Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Women at Sea: Whaling Wife

Plundering the sea of its bounty is something humans have always been good at, and one of the high – or low depending on your perspective – points of such enterprise was the British and American whaling fleets of the 19th century. In a factory-like process that was both arduous and deadly, men harvested whales in the Great South Sea for oil and baleen. Occasionally, women were aboard these ships to. Sometimes they were disguised as men, like Georgiana Leonard aka George Weldon. Other times they were on board as the “decent” wives of officers, most usually captains.

Such was the case with Mary Brewster, who sailed aboard her husband’s whaling vessel Tiger and kept a journal of her adventures between 1845 and 1851. Her voice is resonant even these many years later as she speaks, in the most ladylike manner, of weather, food and her worries for her husband, his ship and the crew. Today, an excerpt from the page of Mrs. Brewster’s journal dated January 22, 1846:

Great excitement on board during the forenoon. Some one raised a sunfish. It being calm a boat was lowered to strike it. The succeeded in killing and after much labor got it to the ship. The shape is more round than other ways which makes hard towing, going round more than advancing. The boat got alongside with it and it being good size all hands was called to help get it over the ship sides. Such a time and noise. Had it been a whale they could not have appeared more elated. It was not all taken. Part of it was cut off and threw overboard. The part which came in I saw and it looked very little like a fish. We had some of it cooked for supper. I took a piece as I wish to know how good it was in taste. It resembled our lobsters. The meat is very white but coarse. Had I never seen the fish perhaps it would have tasted better, but seeing it was sufficient to produce contrary feelings. The oil of the liver is said to be good for Rhumatism.

The sunfish in question was probably of the type known as mola mola or ocean sunfish. It is, as you can see here, not the most attractive creature and certainly something Mrs. Brewster had not had prior contact with.

If you are curious about Mary Brewster and her fascinating journals, which we will revisit from time to time, Joan Druett’s book on the subject is available online.

Header: Daguerreotype of Mary Brewster via the Mystic Seaport Historical Society


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! That sunfish is pretty nasty looking...

just sayin'

Pauline said...

I agree. I might not be keen to try it but Mary Brewster was a pretty intrepid lady. Of course, when you think that we eat critters like oysters, I guess you take what you can get right?