The perils of the sea are easily spoken of in terms of the men and women who faced them. High seas, storms, enemy fire and the taking of prizes, disease, want and just plane hard work are discussed over and over until they’ve been so minutely picked at that a new way of approaching them has to be found. Hopefully, that’s what I’m doing here at Triple P. All that being said, there is one form of abstinence, want and heartache that is too often overlooked in writings about the sea: the misery of those left behind.
There may be a number of reasons for the fact that the people left by land don’t show up frequently in historical tomes. The first and foremost may be that they were not thought much of in their own time when almost everyone had it hard and the absence of a relative or other loved one was a virtual daily occurrence. Only extreme cases of neglect or poverty would come to light in such societies. Either that or easily embraced stories of those who sacrificed their own comfort for a people’s hero. Then there is the fact that we know very little about how common people got on in history, much less about what they thought or felt. It is only relatively recently that reading and writing have become available to practically everyone, so most of our world’s life stories went to the grave with the individual, or at best their children’s children. Finally, and perhaps most unfortunately, the glaring reality is that those who waited for men to return from the sea were women. Though the field of women’s history has expanded incredibly just in my lifetime, it surely has not caught up with what has been missed.
Of course men went down to the sea in ships from the time they could build boats. The Ancient Sea Peoples, Egyptians, Greeks and Romans all travelled and battled on the seas and oceans but in all fairness it was not until the Viking culture burgeoned in the early current era that Indo-Europeans ventured far afield. A Viking woman might watch her husband head out on a raid with trepidation but, as with so many cultures that followed, the voyages of exploration must have caused the most fear. The intent to settle new lands was always there but the man generally went ahead and then either returned or sent someone back for their families. The woman, whether she was the wife of a chief or a sailor, would simply have to wait. Though many cultures never resolved the problem of just how long it was reasonable to wait for a man to return from the sea, the Vikings handled this in their usual straight forward way. Unless otherwise stipulated by the couple prior to parting, a year and a day was the extent of the woman’s (or man’s) obligation. It is tempting to imagine that some people simply did not return and found greener pastures elsewhere, but that is probably putting a far too modern spin on the agreement.
Eastern cultures also put out to sea, but the kind of voyages made by Zheng He of China, which took his large flotillas all the way to Africa, were unusual. The Polynesian culture thrived on exploration, however, and women frequently accompanied their men on these voyages. This must have alleviated a lot of stress for everyone, at least to some degree. And the success of this policy shows in the numerous areas of the world that can now rightly be proud of their Polynesian ancestry.
By the great age of sail the pattern we generally espouse today was established: the sailor husband went off to sea and the dutiful wife stayed at home to tend hearth and children. The myriad complications with the system are too numerous to discuss here, but it is worth noting that most systems of pay were incredibly flawed, particularly in the great navies of the 18th and 19th centuries. Pay for any sailor was not in hand until the ship ended her commission which might be anywhere from six months to a number of years. In the U.S. Navy after the War of 1812, as an example, a foremast jack made approximately one modern dollar every month. This was a good, living wage by land but certainly impossible for a woman left in Baltimore with a small home to keep up and three children to feed. Though some men received an advance when they signed on, this was usual only during war time and would amount to no more than three months pay.
Women in such situations did what needed doing. Sailor’s women were frequently laundresses and/or seamstresses, at least before the factory systems took their ability to do these jobs at home. Those who did not have the care of children or, in more cases than is generally written about, the care of an elderly parent or in-law, might go into domestic service. Many wives took in boarders and the running of taverns in any port town on either side of the Atlantic was almost exclusively the business of women attached to sailors. Prostitution was an option that either appealed to or was the only out for many. In the 1821 census of the city of Portsmouth in England over 4,000 women residents were counted to a surprisingly low 2,879 men. There was no pretext about the fact that a large number of the women calling themselves single were also widows, probably of seaman, and that many of them had turned to prostitution for a living.
Men on the other side of the law, freebooters, pirates and privateers, also made attachments and married. Pirates’ women frequently joined in when a ship returned to port, helping to sell the goods plundered. The famous Pirate’s Alley in New Orleans, which is not far from Jackson Square, is so named because it was reputedly the sight of a Sunday market where women up from Laffite’s Barataria hawked wares of questionable origin while their men sat in coffee houses planning their next voyage.
The faith of a woman, or a man, could be tempted after a long time away. The historical records show that more than one seaman returned home to find a child that could not mathematically be his own. David Porter, the first Commodore of the New Orleans Station, hero of the War of 1812 and successful pirate hunter, grumbled later in life that his wife, Evalina, had not been faithful. He swore that some of their eight children were not his, but he would not reveal which ones. Evalina denied the accusation stringently and struck back, accusing him of insanity. Conversely, the second wife of Renato Beluche, then living in Porto Cabello Venezuela and having waited two years for her husband’s return, appears to have given up. She put an add in a local paper that she was selling off all of her furniture with the intent of taking her three children back to New Orleans. Commodore Beluche returned before Mizelle had a chance to carry out her plan. One wonders if he mentioned the twenty-something girl he spent months with in Panama, leaving her pregnant when he sailed back to his wife.
Death, more often from disease or the whim of the ocean than in battle, dogged the sailor and his woman. Men came home to find wife or child or both buried in the local churchyard. Countless wives probably never knew what happened to their men but simply went on, year after year, finally remarrying if possible. At home they were a great asset to their local economies in many aspects. Whether their men fished, whaled, freebooted or explored, the ladies ashore did the tasks that rarely come up in scholarly histories: goods were sold, livestock tended, butchered, cooked and eaten, gardens tended, cloth woven and made into clothes and sails, fishing nets mended, roofs patched, homes kept clean, children raised, the list goes on and on. All this with the nagging anxiety of when would the husbands return.
Some moments and emotions are too great for words and I feel justified in falling back on a picture to explain. The painting above, “A Hopeless Dawn”, was done by Frank Bramley during the 1880s when he was living in a fisherman’s a village in Cornwall. Bramley experienced the despair of women whose men would not come home from the sea and he translated it brilliantly to canvas through paint. The emotions shared between wife and mother (or mother-in-law), both of whom knew what it was to love a sailor, are clear to anyone who can see. After that, there is nothing left to say.