Monday, August 1, 2011

Women at Sea: Birthing on Wave

Women aboard ships, regardless of the nature of a vessel’s business, were much more common in times past than popular culture would like us to believe. Though many women did dress as men either to join with a husband or lover at sea or simply to go to sea on their own, just as many showed up in skirts and petticoats. Anne Bonny famously walked onto her lover Jack Rackham’s ship in a bright cotton gown complete with corset and panniers.


On navy ships, warrant men in particular – gunners, carpenters, etc. – tended to bring their wives to sea well into the 19th century. This practice ceased only when the influence of Queen Victoria, with her staunch belief that a woman’s place was in the kitchen, reached its zenith.

Many of the cruises of naval ships were years long undertakings and, then as now, where there are men and women procreation cannot be far behind. Accounts of births at sea are numerous in ships logs and men’s memoirs from as early as the 11th century. Alvin the Bard writes of a woman named Avrid giving birth to a healthy baby boy aboard one of William the Conqueror’s ships sailing for England. This is his only mention of Avrid, however; why she was aboard ship is never explained.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the birth of children was regularly documented, particularly on men-of-war which had large crews and plenty of room. Henry Wadsworth, a midshipman aboard USS Chesapeake, was with her in 1803 during the First Barbary War. The frigate left Algiers in February of that year and, according to Wadsworth’s memoirs, the captain of the foc’sle’s wife gave birth on the 22nd. The baby, a strapping boy, was born in the bosun’s storeroom which would have been relatively warm and dry. Another of Chesapeake’s mids, Melancthon Woolsey, organized a christening party and the baby was named Melancthon Woolsey Low in his honor. Chesapeake, it seems, was full of women and a bit of “Real Housewives” drama accompanied the celebration. Wadsworth tells us that the wives of the carpenter, bosun and Marine corporal were not invited to the christening. Snubbed, they huddled in the corporal’s quarters and got roaring drunk.

The Boston Gazette of October, 1811 has a brief piece about a baby girl born at sea who was left at a foundling hospital with money raised by the crew. Her mother died in childbirth and the baby was cared for by various members of her ship’s people for five months until the reached shore. The little girl’s name was given as Sally Trunnion.

The Royal Navy, much like her U.S. daughter, carried women to sea often. Records of births are just as numerous there as in America. One young man, John Nicol, was aboard HMS Goliath at the Battle of the Nile in 1798 where Nelson achieved a decided victory. David Cordingly, in Women Sailors and Sailors’ Women, notes that Nicol was on a gun crew and after the battle he wrote:

I was much indebted to the gunner’s wife, who gave her husband and me a drink of wine every now and then which lessened out fatigue much. There were some of the women wounded and one woman belonging to Leith died of her wounds, and was buried on a small island in the bay. One woman bore a son in the heat of the action…

On another occasion, again noted by Cordingly, a ship’s surgeon approached his captain with the news that one of the ship’s women had been in labor for twelve hours. The surgeon requested that a broadside be fired so that “… nature would be assisted by the shock.” The broadside was duly fired, and the lady was doubtless much relieved to give birth to a son.

When a committee in Parliament decided to award medals to Royal Navy men who had participated in the Battle of the Glorious First of June, it was Queen Victoria herself that stepped in to clarify the issue. Regardless of their service, no woman’s name would appear on the medal roll. One young sailor was literally listed as “Baby” on the roll, he having been born a few days before the battle. His mother however, and all her sisters who were there as well, are nowhere to be found.

Header: The Glorious First of June by Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg c 1795

7 comments:

Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Great post! I'm gonna go out on a limb and say that Queen Victoria was kind of a bitch... I know, my grasp for the obvious remains intact.

Pauline said...

Hey, thankee! It's certainly safe to say that QV was a hypocrite at least. Here she was running an Empire but she figured the best any other woman could do was run a home. What's wrong with this picture?

Issy said...

Fascinating post. Up until recently I had no idea that women were allowed aboard war ships before the 1990s!! I am starting to like Queen Victoria less and less.

Pauline said...

Thankee indee, Issy. We owe a lot to Queen Victoria, and much of it is not so good.

Danielle Thorne said...

Excellent post. Again, one of my favorite blogs. I appreciate your brilliant research and reporting.

Danielle Thorne said...

Brilliant post. Love the blog!

Pauline said...

Thank you so much, Danielle. I certainly appreciate it!