Tuesday 10 February 2015

HER foreign forays in HIS ship: Eleanor Reid’s 1799 voyage reviewed

Few women sailed the late eighteenth-century seas. Fewer still wrote about it.
And female seafarers were rare. But it could be argued that wives of the captains of merchant vessels worked, unwaged,as diplomats, go-betweens, unofficial human resources experts, ad hoc Chief Mates,and providers of emotional labour.
Eleanor Reid is one, sailing to Australia in 1799 on a ship of the East India company, when she was only 21.
The usual problem with the very rare autobiographical accounts by such travelers is that they lack a cultural interpreter, ideally one who is gender-aware.
So Joan Druett’s interpellations are welcome in this, her edited version of Eleanor's Odyssey. A maritime historian of women, Druett is particularly acclaimed for her books on whaling wives.

‘Odyssey’ is the right word. This is an account of seafaring from the proprietor’s wife’s benign perspective.
It’s also a story in six episodes of what Eleanor saw of many countries, including India and Southern Africa, and what she made of the people she met with such humanity.

Eleanor’s is not quite a counter-version of Grand Tour narratives. She, like privileged tourists, met local elites, was borne on palanquins and viewed ‘the poor natives’.
The difference is that she does so within a party of global citizens, seafarers of many backgrounds, who offer her cultural interpretations, for example about cannibals. She travels not with chaperone and maid, but with many Lascars, three score sheep, and a human cargo of 176 Gaelic-speaking Irish convicts to whom Eleanor’s kindly husband, Hugh, allows much sage leeway.
In terms of class and gender I was fascinated that when Eleanor met ex-pat bigwigs she was not disdained on class grounds, as ‘only a captain’s wife’. And indeed a wife’s presence helped him be accepted in places where a ‘commercial trader’ would have been inadmissible.
Her account gives evidence of intermittent avid homosociality mixed with wider hospitality. She’s heartily welcomed by lonely European women in outposts who relish a lady visitor dropping anchor.
Such settlers give her hospitality for many weeks in some cases, imagining she’d rather be ashore. In fact she likes the ship. So this is partly a story of the Friendship, as her cozy ship-home, progressing oddly unproblematically across the oceans, interrupted by ports and strangers.

If only Mrs Reid had told us about what the different stopping points meant to her. How useful it would have been to hear her comparisons of the many places where she does a civilized version of exploring of the natural history and social anthropology.
Druett refers to Reid and her husband having to quickly ‘decipher’ existing social situations as they land at new ports.
Reid’s final account is as tactful as this unofficial diplomat herself must have been in these encounters with ‘savages’ and early colonials. It’s carefully under-controversial, so we too have a lot to decipher.
Emotions and subjectivity are often missing from men's ‘we did this, we found that’-style memoirs. And feelings are little present in this careful account too.
Many scholars are working on how women's voices have been silenced or distorted by hegemonic patriarchy. So an introduction explaining the narrative’s early nineteenth century production would have helped.
For example, can we ever know how much Captain Reid or an unknown editor (it was serialized in the Asiatic Journal and Monthly Register for British and Foreign India, China and Australia, 1819-1820) shaped Eleanor’s initial account? What subtle social insights got lost on the cutting room floor as her story was organized into a marketable public account twenty years on?
This is a rich addition to women’s maritime historiography, enhanced very much by images on almost every other page.
The book is also, quietly, a useful side-angle on Irish rebel history and that of the European women unusually living overseas, in the days of imperial domination.

Eleanor's Odyssey: Journal of the Captain's Wife on the East Indiaman Friendship, 1799-1801 (Old Salt Press, New Jersey , 2014, ISBN: 9780994115218).
Joan Druett’s’s blog about it can be read at http://joan-druett.blogspot.co.uk/2014/12/eleanors-odyssey.html.

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