Wednesday 13 October 2010

Sea captain's wives - 19th century representations

Paulette Kilmer’s interesting 2007 article, Often Caregivers? Sometimes Wild Women? An Archetypal Study of Sea Captain’s Wives in the New York Times, 1851-1900, has just been brought to my attention to Google alerts. (
I thought I’d see how Britain compares. Similarly to Kilmer in the US, I used (the British Library’s resource) 19C British Newspapers on line, and inserted the search term ‘sea captain's wife’.
The search revealed that in the UK we had far less newspaper stories about them: 47 by comparison to the US’s 500. Of the 27 useable stories, thirteen were about wives at sea, eight were about captain’s wives (or woman masquerading as that for criminal purposes) on land, and six were examples from fiction.
The picture is fascinatingly different. All the UK stories were extremely short, so it wasn’t possible to examine them to see if they were being represented as caring or as warriors, as Kilmer did using Karl Jung’s, and Carol Pearson’s, theories of archetypes.
There were no tales at all of British wives taking over the ship when the captain was ill, nor successfully working out a course, nor being more competent than the mate etc, as Kilmer found in a number of cases. In only one of all the thirteen seagoing stories is an adjective used about a captain’s wife: ‘plucky’. This might be taken to be a reference to an archetypal warrior.
As in the US, there’s hardly any occasion when woman is referred to by name; she’s just ‘the captain's wife.’

Of the articles about seagoing wives, the most full story (one paragraph) appears in the London Standard, November 3 1847; it summarises the loss of the schooner Albion off Plymouth on a very stormy night. The ship was homeward bound from Faro, and carrying cork. It was so lightly laden that waves cast it onto a breakwater. The ship was then was overtaken by flames caused by loose hot cinders igniting timbers.
‘The captain’s wife in her nightclothes escaped through the fire with her little girl, but only to suffer a different death. In attempting to get her over the side she was thrown from her husband’s arms and with her daughter was drowned….The captain’s wife experienced a premature labour aboard only two days before, and this will account for a fire being lighted in the cabin store.’ Captain Hopper and his crew survived. I guess Mrs Hopper could be seen as caregiver here, but primarily she’s a tragic victim.

What I found telling in a brief survey of the 27 articles was:
1. That it was taken for granted that some wives sailed with their husbands, especially on short trips
2. The way captain’s wives ashore appear to have been seen by the general public: pityingly but respectfully. These women- especially if mothers – were typically represented as doing something brave, surviving socially without a husband to help them.
They are accepted as being entitled to community support. This must be why at least one con-artist, Amelia Wilson, chose that identity as a way to wangle free accommodation and the opportunity to rob. (Middlesbrough Daily Gazette, 10 May 1877)

Of the eight stories of the wives on land, the saddest was about Anne Elliott. The 31-year-old Scottish mother of three was rebuked by her husband for spending too much while he was away at sea on the Rifle, a Chinese trader. She was so upset by his anger on his return that she committed suicide by overdosing on laudanum. (The Aberdeen Journal, 10 Oct 1856)

It would be a good idea for people to do some comparative work on the different ways newspapers in different countries represent seagoing captains’ wives. The key question is ‘How much is the lack of recorded bravery by British wives to do with reporting conventions? Were British captain’s wives really so much less brave that US wives?’
(The image used here appears in Joan Druett's article at Druett's work on captain's wives is path-breaking.

Piracy's impact on women

Any discussion that explores the gender relations round piracy is welcome. And google alerts have just brought to my attention Shukria Dini’s very interesting article: The Implications of Piracy for Modern Women:

The piece grew from findings when she was researching another subject in Somalia in 2005-6. There she came to understand piracy as a third world activity develop mainly in response to the poverty caused by aggressive and unpoliced foreign fishing in depleted Somali waters.

In summary, I see her main arguments as being about extremely wealthy men - as pirates briefly become – and what that means:
• men have great power to exploit vulnerable women and create conditions that breed prostitution
• men may spend the money on themselves (including on the drug qat) and not on the family
• they may take new wives and so divert resources from their main families
• they may lure young impoverished women into chatteldom, the sex industry or unwise marriages – which may socially mark them forever and blamed for their connection to piracy
• wealth is only temporary and will not bring bliss and secure futures
• poor, non-pirate young men cannot compete for wives
• when tensions rise between warring factions, women can be hindered from going to the market where they win the family bread
• pirate wealth increase the price of local goods and services, making life still more economically difficult for the lower-waged

Having studied piracy and gender for 15 years now, I think the article could go further, so that is specifically about piracy rather than the problem of men suddenly having wealth from any sort of work, say fishing or working away on oil rigs. The particular features of piracy work anywhere, as I see it, are that:
1. it is violent
2. it necessities itinerant temporary labour
3. it is done in all-male teams with a culture that valorises macho ruthlessness.
4. it’s criminal, meaning such workers live outside the law and can neither be constructive members of society not constructively resistant challengers of it.

So, for example, let’s look at the implications of violence, for women. Shukria only points that in a marriage where the man takes up arms the wife can be left husbandless (killed doing his work), meaning that she becomes economically deprived.

But a really important problem is surely the damage that is done to everyone, including mentally, by living in a family/society where violence has become normal in one member’s working life. And violence produces ripples, and brutalisation. All pirates are not psychopaths. Many are just impoverished young men caught up in struggle to survive. But surely living by the gun cannot make for harmonious personal lives.

It would be good to some comparative analyses how piracy impacts on women. There are bigger questions too: How can piracy be stopped, but what happens to women in less developed economies if it is halted? And if women were involved in pirate action (not just in support work) what difference, if any, would that make?