expert and writer David Cordingly has crafted an entertaining narrative of the wild women of the high seas. Make sail with Cordingly as he journeys through the fascinating world of these amazing women -- from the pregnant 19-year-old who commandeered a ship in jeopardy to the numerous women who disguised themselves as men for the duration of a five-year journey!
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The shipwrecked sailor is a familiar figure, but what of the woman lighthouse keeper who rescued him? Readers of sea lore know the pirate Calico Jack, but what about his mistress Anne Bonny and her lover, Mary Read? An Oxford-trained maritime museum curator, Cordingly (Under the Black Flag) writes back into naval history these and other women who went to sea with their lovers, either as wives or as cross-dressing "cabin boys." Although he sometimes wanders away from his primary subject to describe great moments in maritime history only distantly connected to women, his tales are so compelling it's hard to begrudge him the digressions. And while many of his anecdotes are quite titillating, his understated British voice keeps readers from feeling embarrassed for keyhole peeping. For instance, his sangfroid account of how a cross-dressing woman sailor's testimony led to a male sailor's execution for the crime of sodomy allows readers to draw their own conclusions. The only shortcoming to this delightful volume is its lack of illustrations. (Mar. 2) Forecast: Published in conjunction with a companion exhibit in Newport News, Va., and the author's tour of maritime museums, this book will find solid sales among female adventure fans and the many devoted readers of Patrick O'Brian's seafaring sagas. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Cordingly (Under the Black Flag), former curator of paintings and head of exhibitions for the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, here offers a fascinating survey of the role of women on shore and at sea during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, the great age of sail. Recent studies of this period reveal that "a surprising number of women went to sea," some smuggled aboard, some as the wives or mistresses of captains, and some dressed in men's clothing, working undiscovered (often for an entire voyage) alongside their shipmates. Set out in the form of a voyage, the author's historical narrative begins at the seaports; follows the varied stories of women sailors, sailors' women, and men without women at sea; examines the mystic relationship between women and water; moves on to adventures in foreign ports; and returns (with a brief investigation of lighthouses and female lighthouse keepers) to the seaports. Almost as action-packed as the sea yarns of C.S. Forester or Patrick O'Brian, Cordingly's carefully documented account presents a facet of maritime life that might surprise even Horatio Hornblower or Jack Aubrey. Recommended for public and academic libraries.--Robert C. Jones, Central Missouri State Univ., Warrensburg Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
From the Publisher
“This is a book to inform, stimulate, and amuse—an irresistible diversion.”
—Baltimore Sun

One of the best books of 2001*

“A valuable addition to nautical literature and a useful contribution to the study of women’s history....[Cordingly’s] book leaves no doubt that women have played a far larger role in the nautical life than is commonly understood.”
—Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post*

“Cordingly transcends the ideological limits of gender history and brings a world to life.”
—The Wall Street Journal

“Revisionism at its most delightful. With no particular gospel to preach, Cordingly works his way through layer after layer of overlooked and unconnected written records, finding evidence of women almost everywhere.”
—Houston Chronicle

“Cordingly brings a wide range of research together in one expansive volume.”
—Boston Herald

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780786235247
  • Publisher: Gale Group
  • Publication date: 9/1/2001
  • Edition description: LARGEPRINT
  • Pages: 530
  • Product dimensions: 5.94 (w) x 8.70 (h) x 1.25 (d)

Meet the Author

David Cordingly was for twelve years on the staff of the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England, where he was curator of paintings and then head of exhibitions. He is a graduate of Oxford and the author of Under the Black Flag, an acclaimed history of piracy. Cordingly lives with his wife and family by the sea in Sussex, England.
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

Women on the Waterfront

The English artist Thomas Rowlandson was an astute observer of sailors and their women, and his engravings provide a vivid picture of life in the waterfront taverns of London around 1800. The faces of his sailors are gnarled and weather-beaten, and their expressions are drunkenly happy or leery and lustful. They are dressed in short blue jackets, loose white shirts, and either baggy trousers or the distinctive garments known as petticoat-breeches. They have brightly colored handkerchiefs knotted around their necks and curiously shapeless black hats jammed on their heads. In one cartoon, entitled Despatch, or Jack preparing for sea, a sailor sits on the knee of one young woman while he gropes her companion's breast. In his spare hand he has a drink, and he is shouting encouragement to two musicians who stand beside him scraping away on their fiddles. In another cartoon a sailor and his woman dance an energetic hornpipe while their companions drink and smoke and look on with approval. A couple can be seen making love on the floor, and the whole atmosphere of the tavern reeks of tobacco smoke and strong liquor.

The women in Rowlandson's pictures are young and pretty and buxom. They wear little caps with feathers and ribbons on their heads, necklaces around their shapely necks, and low-cut, high-waisted dresses that emphasize their generous figures. Some of the women are barmaids and others are sailors' wives or sweethearts or whores. All of them appear to be having a good time.

These tavern scenes provide a stark contrast with the descriptions of life in London's East End some fifty years later. Bracebridge Hemyngcontributeda chapter on sailors' women to Henry Mayhew's great work London Labour and the London Poor, first published in 1851. Among the women Hemyng met during his forays into the sailors' districts of Wapping and Limehouse was China Emma. She was short and rather stout with a pale face and a vacant expression. She lived in Bluegate Fields, a narrow street off the Ratcliffe Highway, and she was looked after by an eccentric Irishwoman who endeavored
to stop her from drinking herself to death. China Emma had acquired her nickname because she lived with a Chinese sailor, but she was not Chinese herself. She was born on Goswell Street to parents who kept a grocery. Her mother died when she was twelve years old and her father took to drink. Within three years he was dead, and Emma went to stay with her sister, who soon went off with a man, leaving Emma to fend for herself. She was unable to get any work and things looked bad until she met a sailor. She moved in with him, and they lived as man and wife for six years. Unhappily, like thousands of other sailors, he contracted yellow fever in the West Indies and died. One of his shipmates gave her the news and brought her back the silver snuffbox that her sailor had kept his tobacco quids in.

China Emma moved from street to street and kept herself going by working as a prostitute. Sometime after she moved to Bluegate Fields, she met a Chinese sailor named Apoo, who became her regular partner. He sent her money when he was away, but by now Emma had become an incurable drunkard.
Apoo had no patience with her drinking and sometimes resorted to drastic measures. He used to tie her arms and legs together and take her outside into the street: "He'd throw me into the gutter, and then he'd throw buckets of water over me till I was wet through; but that didn't cure; I don't believe anything would; I'd die for a drink; I must have it, and I don't care what I does to get it."

Emma sometimes had melancholy fits when she wished she were dead. Several times she attempted suicide by throwing herself into the Thames, but her attempts were always foiled. On one occasion she leapt out of the first-floor window of a waterfront house in Jamaica Place, but a passing boatman fished her out of the water with a boat hook. As she explained to her interviewer, "I've no luck; I never had since I was a child."

China Emma and Rowlandson's buxom wenches represent two stereotypes of sailors' women. The former is a pathetic example of the downtrodden victims who attracted the attention of Victorian clergymen and social reformers; the latter are in the tradition of the charming girls with names like
Pretty Nancy and Sweet Poll of Plymouth who appear in so many sailors' songs and ballads. Both these stereotypes existed and were typical of their times, but they were only the most visible of the sailors' women to be found in every port.

The women we hear least about are the close relatives of sailors and in particular their mothers and sisters. We catch glimpses here and there. Captain John Cremer, more familiarly known as Ramblin' Jack, came from a seafaring family in the East End of London and left a journal describing his adventures at sea. He was born around 1700 on East Lane, Bermondsey, on the south bank of the Thames a mile or so downstream from the Tower of London. His father was master of a merchant ship, and his uncle was a captain in the navy. "As to my mother's family; she was a master ropemaker's daughter, which had three rope-walks joining on the back of East Lane, and called Cantor's Rope-walks to this day." The rope-walks can be seen alongside the adjoining timber yards on old maps of London. They were long, narrow sites where strands of hemp were twisted to form the lengths of rope used for the rigging and anchor cables of ships. Jack's father was captured by the French and died around 1706, leaving his mother a house in Deptford and about £14 a year. We hear nothing more about Jack's
mother beyond the fact that her brother, who was a lieutenant in the Royal Navy, arranged for Jack to join the crew of his ship, HMS Dover, in 1708.

Another glimpse of a sailor's family of this period is provided by Ned Ward, a London publican and journalist, whose best-known and least reliable work is a satirical pamphlet about life in the Royal Navy entitled The Wooden World Dissected. He also published his observations on London life
in a series of articles in The London Spy, which came out in book form in 1703. Unlike the navy, of which he had no firsthand experience, he had an intimate knowledge of London's streets, taverns, fairs, and customs. On one occasion around Christmastime, he and a friend took a stroll along the north bank of the Thames to Wapping, where they ventured into a public house to refresh themselves with a bowl of punch.

"The first figure that accosted us at our entrance was a female Wappineer, whose crimson countenance and double chin, contain'd within the borders of a white calico hood, and her fiery-face look, in my fancy, was like a red-hot iron glowing in a silver chafing dish." The woman was the landlady of the pub and the mother of two sailors. One of her sons was sitting glumly in the corner smoking a short pipe of stinking tobacco. After she had served Ward and his friend, she subjected her son to a torrent of abuse for his idleness. She complained that she worked as hard as any woman in the parish but could not afford to support him, and urged him to get off his backside and sign on to one of several ships that were bound for the West Indies. He agreed to do so and had no sooner left the pub than in walked his sailor brother, Bartholomew, with a hat full of money clutched under his arm. He explained that he had been paid off when his ship reached the Downs and had made his way around to the Thames on a local vessel. He
greeted his loud and corpulent mother with enthusiasm.

"Sure never any seafaring son of a whore had ever such a good mother upon shore as I have. 'Ounds, mother, let me have a bucket full of punch, that we may swim and toss in an ocean of good liquor, like a couple of little pinks in the Bay of Biscay." The mother and her favorite son had been drinking for a while when the sailor's sister, Betty, entered the tavern, "and there was such a wonderful mess of slip-slop licked up between brother Bat and sister Bet that no two friends, met by accident in a foreign
plantation, could have expressed more joy in their greeting."

The Wapping landlady was one of many sailors' women who earned a living in the taverns along the Thames, and in other British seaports. In the eighteenth century, as today, alehouses were often run by families. In most cases the landlord was formally in charge, but it was the landlady and her daughters who did much of the work and who set the tone for the establishment. We see them in numerous engravings doling out drink for the sailors, and joining in their noisy celebrations as the men savored their precious few weeks ashore before returning to their ships. There were women licensees of alehouses, but they were a minority and were usually the widows of former landlords. According to the 1796 directory for Liverpool, no less than 27 percent of licensed victuallers were female, but in most
places the proportion was much lower.

The sailors' women who were most in evidence in the East End of London were not landladies or sailors' mothers but the women described by Ward as strumpets or trulls. They were to be found plying their trade in the brothels that centered around the Ratcliffe Highway. This street lay to the north of the wharves on the riverfront at Wapping. It was described in 1600 by John Stow as "a continual street, or filthy straight passage, with alleys of small tenements or cottages builded, inhabited by sailors and
victuallers." Most sailors were young and unmarried, and every tide brought them flocking ashore from the hundreds of ships moored in serried ranks in the Pool of London. They were looking for women and drink, and the establishments along the Ratcliffe Highway provided for their needs. During the course of the seventeenth century, the neighborhood attracted prostitutes of several nationalities, including an influx of Flemish women who had a reputation for their sexual expertise and Venetian courtesans who
were too expensive for ordinary seamen and were patronized by aristocrats and members of the court.

The most notorious of the local women in the 1650s and 1660s was Damaris Page, who was described by Samuel Pepys as "the great bawd of the seamen." She was born in Stepney around 1620, became a prostitute in her teens, and married a man named William Baker in 1640. During the course of the next
fifteen years, she moved on from prostitution to operating brothels. She had one on the Ratcliffe Highway that catered to ordinary seamen and dockworkers, and she also managed one on Rosemary Lane for naval officers and those who could afford the prices of the classier prostitutes. In 1653,
she married a second husband, and two years later she was brought before the magistrates at Clerkenwell. The first charge of bigamy was dismissed on the grounds that her first marriage had not been sanctified, but the second charge was more serious. Accused of killing Eleanor Pooley while attempting to carry out an abortion with a two-pronged fork, she was charged with manslaughter and sentenced to be hanged. She was fortunate to be pregnant herself, however, and after being examined by a panel of matrons, she escaped the death sentence and spent three years in Newgate prison instead. On her release, she resumed her career as a madam and died a wealthy woman
in her house on the Ratcliffe Highway in 1669.

The steady growth in London's maritime trade during the course of the eighteenth century brought more and more ships to the wharves and quays below London Bridge. A report published in 1800 estimated that there were 8,000 vessels and boats of all kinds in the port of London at any one time, and with the ships came the sailors. Inevitably there was an increase in the supply of prostitutes to meet the demand. Some of these were girls who were forced into prostitution by sheer poverty. Others were young women who decided that they would rather sell their bodies than work sixteen hours a day as laundresses or seamstresses. According to the observations of Daniel Defoe in 1725, many prostitutes came from the huge army of young maidservants in London and took to prostitution to support themselves on the frequent occasions when they found themselves out of work: "This is the reason why our streets are swarming with strumpets. Thus many of them rove from place to place, from bawdy-house to service, and from service to bawdy-house again."

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Table of Contents

Introduction xi
1. Women on the Waterfront 3
2. The Sailors' Farewell 23
3. Ann Parker and the Mutiny at the Nore 36
4. Female Sailors: Fact and Fiction 47
5. Hannah Snell, Mary Anne Talbot, and the Female Pirates 68
6. Wives in Warships 88
7. Seafaring Heroines 109
8. Whaling Wives 122
9. Men Without Women 138
10. Women and Water, Sirens and Mermaids 154
11. A Wife in Every Port 171
12. Two Naval Heroes and Their Women 192
13. The Lighthouse Women 215
14. The Sailors' Return 235
Glossary of Sea Terms 251
Notes 255
Bibliography 269
Acknowledgments 273
Index 275
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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 21, 2007

    horrible writing

    This author is a horid writer. Choppy paragraphs are a major problem. Writes pages on a subject, than says it was false, and did not make it worthwhile to read them. There is too much guessing, there needs to be more facts. If there aren't any, choose a different subject. I will never buy or read another book from this author.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 17, 2008

    No text was provided for this review.

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