Women at Sea: The Secrets of Hen Frigates
When thinking of seafaring ancestors on a merchant ship, what is the first thing that comes to mind? Burly men standing in the foc’sle, water spraying up from the sea? Men with tattoos scrambling around the deck with ropes, deftly raising and lowering sails while avoiding being accidentally swept overboard? The ship’s captain, staring down on the decks and calling out commends to the crew?
How about this for a vision: a ship sailing the seas, her hold full of cargo. The ship’s captain is on the deck, surveying his crew. By his feet is a young boy playing with toys. At his side is his wife. Far-fetched? Not really.
In the nineteenth century this was a very common occurrence on merchant ships. In fact, it was so common that there was a special word for such ships: “Hen Frigates.” In 1998 Joan Druett published a book about them. Hen Frigates: Passion and Peril, Nineteenth-Century Women at Sea is an excellent discussion of what life was like aboard these ships.
According to Druett, “Hen frigates were miniature worlds—wildly colorful, romantic, and dangerous.” The stories in this book are based on the amazing adventures of real women and what they experienced: “romantic moonlit nights on deck, debilitating seasickness, terrifying skirmishes with pirates, disease-bearing rats, and cockroaches as big as a man’s slipper.”
The stories are divided into eleven chapters, each with a specific theme. The themes are:
- The Honeymooners
- At Sea
- Sex and the Seafaring Wife
- Children at Sea
- Small Ladies
- Ship Kitchens
- Occupational Therapy
- Medical Matters
- Hazards of the Sea
- Dropping Anchor
- On Shore in a Foreign Land
In addition to the stories, there is a valuable appendix. It lists journals, diaries, letters, and reminiscences written by seafaring women, the wives and daughters of ship captains.
I became interested in this topic when I started researching the family of my friends Myke and Alan Lavender. Their ancestors were sailors and ship captains out of Provincetown, Massachusetts. They were involved in a number of trade activities.
Their great-great grandfather, John Richardson Lavender (1823–1878), was a ship captain involved in the fruit trade between New England and the Mediterranean. I had seen references to his wife, Sally Mayo (Dyer) Lavender (1826–1915), and her spending time on ships with her husband. I wanted to discover more about what her life was like. After reading Hen’s Frigates, I had a good idea.
The descriptive and evocative text paints a vivid picture of these women. They were brave souls who saw much more of the world than most of their contemporaries. The book includes lavish illustrations that make their stories even more real.
As I reached the end of the book I scanned through the appendix. Imagine my surprise when I saw the following entry for journals:
Lavender, Sally Mayo. “Journey of a Voyage in the brig Panama from Boston to Marseilles 1854.” Typescript. Penobscot Marine Museum, Searsport, Maine.
I was able to obtain a copy of the journal, and read of the trip in Sally’s own words. John and Sally’s young son William also accompanied John on the voyage. That Christmas, I gave a copy of Hen Frigates and the journal typescript to Myke. I also told him to pay close attention to the chapter on Sex and the Seafaring Wife. You see, Myke’s great-grandfather John was conceived during that trip.