Member Blogs > ten pound island book companyHens, Chicks, and Whales

  • Sun, 15 Dec 2013 04:18:45    Permalink

    According to author Joan Druett a hen frigate “traditionally, was any ship with the captain's wife on board.” In fact, Joan wrote a wonderful book on the subject titled, reasonably enough, Hen Frigates: Wives of Merchant Captains Under Sail. The book came out in 1998, but for years before that I’d known about these sailor-wives, and had always been on the lookout for artifacts from their voyages.
    They wrote letters aboard ship, of course, and did needlework, drawing, painting, and many of the other “feminine arts” to while the long days away. They annotated bibles and saved leaves and flowers from exotic locations, but the most evocative traces they left behind are diaries and journals. Joan relies on some of these for her book, but they are not common. Only a small percentage of captains sailed with their wives, and a still smaller percentage of these ladies kept journals – or at least journals that survived. Extended writings by women aboard their husband’s sailing ships are therefore rare, and I have always kept a weather eye out for them. They are one of the few kinds of items that I can be sure of selling!
    Imagine my delight, then, at recently acquiring such a journal – kept not just by a merchant captain’s wife, but by a whaling captain’s wife. And not just a whaling captain’s wife, but a pregnant wife, who gave birth to a baby girl in a South American whaling port.


    Manuscript. WHALING JOURNALS KEPT ABOARD THE CORNELIA OCTOBER 1871 - APRIL 1874; NAPOLEON JULY 1874 - SEPT 1875; NAPOLEON 1878 – 1882. One folio and three quarto journals; approximately 350 pages of manuscript entries. The Cornelia was a 263 ton bark commanded by Leroy Lewis. She departed New Bedford October 10 1871, and was condemned and sold at auction at Paita in 1873. According to Starbuck she sent home 278 barrels of sperm oil and 498 humpback. A journal of this voyage was kept by Charles Turner, one of Cornelia’s officers. He makes entries every few days, usually highlighting significant action such as storms, ships sighted, events on board, and raising and killing whales. These whales are marked with three distinct kinds of whale stamps - flukes, sperm and blackfish. They cruised the coast of South America, until December 1873 when the ship developed a leak. It increased alarmingly from 3500 to 12,200 strokes as they made for Paita, where they arrived February 10, 1874. The oil was sent home and the ship, fittings, and cargo were sold at auction, a process which Turner documents in some detail.
    He was back in New Bedford by April 21 and, on July 13 he set out on another voyage, this time on the Napoleon, a 277 ton bark which cruised the Atlantic, Australian, and New Zealand grounds until 1878. As before, his accounts are regular but not daily, with good descriptions and whale stamps. The journal continues until September 21 1875. They put into Honolulu, eight men deserted, and Turner became captain of the Napoleon. The journal stops here but contains some remarkable tallies at the end - Whales taken by the Cornelia, oil shipped home (depicted in whale stamps), Cornelia accounts, sperm oil stowed, humpback oil stowed, letters sent home from bark Napoleon, and oil sold.
    On August 1 1878 Turner commenced another cruise to the Pacific as captain of the Napoleon. This time, however, the journal was kept by his wife. Her entries are more frequent and tend to be longer, so her account fills 160 pages of one of the quarto books, and is continued through another 67 pages of the folio book. Her accounts differ from her husband’s in that they contain more personal and social information. For example, in April 1880, while ashore at Tulcahuano, she meets the famous trans-Atlantic dory sailers, Captain and Mrs. Crapo who, apparently, are minor celebrities even there. However, she does not slight whaling activities. Whaling operations are described from her perspective, and marked in many cases with whale stamps. On May 19 1881, while in port again at Tulcahuano she “was taken with labor pains had them quite severe all through yesterday & last night & at 8:35 this AM the baby was born & we are getting along nicely. Babies name Clementine Frances Turner.” This journal ends June 24 1882, as they approach New Bedford. This is followed by four pages of entries from St. Helena where, in 1885, her husband had left her and daughter “Clemie.” On the morning of July 4, “Baby was born 4 o’clock we named him Charles R. Turner weighed 9 pounds.”
    A remarkable record. Journals of women aboard “hen frigates” are scarce. Journals of lady whalers are even more rare and desirable.
     Meanwhile, back on dry land, in the 21st century, the girls at Flatrocks Gallery put on a feast for some of their most loyal supporters, as a part of their ongoing show, FEAST. It was snowing and blowy, but somehow that made the event perfect. Mulled wine, beef stew, and good company.

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