Hen Frigates: Passion and Peril, Nineteenth-Century Women at Sea

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A "hen frigate," traditionally, was any ship with the captain's wife on board. Hen frigates were miniature worlds -- wildly colorful, romantic, and dangerous. Here are the dramatic, true stories of what the remarkable women on board these vessels encountered on their often amazing voyages: romantic moonlit nights on deck, debilitating seasickness, terrifying skirmishes with pirates, disease-bearing rats, and cockroaches as big as a man's slipper. And all of that while living with the constant fear of gales, hurricanes, typhoons, collisions, and fire at sea. Interweaving first-person accounts from letters and journals in and around the lyrical narrative of a sea journey, maritime historian Joan Druett brings life to these stories. We can almost feel for ourselves the fear, pain, anger, love, and heartbreak of these courageous women. Lavishly illustrated, this breathtaking book transports us to the golden age of sail.
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About the author

Joan Druett, an award-winning writer of nautical nonfiction, is the author of numerous works, including Hen Frigates and In the Wake of Madness. She lives in New Zealand. Visit her website at www.joan.druett.gen.nz.

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Additional Information

Publisher
Simon and Schuster
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Published on
Feb 21, 2012
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Pages
272
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ISBN
9781451688436
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Language
English
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Genres
History / United States / 19th Century
Social Science / Women's Studies
Transportation / Ships & Shipbuilding / General
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Content Protection
This content is DRM protected.
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Eligible for Family Library

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The wives and female guests of commissioned officers often went to sea in the sailing ships of the British Royal Navy in the 18th and 19th centuries, but there were other women on board as well, rarely mentioned in print. Suzanne Stark has written the story of the women who lived on the lower decks. She thoroughly investigates the custom of allowing prostitutes to live with the crews of warships in port. She provides some judicious answers to questions about what led so many women to such an appalling fate and why the Royal Navy unofficially condoned the practice. She also offers some revealing firsthand accounts of the wives of warrant officers and semen who spent years at sea living—and fighting—beside their men without pay or even food rations, and of the women in male disguise who actually served as seamen or marines. These women’s stories have long intrigued the public as the popularity of the often richly embellished accounts of their exploits has proved. Stark disentangles fact from myth and offers some well-founded explanations for such perplexing phenomena as the willingness of women to join the navy when most of the men had to be forced on board by press gangs. Now available in paperback, this lively history draws on primary sources and so gives an authentic view of life on board the ships of Britain’s old sailing navy and the social context of the period that served to limit roles open to lower-class women. The final chapter is devoted to the autobiography of one redoubtable seagoing woman: Mary Lacy, who served as a seaman in shipwright in the Royal Navy for twelve years.
With her pistols loaded she went aboard
And by her side hung a glittering sword
In her belt two daggers, well armed for war
Was this female smuggler
Was this female smuggler who never feared a scar.
If a "hen frigate" was any ship carrying a captain's wife, then a "she captain" is a bold woman distinguished for courageous enterprise in the history of the sea. "She captains," who infamously possessed the "bodies of women and the souls of men," thrilled and terrorized their shipmates, doing "deeds beyond the valor of women." Some were "bold and crafty pirates with broadsword in hand." Others were sirens, too, like the Valkyria Princess Alfhild, whom the mariners made rover-captain for her beauty. Like their male counterparts, these astonishing women were drawn to the ocean's beauty -- and its danger.
In her inimitable, yarn-spinning style, award-winning historian Joan Druett tells us what life was like for the women who dared to captain ships of their own, don pirates' garb, and perform heroic and hellacious deeds on the high seas. We meet Irish raider Grace "Grania" O'Malley -- sometimes called "the bald Grania" because she cut her hair short like a boy's -- who commanded three galleys and two hundred fighting men. Female pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read were wanted by the law. Armed to the teeth with cutlasses and pistols, they inspired awe and admiration as they swaggered about in fancy hats and expensive finery, killing many a man who cowered cravenly before them.
Lovelorn Susan "Put on a jolly sailor's dress/And daubed her hands with tar/To cross the raging sea/On board a man of war" to be near her William. Others disguised themselves for economic reasons. In 1835, Ann Jane Thornton signed on as a ship's steward to earn the fair wage of nine dollars per month. When it was discovered that she was a woman, the captain testified that Jane was a capital sailor, but the crew had been suspicious of her from the start, "because she would not drink her grog like a regular seaman."
In 1838, twenty-two-year-old Grace Darling led the charge to rescue nine castaways from the wreck of the Forfarshire (the Titanic of its day). "I'll save the crew!" she cried, her courageous pledge immortalized in a torrent of books, songs, and poems. Though "she captains" had been sailing for hundreds of years by the turn of the twentieth century, Scotswoman Betsey Miller made headlines by weathering "storms of the deep when many commanders of the other sex have been driven to pieces on the rocks."
From the warrior queens of the sixth century B.C. to the women shipowners influential in opening the Northwest Passage, Druett has assembled a real-life cast of characters whose boldness and bravado will capture popular imagination. Following the arc of maritime history from the female perspective, She Captains' intrepid crew sails forth into a sea of adventure.
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