Selection 4: A Woman’s Perception of Life on a Whaling Ship

Within the maritime world, a clear division of labor separated men and women. Men went to sea while women stayed behind to maintain family, home, and community in port towns and cities. Only rarely did women accompany male partners who worked on overseas voyages, and rarer still is the woman who left behind a written account of the experience. At the peak of the North American whalefishery in the mid-nineteenth century, some women did join their husbands at sea. They tended to be ship captains’ wives, who chose to endure the rigors of a whaling expedition rather than the long-term absence of their spouses, whose work often took them away from home for a year or two at a time.

Martha Smith Brewer Brown joined her husband Captain Edwin Peter Brown on a whaling voyage out of Long Island, New York in 1847. The Browns circumnavigated the globe, hunting whales primarily in the Pacific and Arctic Oceans. Martha kept a journal while at sea, in which she recorded her impressions of life and work aboard ship. A pious woman, she expressed concern for the state of the sailors’ souls and described how shipboard life ran counter to good Christian habits and morals. Through her eyes, we see in sharp relief the contrast between the values of seafarers and landed society.

Credit: She Went A'Whaling: The Journal of Martha Smith Brewer Brown from Orient, Long Island, New York, Around the World on the Whaling Ship Lucy Ann, 1847-1849, transcribed and edited by Anne MacKay (Orient, NY: Oysterponds Historical Society, 1993), 47-52.

MONDAY 10 [DECEMBER 1847] [in margin: “John died”]

This morning about 7 we were called in the stereage to witness the departure of an immortal soul. He died very suden. The Capt. went in ¡mediately and he gasped but once. He never stru-gled, nor groned nor to appearance mooved a musle. He said last evening he felt that he must die, felt prepared, and was willing to go this morning. At 6 he told Steward he thought he could stand it to get to New Holland [Australia]—he did not have his reason all the time. A short time before he died the boy said [he] heard him singing and laughing. He is Portugee and could not understand him. We think he might have been happy, but we do not know. It is not probile he knew he was dying. He never left a message for his friends although the Capt. often asked him if he had not something he wished to say to them. I heardly think he would have given us the names of his parents or friends of his own accord. He was young, only 15.1 hope he has gone to a brighter and happyer world, but that we can not know. We will leave him in the hands of a just God who doeth all things well. He was buried this afternoon at 4 oclock. It was a sollemn sight to see his body launched into the deep. I think nearly every one wept. Oh that they may lay it to heart and realized their turn will soon come. They are far from being what we would wish them to be. They have looked rather thoughtfull today and I pray the impressions may not be banished as soon as his body is out of our sight. Poor boy, 1 cannot realize he is gone. Poor in the world estimate, but if he had sincerely repented of his sins and was truly a child of grace, how much richer far than we who remain behind. Whether he felt any dred of being buried in the sea or not, 1 do not know. He did not say any thing about it, and we did not mention the subject to him, but it matters not where the body is if the soul is prepared for heaven, prepared to meet its God.

THURSDAY 13 [in margin: “ate porpossis”]

Today I have the unspeakable pleasure of seeing a whale brought along side. The second mate struck him. I was on deck most of the time they were off, notwithstanding it was somewhat rainy. It was past 7 when they came on board, and after getting dinner it was to late to cut him in. Like wise it was blowing pretty strong so we were obliged to lay by him all night. It [is] quite encourageing to think we have got one of the thirty of forty we have got to get, ere we can anticipate returning home. It looks like a long day I can assure you to look ahead to the time when this ship shall be full of oil and we homeward bound.


Morning rather unpleasent but commenced cutting in about 10 AM. And of cours the Capt. worked hard. Evry time the ship roaled, the whail went nearly all under water, but they succeeded in getting him in at 9 pm. Weather quite good. Got supper, cleared up, but have not commenced boiling yet.


Called the Capt. between 5 and 6. Lowered for whale—no success. Commenced boiling before breakfast but have not made very grate headway. Will be under the necesity of boiling tomorow, Sunday, but I do not see how whaleman can in evry way keep the Sabath. They can truly not go off in the boats and take them, but if they have one alongside or in the bluber room, it appears necessary they should take care of it.


Today hands imployed brakeing out the fore peek and stowing down 42 barrels of oil. Merely a nest egg. Hope they will have the good luck to get the nest full soon and set the sails for home. Finished boiling this morning about day light. It has been very pleasent all day. 1 have been making my blue dress after supper. They caught two nice large porposses—now for a feast on fresh meet agane. By the bye it goes well.


Another pleasent day and I have improved it washing. Had a good time. Got my cloths dry before night, but lost one apron overboard—the first time 1 have had the bad luck to loos anything. Got through little, afternoon. Had fried parters [potatoes?] as turnovers for dinner.

JANUARY 23, 1848, Indian Ocian, Ship Lucy Ann

To day has been a lovely day, a good breeze and a compleet day for whaleing. The Capt., 1 think, has been quite anxous to see whale. The first time he has been to the masthead [on] Sunday, but he who know all things saw best not to tempt them. And here I will add we have not seen a whale on Sunday since we have been out. How kind is Almighty God to withhold temptation when there is not strength of mind sufficient to resist it. 1 fear and tremble evry week that we shall see them but it is my earnest prayer that God will be gracious and tempt us no further than we are able to bare.

The 23 of Jan was my dear Father’s bearth day. If he was living to day he would be 68 years old. But as our heavenly Father saw fit 8 years ago to remove him from this world of trouble, sorow and pain, of which he always had his share, to one we trust of perfect bliss, happyness. He can never more come to us, but we can go to him. Then let us strive to meet him in heaven, dear brothers and sisters, for that is our privalage.


Nothing in particular to day. Strong brizes from the west. In the morning at 2 am raised Vandieman’s land [Tasmania], but at so grate a distance it appeared like a cloud. Nothing was visable and of course we were not much interested. 1 think I should be nearly intoxicated with delight if 1 could once more get ashore where I could feel at home, and go as 1 was a mind to—for instance on Long Island. But let me get ashore any where, I anticipate I should enjoy it some.

TUESDAY, FEB 1ST [in margin: “man flogged”]

Ship Lucy Ann Between New Holland & New Zealand Feb 1848

Today has been quite pleasent, and it is very acceptable to think that we may now have some good weather, for it has been nothing but a succession of gales and bad weather since we left the cape of Good Hope. But if it is not one thing is another. Sunday morn when the Capt. first got up, he went on deck and caught to [two] of the foremast hands fighting, in direct opo-sition to the rules and regulation of the ship. He sent one out on the bowsprit and the other to the mizenmast and kept them there untill 10 oc [o’clock] without their breakfast. It was their watch below. This morning, or before noon, he appeared at the fore castle—lo and behold there were four gambling for tobacco. Two managed to get rid of their cards so that he could not know certainly they were playing, but the others said they were. Seaman he sent out on the bowsprit agane, for he was the one sent there for firing [fighting], and Rider to the mizenmast head. Kept them there all the forenoon, their watch below agane. In the afternoon he called them of [off] aft, read to them apiece on the results of gambling and lectured them full a half hour, threw their cards overboard. Agane, at 8 bels in the evening Baldwin, one of the boatsteerers, came with a complaint that Seaman had been calling him a horred name—the third offence three days a tuning. The Capt.’s patienes was clear gone—he went on deck and gave him 5 or 6 lashes with the end of the topgalent bowlin [rope used to tie a sail]. Then for the first time I learned he had floged a man several weeks before. What will come next I do not know. You who live on land do not know half the trials a sea Capt. is subject to. If you do not like a man’s conduct you can pay him and let him go, or you can flee to the law. But here there is no such thing. Of course there must be some rules and regulation on board ship. When a man is made acquainted with them in the first of it, what can he expect but abide the conciquences if he does not abide by the rules. So Mother, you see I have very little influence so far.


This morning at daylight raised two Ships, one of them cutting in. At 8 PM raised three Kings [island off of New Zealand] steered for them. About 2 PM sent two boats ashore to see if any-thing was to be got in the way of provision. The third mate soon returned with the chief, said there was plenty of potatoes and that was what we wanted. He came abord [aboard] to make the bargain with the Capt. but more expressly to get some Rum. They could not land that side of the Island we was, but this kanacker [a Polynesian man] came down the rocks some way. The Capt. made a trade with him, sent them back. But by this the current was tuning so strong and the wind ahead, the second boat could not get around, and was obliged to land the Chief where they took him. So the third mate walked across the land to the other boat, or the landing place, to have Mr. Sisen take the potatoes. But mean time he had come around, thinking the Capt. had not sent him back. When they got on board nothing had been seen of the other boat, and of course we imagined the boat had swamped and all were drowned. But alass [at last] they come and brought 10 little pon fish. This ends our tour of the three Kings.


And so we are spared to enjoy the privalages of another Saturday night, and if we cannot meet with our friends at the temperance meeting nor in social prayer, we know that our Savior is present to hear our feeble petiton if offered in faith. What a blessed privalage. I think at times what could we do here without the Bible and the family alter [altar]. I long to live nearer to God and enjoy more of that love. It is our privalage to do. 1 have to mourn daily my coldness of heart, ant [and it] appears the more I strive the more 1 see my imperfection—and short comeings. Today has been very pleasent. Very little wind, some of the time almost a calm. It is warm and I spend most of my time on deck. The Capt. is aloft a grate deal of the time and it is lonely below. I have just come from the deck where we have been jumping the rope for exersize—The Capt., my self, and the mates—nice sport.


This has been a lovely day. A pretty little brieze with three studen sails out, and we have been moving at a midling rate. But with all this pleasentness we could not enjoy the privalage of hearing the sound of the church going bell, nor of assembling ourselves together without it in the house of God, to hear dispensed the words of truth and life. And if we were like many or most of our crew, would not read a word for ourselvs. Methinks our condition would be a deplorable one. What better are they than the poor heathen, especially hear at sea? They have appeared very well so far on the Sabath, they make but little noise. But what they do in the fore castle 1 can not say. The Capt. has not had to reprimand them once, 1 believe. 1 have proposed reading to them. Some of them say they would like to hear good reading. I desire to put it of [off] no longer than next Sabath if it is pleasent. The Capt. thinks he cannot take up his cross for he says he has no one to help him, which is very true. But I trust the Lord will help him, then surely he will be helped. The mate tries not to believe in anything, but still he has a heart, and I trust one that is susceptible of right and wrong, and a Wife that is a pro-fesser of religeon. And I hope he will ere long join her heart and hand in her heavenward journey.

Discussion Questions

  • 1. According to Exquemelin, how did pirates determine their leadership and rates of pay? Does he present any evidence of a particular ethic or set of values that bound pirates together? Why would piracy appeal to sailors used to working in merchant or naval ships?
  • 2. What sins does Mather associate with sailors and life at sea? What does he find remarkable about Fly’s conduct before his execution, and what does that conduct tell you about Fly’s impressions of civil and religious authorities on land?
  • 3. What does Penny’s story about his impressment tell you about shipboard life for sailors on naval ships? How did the treatment of sailors on naval ships differ from that on pirate ships? Where in Penny’s story do you see evidence of the distinctive political values or identities of sailors?

4. What elements of shipboard work, leisure, and discipline does Brown find contrary to Christian habits and morals? How do you think the crew responded to her concern for their spiritual and physical welfare? What do her impressions of shipboard life tell you about gender roles in the maritime world?

Suggested Readings

Marcus Rediker’s Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: Merchant Seamen, Pirates, and the Anglo-American World, 1700-1750 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987) offers an engaging account of the working life of British seamen in the eighteenth century. Marcus Rediker and Peter Linebaugh link sailors to the wider experience of laboring peoples in the Atlantic World in The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2000). Other books that address the politics and culture of Anglo-American seafarers include Daniel Vickers, Young Men and the Sea: Yankee Seafarers in the Age of Sail (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005); Nathan Perl-Rosenthal, Citizen Sailors: Becoming American in the Age of Revolution (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015); and Paul Gilje, “To Swear Like a Sailor": Maritime Culture in Early America, 1750-1850 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016). Simon P. Newman analyzes the unique physical appearance of sailors, especially their tattoos, in “Reading the Bodies of Early American Seafarers,” William and Mary Quarterly, third series, 55 (1998): 59-82. For the impressment of sailors by the British Navy, see Denver Brunsman, The Evil Necessity: British Naval Impressment in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2013).

Two good comprehensive accounts of Atlantic World piracy are Kris Lane, Pillaging the Empire: Piracy in the Americas, 1500-1750 (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1998); and Marcus Rediker, Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2004). For a look at the contest in the Caribbean from the Spanish perspective, see Carla Rahn Phillips, Six Galleons for the King of Spain: Imperial Defense in the Early Seventeenth Century (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992). Works that explore Atlantic seafaring through the lenses of gender and sexuality include Lisa Norling, Captain Ahab had a Wife: New England Women and the Whalefishery, 1720-1870 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2000); B. R. Burg, Sodomy and the Perception of Evil: English Sea Rovers in the Seventeenth Century Caribbean (New York: New York University Press, 1983); and Iron Men, Wooden Women: Gender and Seafaring, 1700-1920, eds. Margaret Creighton and Lisa Norling (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996); and Joan Druett, Petticoat Whalers: Whaling Wives at Sea, 1820-1920 (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2001).

10 The Atlantic Highway

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