Retiring from my travels as Caird North American Fellow I feel I must report that an anonymous boy has been scribbling over library books in the John Carter Brown Library in Providence, Rhode Island. I am enormously grateful to him. Writing in the 1860s, he confided his doubts and his determination to go to sea to the margins of his copy of Richard Henry Dana Jr.’s seminal 1841 guide for sailors, The Seaman’s Friend. His marginalia reveals both his youth and inexperience, as he has especially marked up the pages pertaining to ‘boys’ and ‘ordinary seamen’ and noted the wages for a green hand. He had literary interests too, pasting in lines from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure about doubt: ‘Our doubts are traitors, / And make us lose the good we oft might win, / By fearing to attempt.’ Under this he included, from the Boston Evening Transcript, an antidote to those doubts: ‘A man who has a fixed purpose to which he devotes his powers is invulnerable. Like the rock in the sea, it splits the troubles of life, and they eddy round him in idle foam.’ Inside the book’s covers he noted the latitude and longitude of Boston, of San Francisco, and information about Cape Horn, the three prime locations in which this boy was imaginatively invested. As in Dana’s Two Year’s Before the Mast, the voyage around Cape Horn often was seen as a rite of passage and especially for a young man. This boy’s marginalia expresses his sense that he is on the verge of his own rite of passage, redolent as its language is with doubt, determination, real and imagined location, and a literal and figurative positioning of himself.
Coloured lithograph of A Squall off Cape Horn (PAD6433)
I found this book in the wonderful collections of the John Carter Brown Library. The boy’s jottings have helped me to consider a crucial question which hangs over the book that I am working on: what did the study of celestial navigation mean for women who went to sea in the nineteenth century? This is because at the centre of my book are two young captains’ wives who, in one of the stormiest, most ferocious southern winters of the 19th century, had to navigate their husbands’ clipper ships westward around Cape Horn. They had to do so because their husbands were incapacitated by serious illness. These American women, aged nineteen and twenty-two, were then the only ones on board capable of navigating. As teenagers they had lived in adjoining streets in Boston’s North End, but although they must have passed each other in the crowded alleys many times, we have no evidence that they ever met. In the winter of 1856 their proximity was of a different and more deadly order as they battled with the seas around the Horn, fighting for their husbands’ and the ships’ survival. My book will tell of their lives within the context of the merchant marine and of navigational study by women and men at this time.
I have been reading David Rooney’s fascinating book about Ruth Belville, a woman very much in control of the time. The author’s profile claims that he is equally in control and ‘has never been late for work’. On my US travels I wished I had that same symbiotic relationship with my subject. Instead, navigation failed me, and I was too often utterly lost. North America saw me driving an hour north on Maine’s Route One, meaning to go south, and astray on the twisting overpasses outside Boston, in the dark, in a storm (don’t talk to me of the dangers of Cape Horn). However, I did find my way eventually, and this wonderful fellowship gave me the flexibility to explore the great centres for maritime history as well as the little local historical societies which can yield research prizes and surprises. I am enormously grateful to the National Maritime Museum for the opportunity to investigate these archives and the riches that I found there, and finally to let me come home to the NMM and the prime meridian, where I will at least know where I am.