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.

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