- by Carol Standish
Women Sailors and Sailors’ Women (Random House, 286pp, $14.95) by David Cordingly is a broad and fast-paced survey of the exploits of women who went to sea in the Anglo marine world of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The book also examines the lives of women who stayed on land but were involved with sailing men in a variety of capacities. Accounts are well researched but by no means dry. The author has chosen unusual as well as representative characters and organization of the book knits the various chapters together to resemble a sailor’s working life, beginning with the shore-side scene and winding up back on shore in a chapter titled The Sailors’ Return.
The rousing first chapter, Women on the Waterfront, examines the lives of women who survived as prostitutes for the ever fluctuating market of seamen who came ashore in the ports of London and New York. Some women sickened and died. Others, with stronger constitutions, or an entrepreneurial bent—or both—flourished. Most often they became property owners, running their own businesses, most common among which were taverns and “bawdy” houses. Still others escaped “the life” by becoming mistresses or wives of wealthy traders.
Cordingly also documents a little publicized practice—toward which authorities of the time turned a blind eye. Boatloads of women were often rowed out to anchored ships for officers and crew to enjoy on board. Such an occasion made for a very lively scene. One seaman who had served on naval and merchant ships of both countries reported, “[T]he sins of this ship was equal to the sins of Sodom, especially on the day we was paid, for we had thirteen women more than the number of our ship’s company, and not fifty of them married women.”
Other stories from the shore, documented with letters and newspaper accounts of the time, include the struggles of wives with poverty and loneliness or in the case of land owners, with single-handed farm or estate management. Men were often at sea from two to five years at a time. One letter quoted the writer “had been married for five years and had lived together ten months, ‘It is too bad, too bad,’ ’’ she says.
The solution for a surprising number of women was to accompany their men to sea. Cordingly examines the lives of women married to and sailing with crew and officers of military vessels, merchantmen and whalers. On British naval ships, wives were not officially acknowledged as existing on board—but they were certainly present. As one diary excerpt attests, “a naval captain was informed by his surgeon that a woman on board had been in labor for twelve hours, and if he would permit the firing of a broadside to leeward, ‘nature would be assisted by the shock.’ ” (The Captain agreed and another “son of a gun” was born, it being common practice for such births to take place alongside the guns.)
Cordingly includes a chapter on women who sailed in male disguise. One of the most amusing accounts is that of a valet to a French scientist on an circumnavigation of scientific exploration. “She had managed to fool all the men on board but when they landed at Tahiti, the islanders saw through her disguise at once.”
The famous female pirates have a chapter of their own. The author also gives an oblique and unorthodox glimpse of two seafaring heroes (Horatio Nelson and John Paul Jones) and their ladies. Lighthouse heroines, seafaring heroines, sirens, mermaids and sea nymphs are all given their due in this “women’s history disguised as a spectacularly entertaining yarn.” As the author himself says, “To write about women [or enjoy reading about them] it is not necessary to be a woman, merely to have a sense of justice and sympathy.”